Walk into Harrah's Cherokee these days and the place is unrecognizable.
Or, at least it is to those who haven't visited the casino/hotel in a few years.
Since 2008, the closest gaming facility to Atlantans — at less than a scenic 3-hour drive — has gradually undergone a $633 million property expansion.
A new hotel tower (bringing total room count to 1,108), the impressive Chef's Stage Buffet, a food court, the 3,000-seat Event Center, retail shops and a seemingly constantly growing casino floor (it will end up with about 4,100 games) with a non-smoking area have all emerged in the past 20 months alone.
But that's no secret to the thousands of area residents who regularly drive north. Harrah's Cherokee research shows that outer markets such as Charlotte and Atlanta constitute 80 percent of the casino's business, with Atlanta "far outpacing Charlotte," said Leeann Bridges, vice president of marketing at the gaming facility.
The additions are striking, and they undoubtedly put the casino nestled in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains on par with its brethren in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
But a law recently passed by North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue is an unmitigated game-changer.
By mid-August, Harrah's Cherokee will have live table games, a hallmark of any genuine casino. For more than nine years, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Council, which owns the casino (Harrah's manages and operates the property), battled the state to allow a change from dealers using digital-based cards for blackjack and poker and electronic versions of roulette, to physical cards, live roulette and the addition of "carnival games" such as Let it Ride and Three Card Poker.
The tribe was always rebuffed, but in June, the law finally passed.
"We had a lot of strong support this year and the folks in Raleigh were starting to understand what this will bring to the state," said Brooks Robinson, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah's Cherokee. "Our economic impact is already more than $400 million [a year] and this will increase that. Now we have exactly what they have in Las Vegas and Atlantic City."
Also as part of the change in law is the switch from Class II slot machines to Class III, which means all of the "Raffle Reels" machines in the casino will be converted.
With Class II slots, the machines are usually linked to a centralized computer and players try to win from the same pot of money, essentially playing against each other. It's often likened to a scratch-off lottery ticket or bingo in that each machine has an equal chance of winning a series of limited prizes. Those playing Class III machines — the norm in any of the usual gambling meccas — are only playing against the house, with each spin independent of previous spins. An individual random number generator determines the outcome of each game.
Harrah’s Cherokee will now also offer casino credit for the first time. The casino began serving alcohol in 2009.
"In the past it was always, 'You're a casino, but you don't have real table games and you have slots, but they're raffles. I keep telling my marketing people, no more excuses. We have everything now," Robinson said.
The expansion of table games, which will include 100 on the main gaming floor and 20 poker tables in the newly opened World Series of Poker Room upstairs, means an influx in workers.
Casino management is in the process of hiring 500-600 new employees, which will give them a staff of about 2,500. Poker dealers undergo an 8-week training program, but current dealers who have monitored the digital tables started training last month, so Robinson is optimistic that about half of the casino's table games will be ready for business by the middle of August.
Expected to open Aug. 1 is a new high limit room and the Diamond Lounge for players holding a diamond or seven stars level loyalty card. The lounge — a series of rooms with a private kitchen, bar and media room — has been constructed in the area that formerly housed the Fresh Market buffet.
Speaking of food, considering that the property was often maligned for its lackluster culinary offerings, it's now done a complete 180.
Along with the spiffy Chef's Stage Buffet; Paula Deen's Kitchen (which now offers a Sunday night all-you-can-eat seafood sampler); the food court stocked with UNO Pizza, Winning Streaks Deli and 24-hour locations of Dunkin' Donuts Express and Johnny Rockets; and the late-night haven Noodle Bar; comes a pair of well-regarded chains: Ruth's Chris Steak House, tucked in the corner of the casino floor and Brio Tuscan Grille, located upstairs, adjacent to the poker room and overlooking the glossy new rotunda that opened in June.
That rotunda is the centerpiece entrance at Harrah's Cherokee, something Robinson calls, "a feature like no other" and Bridges feels, "will rival the Bellagio fountains [in Las Vegas]."
A pair of 70-foot waterfalls cascade from the ceiling and are surrounded by a spiral staircase. Abutting the staircase is a 150-foot-long LED screen that shows scenes such as the Cherokee creation story and a humorous water-skiing squirrel. Synchronized music and lights accompany the mini-shows, but even in its quiet moments, nature sounds, such as chirps and running creeks echo through the lobby.
It is both breathtaking and serene.
Serenity is the key in the final piece of the Harrah's Cherokee expansion project. Bridges expects an 18,000-square-foot Spa by Mandara will be open by the end of November.
Though the core player at the casino is a 55-year-old female slot player, one goal with these myriad improvements and additions is to skew younger.
"We see [the spa] as an opportunity to have more widespread appeal to someone who wants to game, but maybe their companion isn't as interested and would rather spend their time doing something else," Bridges said.
While the small fitness room will remain for now, Robinson already has his eye on new things for the checklist.
"A pool and fitness center, I can visualize them perfectly," he said.
But for the immediate future, guests have plenty of changes and additions to explore.
"We're putting [Harrah's Cherokee] out there as a new facility," Robinson said, "because that's what it is."
If you go
Harrah's Cherokee, 777 Casino Drive, Cherokee, N.C. 828-497-7777, www.harrahscherokee.com
Directions from metro Atlanta: Take I-85 North to I-985 until you run into U.S. 441 North. Once you reach Dillsboro, N.C., take U.S. 74 West and follow signs to Cherokee (Exit 74). Take U.S. 441 North to Cherokee for about 4 miles and take a right at the first traffic light. Harrah's Cherokee Casino is at the next intersection, about 1 mile. Approximate drive time: 2 1/2 to 3 hours.