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Flying high: Cherokee fly-fishing museum gets the green light

fr flyfishingThe path to a new fly fishing museum in Cherokee has been cleared of a final hurdle after the Cherokee Tribal Council last week upheld a contract to lease the old Tee Pee Restaurant building to the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. The Cherokee Business Committee had signed the lease earlier this spring, agreeing to let the chamber of commerce use the building for $1 per year for 25 years.


“The original concept of this flyfishing museum was the chamber’s looking for a way to be self-sustainable,” the tribe’s destination market manager, Skooter McCoy, explained to council. 

The chamber, a nonprofit entity whose goal is to drive tourism in Cherokee, operates on about $80,000 annually but takes in only $30,000 through membership fees. To make up the difference, it relies on grants and donations. The chamber had originally envisioned the museum as a kiosk-type setup that would give visitors, many of whom are fishermen, an overview of Cherokee fishing history. A donation box would accompany the display, hopefully creating some revenue. 

But when the chamber presented the concept to the tribe’s planning and business committees, the scale expanded.  

“I think the planning board and the business committee thought the concept was strong and wanted to expand,” McCoy said. 

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Now, the chamber is planning a full-fledged museum. The exhibits will tell the story of Cherokee fishing practices, tracing them from early history to modern day, with an emphasis on fly fishing opportunities; fly fishing brings millions of dollars into Cherokee every year. It’s a marriage of culture and recreation that Principal Chief Michell Hicks can get behind. 

“I believe the proposed Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians will be a welcome addition to our community,” Hicks said. “The museum brings to Cherokee another element of our promotion of the region as a destination for families and would serve to educate our visitors about our long history of fishing.”

“People are coming to Cherokee to learn more about our native culture, but there is a very close relationship within that brand to our natural resources,” McCoy said. 

McCoy sees the museum as a way to entice fishermen — a group already accustomed to multi-day trips — to stay in Cherokee longer. Meanwhile, the exhibits would stay true to the tribe’s goal of standing on culture above all else, because fishing is indubitably tied to Cherokee culture. 

One council member, however, didn’t agree with Skooter McCoy’s argument. 

“It’s like a smack in your face,” said Teresa McCoy. “We just keep throwing our people’s resources away for ridiculous ideas.”

Teresa McCoy said she’d rather see a commercial business take over the building, an enterprise that would pay a competitive lease rate and become part of the business community. 

“It would be more palatable to me for that building to be leased for the fair market appraised value and for a shorter time period to be sure it’s going to make it,” she said.  

But as a nonprofit, Skooter McCoy said, the chamber has never paid a lease and has no room in its budget to do so. And while the building has been put out to bid for commercial use, it hasn’t had any takers. It’s not in great condition — the chamber will have to come up with an estimated $180,000 to deal with mold, mildew and possible asbestos — and that’s been one deterrent. 

“After two years of it being open for anyone to show interest, there was only one possible applicant, which withdrew very quickly,” Skooter McCoy said. 

But if the chamber isn’t able to get the project off the ground, the building will go back to the tribe. The lease stipulates that the chamber must get the museum up and running within two years for the agreement to stay in effect. 

“We have a lot of private investors that are willing to donate,” Todd Kent, chair of the chamber board, told tribal council. “The money is there. We just have to get the building secured and start working on it.”

Teresa McCoy withdrew her motion after Hannah Smith, interim attorney general for the tribe, informed council that they technically aren’t able to null and void the contract, as the resolution proposed. 

“It is now an enforceable contract. Any kind of action on that contract happens according to the terms of the contract in the courtroom,” Smith said. “Technically, this resolution has a technical problem in what it’s asking for.”

That analysis led the council to uphold the contract, giving the chamber of commerce the go-ahead to get to work on the museum. For now, the plan is to house the chamber in the front of the 4,000-square-foot building and the museum in the back, with a gift shop also included. In the future, though, Skooter McCoy sees the museum becoming a more multi-faceted affair, one day possibly including a restaurant and an aquarium of native fish. 

“To be able to add a new attraction that would have the idea of representing culture, plus tie in modern-day fishing and fly fishing,” Skooter McCoy said, “We felt like it was a win-win situation.”

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