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Wednesday, 05 March 2008 00:00

The changing face of Cherokee: Renaissance continues on the Qualla Boundary

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By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Next year Eastern Band of Cherokee tribal members will be able to watch the latest blockbuster flicks on the big screen, get their weekly groceries at Wal-Mart and enjoy a friendly game of golf on an 18-hole championship course — all without ever leaving the reservation.

All three economic development projects are currently in different stages, but all are expected to come to fruition in 2009, according to tribal leaders.

Tribal officials say once these attractions are built, it’s only the beginning of future development on the Qualla Boundary.

“It’s an economic engine,” said Mickey Duvall, EBCI planning and development director, of how the Tribe is using casino profits to fuel growth. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened 10 years ago and is the biggest attraction in Western North Carolina. It had more than 4 million visitors last year and casino officials are estimating more will come once a $650 million expansion project starts taking shape.

The new projects, leaders say, will improve life for Eastern Band members and attract more tourists.

“It’s part of an initiative to get people out of the car and shop and dine in Cherokee and let that money circulate on the reservation,” Duvall said.

 

Cineplex will be state of the art

Judy Allison of Birdtown supports the Tribe’s efforts to attract commercial businesses to Cherokee.

“I’m all for it,” she said. “I think it will improve the overall economy.”

She is thrilled about visitors having additional entertainment opportunities to partake in once the new movie theatre opens. Construction workers are busy placing the final touches on the stadium seating style theatre located at off of U.S. 19. It is expected to open this spring, tribal officials say. The theatre houses two movie rooms with seating for 220 people.

“It’s going to be one the best theatres in the area,” Duvall said.

Designers drew the theater so that an additional four to six movie screens could be added, depending on demand.

Allison says tribal members and tourists need more entertainment activities, especially on rainy or snowy days.

“You don’t want to stay in your motel room when you’re on vacation,” she said.

Tribal leaders say the theatre will not only benefit tourists but its members and local residents as well.

“It’s providing local entertainment for the local community,” Duvall said.

The Tribe has negotiated an agreement with Phoenix Theatre Management Company to handle operations of the facility, an arrangement similar to the one Harrah’s has to run the casino.

By hiring a professional management company the Tribe was able to save money on the construction and design cost, Duvall says. He would not release the total cost estimate of this project.

 

Wal-Mart

Tribal officials are busy ironing out an agreement with retail developer Wal-Mart.

“We have a offer on the table and we are looking at it,” Duvall said.

The proposed site for the facility is at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Hospital Road. Designs plans call for the superstore project to sit on 20 acres of land. Wal-Mart will take up five acres, and the surrounding property will house additional retail stores, according to Duvall.

He says the agreement between the Tribe and Wal-Mart officials is nearing finalization.

“It looks very positive,” he said.

The proposed Cherokee Wal-Mart will not be the typical facility the company builds in towns across the United States. The Cherokee facility will be a “green” supercenter that features sustainable energy saving techniques like energy saving lighting and appliances, Duvall said.

Principal Chief Michelle Hicks and Tribal Council member will have the final decision on whether the shopping center gets built on the reservation. If the Tribe gives the go-ahead, Duvall says officials will work to get the facility on a fast track.

The deal between the two parties is taking time because the Tribe wants to ensure that its local mom and pop stores are protected from the retail giant.

“Our number one concern is protecting the community and the existing merchant businesses,” Duvall said. “We are very prudent with negotiations.”

Glenda Anthony, manager of Parker’s General Store, has mixed emotions about Wal-Mart coming to Cherokee.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea for the shop,” she said.

The store located off U.S. 19 sells T-shirts, crafts and camping and fishing supplies. If Wal-Mart comes in, Anthony says it could have a negative impact on business.

“It might take away business,” she said. “They carry fishing and camping gear.”

However, Allison is eager for a superstore to open in the area.

“I like the convenience of it being here,” Allison said. Right now customers travel to Sylva, Bryson City or Waynesville to buy food and other supplies. Duvall says a commercial store like Wal-Mart will provide tribal members and tourists with the convenience of shopping in the community they are visiting or live.

“It’s not fair for the families that live on Big Cove Road to drive 45 minutes to go to a store,” he said.

“The number one purpose of this facility it to be a service for tribal members and for the people who can’t buy things on the boundary,” Duvall said. “We have numerous campsites but there is no place to buy a tent.”

 

Golf Course

Workers are moving dirt to build Cherokee’s first golf course.

The course is being built on the former Smoky Mountain Raceway property along Shoals Creek Road, and Duvall says it will “surpass everything in this region.”

Golf course architects, Robert Trent Jones II, designed the Sequoyah National Golf Club. Construction costs for this project are not being released yet, Duvall Said.

The Tribe is also considering building a housing development near the golf course. Duvall said the houses would be for tribal members only.

Plans call for this facility to be completed in summer or fall of 2009.

 

Competition between counties

Commercial development like Wal-Mart will keep tourist in Cherokee longer, Duvall said.

“When a tourists packs up camp and goes to Sylva to get supplies, they can get distracted and not come back,” he said.

In recent months, Sylva town leaders say the town has seen an increase in its sale tax as more visitors stop in to purchase merchandise, but, if a Wal-Mart opens in neighboring Cherokee all that foot traffic may be lost. It could have a negative impact on Jackson County, officials say.

“There’s no doubt its going to have an impact,” Jackson County Economic Development Commission Chairman Rick Fulton said. “It may have a negative one. It could draw people from our Wal-Mart.”

However, Mark Clasby, Haywood County Economic Development Director, says retail competition is part of economic development.

“There will always be competition,” he said. “Competition is a good thing. I don’t always see it as a negative.”

Clasby say the new development projects in Cherokee will give area residents more job opportunities to choose from. Wal-Mart is expected to hire 180 to 200 employees once it opens.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s more job opportunities for everyone in the region.”

Clasby says about 25 percent of Haywood County residents works in neighboring WNC counties, which boils down to 6,000 people leaving Haywood County to work elsewhere.

“The county lines just kind of disappear,” he said.

Fulton has a slightly different opinion about the job opportunities. “There are a lot of openings in the service area, but it’s hard to get a high-paying jobs here,” he said.

 

Finding the workers

Finding people to fill the job openings at these new projects will take some creative measures. Cherokee has a very low unemployment rate.

“It’s the lowest of any county or municipality in the region,” Duvall said.

Enrolled members will have first dibs at the jobs, but the Tribe is looking to neighboring Jackson, Haywood and Swain counties to fill these spots.

All three counties also have an extremely low unemployment rate. In Jackson County it’s under 5 percent, while in Haywood and Swain it’s about 4 percent.

“There doesn’t seem to be as many people as jobs available,” Fulton said.

For employers, that prospect is only going to get more difficult. More than 900 jobs are expected to be created once the casino expansion project is completed. Tribal officials have not released the number of jobs that the golf course will create.

Whatever the number may be, local businesses will have to develop incentives to hold on to their employees. Some local businesses that do not offer health insurance or a retirement package may be placing help wanted signs in their storefront.

Ken Mills, Swain County economic development executive director, is well aware of this problem.

Swain County has a workforce of about 8,200 people, who are employed at establishments like the casino or other local shops.

Mills says additional job opportunities may place a strain on local business owners, especially those that don’t offer benefits or high pay.

“It’s going to put a lot of pressure on everyone,” Mills said.

“People who live in Henderson or Transylvania counties will not want to commute to Cherokee on a daily basis,” he said. “We are going to have to find places for these people to live.”

Mills says county leaders are going to have to develop a plan of action to address affordable housing.

“This is an issue the whole region has to look at,” he said.

 

Revitalization of the downtown

Shop owners in the downtown Cherokee business district are transforming their storefronts to a more cohesive look.

Greta Bridges, owner of Bridges Leather, says downtown businesses needed to change their appearance. New roofs and awnings are part of the revitalization project the Tribe is spearheading. The new look is meant to complement the Smoky Mountains that surround the reservation, Duvall explained.

Businesses are also morphing their signs to feature a signature style that represents the Tribe’s culture and share a common theme. When visitors come to Cherokee they will know they are in a special place, Duvall said.

Bridges says the revitalization of the downtown district will benefit business. When she heard about the project she jumped on the bandwagon.

“I think it looks good,” she said.

Bridges moved her businesses to the downtown district eight years ago. Before that, her parents owned and operated it in Saunooke Village for 33 years. Since moving Bridges says she has seen an increase in business and she is able to house more merchandise at the new location.

The Cherokee Cultural Preservation Foundation is funding some of the renovations to the downtown district. The foundation distributes grants to various organizations and projects that promote the Cherokee culture. The organization operates on revenue generated from the casino.

 

Future endeavors

An indoor water park and conference center are also being considered by the Tribe. Officials have been traveling across the United States looking at other venues like Wisconsin Dells, a popular water park and hotel center.

Duval says this project is just in its feasibility stages.

Another project is completing a greenway for downtown Cherokee. The greenway would begin at Island Park and lead outdoor enthusiasts to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance. The trail would then loop around back to the downtown district, explained Duvall.

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