The push for public participation comes as tribal leaders continue a series of negotiations with the retail giant, which currently has one super center in neighboring Sylva and is building another in Waynesville. If tribal leaders and Wal-Mart can iron out details, the Wal- Mart would most likely build on a tribally owned tract of land near the Cherokee Indian Hospital.
Tens of thousands of additional dollars are at stake for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians: Wal-Mart, like other commercial outlets on the reservation, would be subject to a 7-percent tribal sales tax on all goods sold.
The additional revenue doesn’t settle the issue for all of the tribe’s 13,500 members, however. Some say money is simply not enough reason to risk damaging the reservation’s small-town feel, and, possibly, putting some small business owners out of business.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks said that tribal leaders anticipate releasing a statement about Wal-Mart “within weeks.”
“The new Wal-Mart would be a significant contributor to our tribal levy and a major employer for the region,” he said.
Not that long ago, Cherokee’s landscape was made up almost exclusively of kitschy tourist shops and the blinking lights of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Sitting down to a cup of coffee at a shop that exclusively features a free-trade product grown by indigenous people would have seemed incongruous in this tourist-driven town.
Today, however, Natalie Smith serves a small stream of customers at Tribal Grounds coffee shop near the visitor’s center and council house, her espresso and turkey wraps a paradigm of sorts for a profound shift that is under way on the reservation.
Along with the financial empowerment the 10-year-old casino has brought to this once impoverished area, there is also a heightened sense of responsibility and political awareness among many Cherokee.
And Wal-Mart, Smith said, just doesn’t comfortably meld with this emerging new world.
“I don’t think Wal-Mart fits our profile,” she said, adding that tourists visiting the reservation also are trying to escape commercialism and experience Cherokee culture.
“This town has always relied upon tourism, and I think they’d be disappointed to find Wal-Mart,” Smith said.
A question of economics
Business owner Janene Lancaster, who runs Great Smokies Fine Arts Gallery and the Native American Craft Shop, said she has mixed feelings about the issue. Lancaster, who frequents the Wal-Mart super center in Sylva, admits to experiencing guilt over her personal concession to lower prices and convenience.
“Where we live, we’d have to buy at so many places to get anything,” Lancaster said.
Still, she also believes the tribe should concentrate on more upscale commercial ventures, and worries that small businesses on the reservation will go under once Wal-Mart moves in.
“I feel like they should have put it out for a public vote to tribe members,” Lancaster said.
Sandra Land of Riverside Motel on U.S. 441 also worries about small businesses, but has one additional concern about Wal-Mart building on the reservation. Land said she would be fighting for workers for her motel from the same pool the big-box store would draw from.
But, she said, about seven out of 10 of her customers ask where they can find a Wal-Mart after they arrive at the motel, and aren’t thrilled to learn of the drive required to Sylva.
Additionally, Land said, she too travels there to buy affordable cleaning supplies.
“Economy-wise, I think Wal-Mart will help us more than hurt us,” she said.