Ray Bradley Jr. is the talkative type. He’s not shy airing his opinions, whether the discussion is about Cherokee tribal politics or, as is the case now, what legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County could mean along the highway leading to the reservation.
Growth, Bradley said confidently, will explode if a ballot measure next May opens the door for countywide alcohol sales in Jackson. It could bring with it major changes to the Gateway corridor — the stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation and the tourist magnet, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.
Cherokee itself is dry, except for the casino property, which serves alcohol for in-house consumption only. The closest town to Cherokee to buy a six-pack or bottle of wine is Bryson City in Swain County, roughly 10 miles away.
Jackson County’s alcohol vote could change that, making alcohol available at the reservation’s doorstep, capturing not only the demand for alcohol by local Cherokee people but the tourist market as well.
County commissioner Charles Elders, who owns and runs a gas station on U.S. 74 a couple of miles from the turnoff to Cherokee, also believes the legal sales of alcohol could spur growth in that area. He said he personally wouldn’t sell beer, but that won’t be his decision to make — Elders, at 68, is preparing to turn the business over to his son, Dewayne.
If alcohol became readily available at Cherokee’s doorstep, Bradley thinks that would bring development on par with Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Elders isn’t so sure of that, though he does endorse growth as a virtual inevitability if alcohol sales are voted in.
Bradley’s theory might seem a leap when compared with the sprinkle of businesses lining the corridor today: a few gas stations, a dollar store, thrift shops and several older motels, some of them now vacant. In Bradley’s book, rapid growth would be a good thing, bringing money, jobs and prosperity for many people now suffering without. This economic trifecta, he’s sure, simply awaits legalized alcohol sales. Bradley’s family runs a business along the four-lane highway, the Nu2U consignment shop.
“The Bible thumpers and the bootleggers won’t like it,” Bradley predicted. “But there’s no reason this gap shouldn’t look just like Gatlinburg within five years.”
Noel Blakely, owner of the Old Mill General Store and Craft Shop along the corridor, is more tempered in his view of alcohol.
The price of property on the highway in to Cherokee has increased lately, and Blakely thinks the prospect of legal alcohol sales could further that trend. It could bring a few nice restaurants and generally improve the caliber of businesses along the highway.
But Blakely believes the damage of making alcohol more accessible in Cherokee would far outweigh the benefits.
“I’m against alcohol,” said Blakely, a member of the tribe. He voted against bringing it to the casino, and if he decides to vote in the ballot measure next May, he would vote ‘no.’
Locals would no longer have to make the trek to Bryson City for alcoholic beverages, and that could fuel drinking problems on the reservation. Blakely said.
“I am a businessman and I would like to see that money stay in our community, but I see the damage it does,” Blakely said. “Jackson County is not going to pick up the tab for alcoholism.”
Bradley however, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is hopeful legalized alcohol sales just outside the reservation in Jackson County would force the tribe to follow suit. If voters in Jackson say ‘yes’ to countywide alcohol sales, dry Cherokee will have a tough choice to make: watch Jackson County rake in new business on the reservation’s very doorstep or take a cut by legalizing alcohol sales in Cherokee, too.
An economic tinderbox?
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t believe anything done by political outliers will move the reservation toward making “forced” decisions.
“Fortunately or unfortunately,” Pegg said, “nothing too much ‘forces’ Cherokee to do anything — over the years, Cherokee has done what it thinks is best for Cherokee. But if you can get alcohol on both sides but you can’t get it in the middle, while it won’t force anything, it might strengthen the argument for it here.”
Alcohol long has been a contentious issue in Cherokee. But two years ago voters approved the idea of selling it at the casino by a surprisingly large majority, 59 to 41 percent.
Last November, Jackson County residents voted in a new majority onto their board of commissioners. Headed by Chairman Jack Debnam, a political maverick and real estate man who doesn’t actually drink himself but has advocated for residents’ right to decide, the conservative-weighted board has signaled its intent to move forward with an alcohol referendum vote.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said that the wording of the ballot measure might be ready for review by commissioners at their meeting on Monday (Oct. 17). Debnam had asked Wooten and County Attorney Jay Coward to work on the document.
Wooten also believes that legalized alcohol sales would fuel business growth, particularly in Cullowhee with its Western Carolina University-student population. The same potential may hold true in the area of Jackson County outside Cherokee that some so strongly believe is an economic tinderbox waiting for just the right match to strike.
Jackson leaders saw the area primed for growth long before the prospect of countywide alcohol sales.
There is water and sewer in the area already, and a newly built sewage plant in Whittier with the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Although for now, it serves only a handful of customers.
The former board of commissioners, anticipating growth from the advent of water and sewer, even created a land-use plan to regulate the commercial development they thought would surely spring up eventually — no one wanted another U.S. 107 in Jackson County, that overbuilt, congested strip marking the southern end of downtown Sylva.
But the predicted growth never materialized. At least, it hasn’t yet.
Whittier once boomed; would alcohol sales make future difference?
Oxford Hardware Store is busy. As the nearest place for the community’s residents to find nails, tools and some household goods, this store has long served as the ‘town’s’ heart.
In the winter, older men like to gather picturesquely around the woodstove toward the back of the store. Even on a warm fall day such as this one, a number of the community’s residents still make their way inside.
Kandace Powers was among them. She stopped to pick up a few items and share whatever community news might be on tap. Powers believes legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages in Jackson County would be fine, “if nothing else, to help commerce,” she said. “It might help the economy.”
And, it might just help Whittier rebound a bit, too, she said. The one-time booming town, since turned sleepy hamlet, straddles the county lines of Swain and Jackson, several miles past the highway exit leading to Cherokee.
Whittier, incorporated in 1907 and unincorporated in the late 1930s, could once boast of large sawmills and even, according to local historian Gloria Noland, the largest department store west of Asheville.
The railroad fueled growth in Whittier. And the community, she said, has experienced sales of alcohol before — a beer joint and dance hall were located upstairs from one the store’s in Whittier, the two-story brick building where you first turn into the community after leaving the highway.
“Whittier, then, was truly looking forward to becoming a big city,” Noland said.
But the town fell on hard times with a timber-harvest decline, the Great Depression, and, perhaps, the final indignity of the devastating flood of 1940, she said. That was when the Tuckasegee River raged across Jackson County, changing the landscapes permanently in riverside communities such as Cullowhee and Whittier.
Today, there is little more here than a bunch of old houses, the Oxford hardware store, a post office, a community building and Noland’s thrift store. Housed inside is her “micro Whittier museum” and a model replica of 1900 Whittier, a reminder of better times and when the town attracted droves of tourists and shoppers.