On a steamy August afternoon, rows of slot machines stood sheathed in plastic.
Technicians and construction workers scurried across the new red and aqua-mottled carpet, some tweaking electronics, others clanging around the still-under-construction food market.
Natural lighting from slats in the windows — yes, windows in a casino — streamed in, giving the 50,000-square-foot gaming floor a heavenly glow.
On Sept. 28, the plastic that hugged those 1,050 slot machines — including popular games such as Wheel of Fortune, Sphinx 3D, Paradise Fishing and Game Kings for the video poker players — will be gone.
The food market offering fast-casual fare from Nathan’s, Earl of Sandwich, Starbucks, Panda Express and Papa John’s Pizza will be fully functioning.
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And the adjoining hotel, accessible from inside the casino via an escalator as well as its own separate entrance, will welcome its first guests.
The arrival of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel, a $110 million project that broke ground in October 2013, means that Atlantans now have a gambling option about two hours away (a midafternoon weekday trip clocked in at two hours and 10 minutes and 122 miles from Buckhead).
While Georgia lawmakers continue to scrutinize the possibility of bringing legalized gambling to the state, North Carolina has continued its expansion with its new casino in Murphy, N.C.
“It’s definitely concerning and we’re going to keep a pulse on things, but we’re going to try and be as good as we can be,” said Lumpy Lambert, general manager of Valley River.
Valley River is a sister property to the mega-resort Harrah’s Cherokee Resort & Casino in Cherokee, N.C., about an hour east of Murphy, in that both are owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and operated by Caesars Entertainment.
But the Valley River crew wants patrons to know that the differences between the two are vast — as in, considering that the town of Murphy had a population of 1,627 in the 2010 census, things are much smaller.
“We look at (Valley River) as a daytrip destination, a quick getaway, versus the full-blown resort experience that you’ll get at Harrah’s Cherokee,” said Lambert, who is also a member of the tribe. “If you still want the spa and the event center and big suites and dining options, the resort will still be your choice. But the proximity of Murphy to Atlanta is the big factor.”
For those who frequent Harrah’s Cherokee, here are some key differences:
Along with the aforementioned amenities offered only at Harrah’s Cherokee, Valley River doesn’t have a buffet (or dining options other than the food market) or a poker room. Its 1,050 slot offerings are about a quarter of those available at Harrah’s Cherokee, and the table games — including blackjack, craps, roulette, three-card poker, Mississippi Stud and mini-baccarat tables — number about half of Harrah’s Cherokee’s 150-plus.
The new property does include a Diamond Lounge for Total Rewards club Diamond and Seven Stars-level players that will offer light food options and discounted alcoholic beverages (alcohol will also be for sale on the main casino floor and nonalcoholic beverages are complimentary).
“It’s the area for our best guests to recharge, check out the game scores (a couple of flat panels hang overhead) and grab a quick snack,” Lambert said.
Neighboring the Diamond Lounge is a high-limit gaming area with about 115 games and three overhead monitors that will likely be tuned to sporting events.
A small area of the casino floor offers refuge for nonsmokers (about 60 games are expected to reside there) and a high-tech flooring system is designed to facilitate air ventilation.
As Lambert reminds, when Harrah’s Cherokee first opened in 1997, it was a diminutive version of its current form. The gaming floor was about the same size as Valley River’s, but the property didn’t include a hotel or table games, and alcohol sales were verboten until late 2009.
Valley River resides on 45 acres of the 95 that the tribe owns in Murphy, which means there is plenty of room for expansion.
Upon opening, the new casino and 300-room hotel will employ 800-900, with the majority coming from within a 50-mile radius, including the North Georgia communities. Lambert targets first-year payroll in the range of $32 million to $39 million, and the casino is expected to attract 1 million to 1.5 million visitors annually.
The tranquil location of Valley River — as well as Harrah’s Cherokee — is an anomaly compared to the sensory assault of Las Vegas, the family-cluttered boardwalk of Atlantic City, N.J., and the touristy Beach Boulevard in Biloxi, Miss.
The Smoky Mountains provide a stunning backdrop from most of the hotel rooms, and those who aren’t enticed by the casino can partake nearby in nature activities including whitewater rafting, golfing and hiking.
“We want you to come and enjoy the casino, but also come to the area and enjoy nature and Southern hospitality,” said Leeann Bridges, regional vice president of marketing for Harrah’s. “Take a deep breath and get revitalized before heading back to the city.”
Valley River will assume a Mini-Me role to Harrah’s Cherokee for the near future, but its purpose is different — primarily for Georgia gamblers eager to play closer to home. It’s an attractive, manicured venue that provides all of the necessities.
Or, as Lambert summarized, “It’s going to be a nice little property.”