The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians plans to build a Class II gaming facility in Cherokee County, but the project will not move forward without a fight.
Earlier this year, the Tribal Council approved the concept of a satellite gaming facility to be built in Cherokee County, where tribal members owns more than 5,000 acres and there are hundreds of enrolled members.
The facility would give the tribe a gaming presence close to East Tennessee’s population centers in Chattanooga and Knoxville.
Last Thursday, Principal Chief Michell Hicks indicated at a tribal council meeting that he had signed papers on a land deal that would give the Tribe road access to two pieces of land it has purchased for the purpose of developing the gaming facility, which would likely be home to a high-stakes bingo parlor and some similar games played on video platforms.
But at least two members of the Tribal Council –– Painttown Rep. Terri Henry and Big Cove Rep. Theresa McCoy –– have said they’ll do what it takes to stop the deal from going through.
Henry and McCoy were the only two members of the council to vote last month against authorizing a committee within the tribe “to continue the planning and negotiating, and the seeking of necessary bank approvals and to secure all necessary bank loans” for a gaming facility.
McCoy said she objected to the construction of a new gaming facility because the tribe is already over-extended with debt from the $600 million expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
Henry has said the closed-session negotiations over the land deals involved in the process should be handled in open session.
Henry and McCoy filed a protest to the resolution last month, but the council voted it down. With the majority of the council and Principal Chief Michell Hicks behind the project, the issue appeared to be a fait accompli. But during a council meeting last Thursday, McCoy and Henry played a wildcard.
Having traveled to Cherokee County to meet with landowners near the recently purchased trust lands, McCoy alleged that the deal Hicks brokered through negotiator Lew Harding would unnecessarily cost the tribe $6.5 million.
According to McCoy, landowners in Cherokee County have already agreed to sell another piece of property in the vicinity for $2 million in addition to giving the tribe a right-of-way worth $2 million.
“If you’re going to do this to our people, then do what’s best for them and bring it in at the least amount, consider all the options, make your minds up yourselves,” McCoy said. “Let’s stop listening to what Mr. Harding has to say. He has lied to this family, he has lied to other people in this community, and he has lied to this tribal council.”
Donald Palmer, an enrolled member and Cherokee County landowner, owns the tract of land just south of the site where the tribe plans to build the gaming facility.
Palmer said he was approached by Harding three months ago and told he would be able to negotiate the sale of his land, but never heard from him again.
“Evidently he forgot about us down in Cherokee County. We’ve got a good property for gaming,” Palmer said.
Henry introduced Mr. Palmer to the council during its meeting on May 6 and cited the information he shared as proof that the committee in charge of negotiating with landowners hasn’t been doing its job.
“The reason I’m bringing this up today, Mr. Chairman, is because this is the information the council should have been presented back in March,” Henry said. “This is how we could have made an informed decision on this.”
McCoy told the rest of the council that they needed to visit Cherokee County to talk with landowners and see the land for themselves.
“Our point has been this. Go and see before you make a commitment. This is an opportunity at a $2 million deal versus a $6.5 million deal,” McCoy said. “The whole point behind this is you have been misled, I have been misled, our people have been misled since this whole project began.”
McCoy said she would reintroduce motions that would bring the land deal to referendum and formally protest the committee authorization during June sessions.
When asked if the pending land deals had gone through, Hicks said the resolution and a bank document were signed on May 5, but he did not know if any money had changed hands.
Hicks defended the land negotiations and said they came through a committee process that Henry was part of.
“As each one of these requests came to me, and I told you this before, I pushed it to the committee,” Hicks said. “I kept pushing them to the committee, and I had confidence that they would make the right decision and bring the right recommendation back to us as a tribal body.”
Acting Tribal Council Chair Alan Ensley said the council would schedule a work session on the issue, during which Cherokee landowners in the vicinity of the proposed gaming facility could present information.
Four years ago, Principal Chief Michell Hicks issued a proclamation intended to move the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians towards environmental sustainability.
Last week, leaders from the tribe gathered to discuss the impact of Generations Qualla, a grant program created by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation to kick-start the effort.
“Going back to the environmental proclamation, it didn’t give us all the pieces or all the solutions,” Hicks said. “But if you look at the parts, the big picture is there.”
The tribe is moving towards long-term goals like developing a wind power system, a truck fleet that runs completely on locally produced biodiesel, and constructing an $8 million eco-business park in Jackson County. But the first steps toward sustainability have been much closer to home.
With the help of grants from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the EBCI has created a systemwide recycling program, moved towards energy-efficient building standards and enhanced its mass transit program. While the impacts may feel small now, the foundation’s executive director, Susan Jenkins, said the work of taking on sustainable projects one at a time will bear fruit in the future.
“We as a community –– and that includes the surrounding region –– are looking at what we want the Qualla Boundary to look like for the next seven generations,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins used the tribe’s recycling program as an example. The initiative began with a $70,000 grant to the Cherokee Youth Council to purchase recycling bins and create an education program.
Over the past year, the youth council has traveled to every tribal department to teach employees about what they can and can’t recycle and to stress the importance of recycling.
Jenkins said what began as a simple initiative turned into a learning process.
“We thought it would be simple,” Jenkins said. “The youth council would do the education, and recycling [staff] would do the recycling.”
Along the way, it became clear that a crucial piece of the equation was missing.
“We hadn’t even thought about housekeeping,” Jenkins said.
The youth council was educating tribal employees across departments, but it wasn’t communicating with the janitors who cleaned the buildings and emptied the trash cans.
The recycling staff, meanwhile, was duplicating janitorial efforts by walking all the same buildings and emptying the recycling bins. It may sound crazy, but the tribe hadn’t dealt with a comprehensive recycling system before.
Jenkins said the hang-ups created a network of problem solvers.
“It’s not always just money the groups need. It’s often about the connections, so you can begin to build the capacity,” said Jenkins.
Now the janitorial staff empties all the recycling bins into steel hoppers outside buildings at specified locations, and the recycling staff takes them away when they’re full. The tribe used to only get money for its cardboard and bottles, but these days, it’s also collecting enough plastic to ship to a processing plant.
The success of the recycling program has created a new issue.
“It’s very clear. We’re overloading recycling,” Jenkins said. “How can we bring this to scale and work together to find a solution?”
Jenkins thinks the solution is in uniting the recycling efforts between the hospital, the schools and the casino to create an economy of scale.
“We’ve got the tribe involved. Now can we get the businesses on board, too?” Jenkins said.
None of it would have been possible without the youth council’s effort to educate and push for a solution that made sense.
Jenkins said the intent of Generations Qualla funding is to create a snowball effect that leverages money and connections to create change.
For example, a $50,000 Generations Qualla grant in 2009 funded energy audits on 20 tribal buildings. With the results of the audits in hand, the EBCI Office of Planning and Development pooled another $70,000 grant from Generations Qualla with $130,000 of its own money to match a $200,000 U.S. Department of Energy Grant.
The $400,000 will go towards achieving a 30 percent reduction in energy expenditures at seven tribal buildings.
Preliminary monitoring efforts of the targeted buildings raised concerns about the air quality in the buildings. Now the buildings will also undergo an air quality assessment as part of the energy efficiency upgrade.
Jenkins said the meeting last week was a chance to check in on the progress of Generations Qualla’s initiatives, but it was also a call to action. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation will launch a new round of grant funding in June, and Jenkins hopes to see proposals that will move sustainability agendas past their fledgling stages by creating new partnerships both inside and outside the Qualla Boundary.
Grants are not limited to tribal programs and members. Generations Qualla funding has helped drive the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, a sustainable development toolkit organized by the Southwestern Planning Commission, Haywood Community College’s new low impact development degree, and the U.S. 441 Corridor Plan, among other projects.
For more information go to www.cherokeepreservationfdn.org.