On a recent Thursday afternoon, Trent Troxel led reporters through the maze of the Catawba Two Kings Casino. The facility’s 500 machines were at least half-full, patrons sitting in front of games, lights flashing and music playing.

The Catawbas, whose reservation is in Rock Hill, South Carolina, opened a temporary gambling facility in Kings Mountain, N.C., in July. (South Carolina’s laws do not allow gambling.) It serves as the first stage of the casino’s construction, a piece of what will be a $273 million casino and resort.

Troxel is the first member of the Catawba Indian Nation in an executive position at the casino — he’s the vice president of the Catawba Indian Nation Gaming Authority, the governing body of the casino and its gaming operations.

His conviction in the project is clear — taking in the casino floor, Troxel beamed the whole time. As of Aug. 5, a promising 80,000 patrons have come through the casino. He says that’s success.

At one point, he stopped to greet Catawba Chief Bill Harris, who said he was visiting the casino to thank patrons for visiting.

Harris declined to talk to reporters — he wanted the focus to be left on Troxel. Troxel’s position shows that this project belongs to the Catawbas, and they can be involved at every level of the casino.

When he moved back to Rock Hill to take up the vice president position, leaving behind a 25-year career in textiles, Troxel says it wasn’t for power.

Since moving off the reservation at eight years old, he had always felt a calling to return, he said. And by working for the Gaming Authority, he can make sure there’s someone from the tribe involved in controlling day-to-day operations.

“We can honestly report the figures back to our community, and we know the numbers are correct,” he said. “We know exactly what’s going on with the day-to-day operations. When we control the money, we control our own destination.”

But most importantly, Troxel sees the job as a way to help other Catawbas climb the ranks.

“The plan is that one day I will be president, so there’s going to have to be a vice president, there’s going to have to be a GM, there’s gonna have to be others in leadership roles,” he said. “So it’s my hope that we have internships, and we get people that are ready for those positions.”

‘That’s our future’

The casino is a vision come to fruition.

Troxel has been involved in the project since 2013, and it was even before that when he began to discuss a plan to build a casino in North Carolina with Wallace Cheeves, one of the project’s developers, he said.

“For me to see it coming to life, words cannot explain how I feel,” Troxel said.

The Catawba’s business plan shows that the project will provide the tribe with $72 million in revenue in its first year and $150 million by its fifth year.

The casino is the Catawba’s crown jewel — a dream that took almost a decade.

The unemployment rate of the Catawbas, as calculated in April 2020, was 13.8% and is more than three times the unemployment rate of North and South Carolina, tribal representatives testified in a petition to the Department of Interior.

“Now we have opportunities for our children, our grandchildren, to have a place to go when they get done their schooling,” Troxel said. “The opportunities are endless for the next generation. That’s what I want to build for them, is a place for Catawbas to have a really good place to work, competitive salaries, and a good life.”

North Carolina’s gambling laws aren’t the only reason the casino is in King’s Mountain.

While the Catawbas are based in Rock Hill, SC, the land in Kings Mountain was placed in trust of the Catawbas by the Department of Interior. The land sits on Catawba aboriginal land that historians say the nation once occupied. Chief Bill Harris has called the acquisition “a returning of what was once ours.”

“It’s like coming home,” Troxel said. “Our people used to roam these lands.”

And when Troxel looks out into the future, he says, he sees the revenue from the casino lifting tribal members out of poverty, going back into education and healthcare.

He’s the first Catawba to be at the top of the casino operation — but as Troxel sees it, he won’t be alone for long. The casino project will open a new world of opportunity for Catawbas. “That’s our future,” he says.