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New Cherokee Chamber to give voice to business community

Cherokee business owners are forming a chamber of commerce that will give the business community a voice in shaping the town’s future and strengthen the economic climate.

“We don’t want money to just pass through the Reservation one time and leave. We want people to stay for a week,” said Carla Blakely, president of the founding committee for the new chamber.

Despite increased tourism and prosperity in Cherokee fueled by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, not all businesses have benefited from it. Blakely, who operates Panther Creek Lodge and Cabins in Cherokee, said a chamber of commerce will get the business community thinking like a unit.

“I think it will encourage everyone to evaluate their business and what they can do to help their business grow. It is a forum to get together and share ideas,” Blakely said. “We have to be open to change and growth and not just do things the way we have year after year.”

Last week, letters were sent to every business in Cherokee inviting them to join the new chamber of commerce. The chamber of commerce is also encouraging businesses in neighboring communities with an interest in Cherokee to join.

“We need an engine to promote Cherokee as a destination. The more members we have, the more powerful our engine is,” said Darrell Pyle, owner of three retail shops in Cherokee. Pyle also is on the founding committee for the chamber.

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A Cherokee Chamber of Commerce will also give business owners a stake in their future, according to the founding committee.

“We can hopefully be the ones that dictate our futures here. If we are creating this chamber, we can direct the direction business goes here,” said John Parker, president of CIC Technologies, a company that designs and installs data networks.

The tribal government takes an active role in marketing and promoting Cherokee. The tribe runs a welcome center and satellite visitor center, operates a travel and promotions office, and funds everything from billboards to magazine ads. The tribe is also spearheading a downtown revitalization initiative that will give the central commercial district of Cherokee a new image.

Business owners say it is time for the business community to get involved as well.

“I hope what we are doing is building an association that can have a creative working relationship with the tribe to work hand in hand,” Parker said. “They can take some of our ideas and we can take some of theirs and capitalize on some of those opportunities.”

Parker hopes the chamber can serve as an ambassador to welcome new business owners to the community. He said that while motels, restaurants and shops compete with each other, cooperation serves the business community more in the long run.

“If we are all sitting around thinking we are in competition with each other, we won’t get anywhere,” Parker said. “There is strength in numbers. I hope we can work together to bring more business in here.”

The chamber’s first order of business is to start a Web site. Pyle said the Internet has become the top tool in trip planning, and the chamber of commerce’s site is usually the first thing people seek. A Web design firm is already at work on the site.

The Swain County Chamber of Commerce, while based in Bryson City, promotes activities in Cherokee as one of the county’s main drawing cards.

“We have a close working relationship with Cherokee Travel and Promotions,” said Gwen Bushyhead, director of the Swain County Chamber. “They refer to us and we refer to them very easily and I predict we will have the same type of cooperative relationship with the new chamber of commerce in Cherokee.”

Brad Walker, president of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, works for Fairfield Inn in Cherokee and has been actively assisting the founding committee in getting started, including hosting the planning meetings for the chamber at the Inn.

Forming relationships with other business owners is another advantage to joining the chamber, Pyle said. Chamber members are more likely to do business with other chamber members and refer customers to other chamber members. The chamber is not just for tourism-related businesses, but professionals and service businesses as well.

“There are a lot of businesses in Cherokee people don’t know about,” Blakely said.

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