MURPHY, N.C. — It’s a few minutes before midnight on a Thursday, but it sounds more like a weekend crowd at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River.
A cluster of 20-somethings pack a $10 blackjack table. A few yards away, the excited yelps of a craps winner pierce the air over a soundtrack of inoffensive Top 40 hits from the ’80s and ’90s.
Those who prefer the solitary gaming of slot machines and video poker dot the casino floor, content to zone out with their pandas and princesses, Britney Spears and “Game of Thrones”-themed games among the 1,000-plus slot selections.
Beverage servers eagerly approach — sometimes a little too eagerly for those concentrating on whether or not to hold the high pair or go for the flush on Jacks or Better — offering complimentary soda and water (alcohol is allowed, but because of tribal rules, it must be purchased).
On Sept. 28, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River celebrated its first birthday — and celebrate is the accurate verb considering the success of the property.
While Georgia stubbornly digs in its heels against approving gaming in the state, Harrah’s opened its second North Carolina property exactly 15.3 miles over the state line and a two-hour drive from metro Atlanta.
The casino and adjoining hotel sit on 40 acres of land, which is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and operated by Caesars Entertainment.
“It’s been an awesome first year. The facility has been well-received. Visitation has been good,” said Lumpy Lambert, general manager of the casino-hotel, sitting the next day in the Starbucks housed in the casino lobby as early-morning gamblers streamed in.
A tally of 1.1 million people rotated through the $110 million property its first year, almost exactly aligned with expectations, Lambert said. More than 33 percent of first-year visitors arrived from the Atlanta market, according to Harrah’s research.
Valley River employs 975 people, down from the 1,100 originally hired. About 16 percent of the workforce comes from northern Georgia. The casino purposely overstaffed and then experienced a 44 percent turnover — a little higher than the expected 40 percent rate — which Lambert attributes to the idiosyncrasies of living a casino lifestyle.
“A lot of individuals came in and tried a new environment, a new career path, and it just didn’t work for them,” he said. “This is a 365 (day) operation, we’re not closed on holidays. It’s a big adjustment for some individuals. But the workforce has stabilized.”
The enterprise owns 96 acres at the Murphy location as well as the mega-sized Harrah’s Cherokee Resort & Casino in Cherokee, N.C. (about an hour east of Murphy). Both properties are operated by Caesars Entertainment.
There is plenty of space for growth, but the only imminent addition is a sit-down dining option.
Although Valley River is equipped with an inviting food court that can recharge gamblers with grub from Panda Express, Earl of Sandwich, Papa John’s and a Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs/Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips combo — as well as the aforementioned Starbucks — visitors told management through surveys and conversations that a slightly more formal dining option was desired.
Lambert expects that the restaurant, which is slated to open in summer 2017, will be internally branded instead of a chain, serve three meals a day and possibly incorporate a buffet within the restaurant setup, similar to the Selu Garden Café at Harrah’s Cherokee.
The addition of a kitchen would also allow for room service, which currently isn’t available at the 300-room hotel.
A few other tweaks occurred during Valley River’s inaugural year, including the implementation of slot tournaments, gift giveaways and other promotions, as well as an outdoor summer and fall concert series featuring regional acts. Lambert plans for the music to return in the spring.
To cement its investment in the area, the casino also donated more than $82,000 to area nonprofits including Manna FoodBank, Blue Ridge National Heritage, NC Beautiful and the North Carolina Senior Games.
With its reasonable proximity to Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., Valley River is well-positioned as the day trip alternative to its sister property, which tacks on an additional 45 minutes from Atlanta.
Jay Maurice considers himself a casual gambler and has made the 105-minute drive to Murphy from his home in Powder Springs three times since Valley River opened.
He’s been pleased that even on weekends there are blackjack tables available for less than $25 per hand and during the week he has seen tables in the $5-$10 range. Valley River offers about 70 table games, including craps, Mississippi Stud and baccarat.
Ideally, Maurice would enjoy the option of poker at the Murphy property — the poker room at Harrah’s Cherokee is nationally renowned among professional players — but Lambert says while it’s an addition they’ll continue to explore, adding a poker room isn’t a top priority at the moment.
But Maurice and his wife, Sue, fall into the target category of Atlanta outliers looking for a quick getaway, which might include an overnight in the casino hotel, which they’ve done on two of their three trips (average room rate is $79-$99).
“Sometimes that overnight feels like a country trip,” Maurice said. “And it’s nice to spend time driving with my wife and stopping at the place that sells apple butter. I go to Murphy because I don’t want to drive three hours to (Harrah’s) Cherokee. We went there before this one opened and haven’t been since. Murphy is so close, and I don’t need those resort things. I want a place I can go gamble and not feel like I have to drive forever, and come back home after a few hours if I don’t want to spend the night.”
Maurice said he’s noticed a change in the level of professionalism since Valley River opened, which he attributes to growth and experience.
Indeed, Lambert is quick to point out that the casino’s employees consistently earn some of the highest customer satisfaction scores among Caesars’ brands.
“Our team enjoys their work and are engaging, and that makes a difference from a service perspective,” Lambert said.
While there was some concern about Valley River cannibalizing guests from Harrah’s Cherokee, that doesn’t seem to have occurred, proving that Valley River’s marketing efforts as a quick-gambling-fix destination are working.
“It’s close enough that I can spontaneously go,” Maurice said. “I think it’s a real hidden treasure up there.”