Cherokee chief candidates debate tribe’s dependency on Harrah’sWritten by Colby Dunn
Diversify is the buzzword in Cherokee, where candidates in the upcoming primary are facing off over how to move away from Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino as the tribe’s sole breadwinner.
With the primary just a month away, five candidates for principal chief and four for vice chief have been making the campaign circuit to local community clubs and other candidates’ forums. They’ve been pitching all manner of alternative revenue streams, from tribal stores to eco-tourism, to reduce the tribe’s dependence on revenue from Harrah’s. Currently, the casino is responsible for 87 percent of what the tribe takes in annually.
Patrick Lambert, who narrowly lost the chief’s seat in 2007 by a mere 13 votes, said that it was time for Cherokee to move on not only from sole reliance on Harrah’s, but also from the business model that sustained them in the decades before the casino’s arrival.
“We need to get away from these rubber tomahawk type shops,” said Lambert at a candidates’ forum last week, hosted by the Junaluska Leadership Council, a youth leadership program for Cherokee high school students.
He pointed to towns such as Asheville, Waynesville and even nearby Bryson City, where strip malls and kitsch shacks have given way to more upscale boutique and artisanal shops, attracting a wealthier and more modern clientele. This, he said, should also be the way of the future for Cherokee.
Sitting Principal Chief Michell Hicks suggested a similar path to diversified revenue, but proposed that Cherokee play to its strengths, namely their long history of producing unique, high-quality arts and crafts. It would be impossible to compete with tourist havens Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., both just over the mountain, said Hicks, so the wise path is to focus on what other tourist towns don’t have.
“We don’t have the land base to compete with these places across the mountain, so we have got to create a specific market. We have to display in the right way our abilities. That’s how we market Cherokee, that’s how we recreate who we are as a people,” said Hicks. “I think the arts and the crafts is where this town is going.”
Newcomers Gary Ledford and Juanita Wilson both advocated strongly for putting the local economy back into local — and even tribal — hands, stopping the influx of outside business onto the reservation.
“It’s time to stop trying to bring in retail businesses and people who don’t care about us. Why not invest into our people here?” asked Wilson.
Ledford echoed those sentiments, suggesting a tribal alternative to Wal-Mart, so shoppers could pump their money back into the reservation instead of away from it, or tribally run waterparks, zoos and other tourist attractions.
Though there are a multitude of answers to the diversification question, there’s no doubt that it will continue to be a central theme of this year’s election. On some level, all of the principal chief candidates have included it as part of their platform.
Nearly everyone advocated for bumping up the tribe’s participation in Section 8 contracting, a federal program that helps bring a range of contracts to Native American tribes.
And then there’s the debt.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee are in the hole for nearly a billion, and about 60 percent of that is tied up in the massive new expansion under way at Harrah’s.
Of course, a chunk of the debt was laid out on the new, state-of-the-art school complex opened last year, but it’s the casino that’s gotten the lion’s share of the money.
And so far in the campaign, the question has been asked more than once, how and when will the tribe get rid of it?
Most of that grilling, of course, goes to the current chief, Hicks. He’s a two-term leader, so much of the debt has been racked up in the eight years since he took office.
And when asked about his plans in the candidates’ forum, he laid out the bold claim that he would eradicate the debt entirely in the next four years, leaving the tribe debt free when he left office.
Though he didn’t get into specifics about how he planned to dispatch the debt, he did note that part of the plan included diverting more of the casino’s cash to pay its own and other debts.
“As we roll through and increase the expansion, addressing the debt is going to be done through the cash flow,” said Hicks.
But when asked why he didn’t put large-scale projects such as the casino expansion and school complex to a referendum, Hicks didn’t directly answer the question.
“If you look at the things that we put on the ground, in my mind, that’s not spending money, it’s investing in our future. We’re making the services better, we’re making sure that jobs say intact,” said Hicks.
Meanwhile, challenger Lambert said that the way out of debt was fiscal conservatism, avoiding debt increases, softening the regulatory environment to entice in new businesses and possibly even creating tribal utilities like wind and solar power to offset the debt.
The primary election, which will whittle the field to two for both principal and vice chief, is set for July 8. And in a still-troubled economy, it may be the two heralding the best financial future that make the cut.