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Cataloochee Resort developer says retail component viable

Jimmy and Keith Leatherwood were always glad to see the developers of Cataloochee Wilderness Resorts walk in to their local hangout, the Jonathan Creek Café. It meant free coffee.

The developer would unfurl maps on the table outlining plans for a massive residential and commercial resort spanning 4,500 acres in their rural Haywood community. The maps showed golf courses, a ski resort, lakes, one million square feet of shopping and entertainment, condos, a hotel and hundreds of homes.

“Everybody would gather around because they’d get him to buy them a cup of coffee for listening to him,” Keith said.

“We called him the money man,” Jimmy added.

There was a catch, however. The developers didn’t own a single acre of land.

Jimmy said those who owned land in the path of the development — himself included — were taken aback to see their property penciled in on the plans when no one had ever approached them about purchasing it.

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“When they go to moving dirt, I’ll believe it,” Jimmy said.

While the project largely fell off the public radar when the economic crisis hit, the developers say they haven’t gone away.

“People need to know we have not gone away and we are still moving forward,” said Frank Wood, president of Cataloochee Wilderness Resorts, which has an office in Clyde. “We have a lot of work to do yet.”

Wood said the residential phase of the development is on hold pending a rebound of the economy and housing market. But the company is still actively pursuing plans for one million square feet of shopping and entertainment clustered just off Interstate 40 at exit 20.

“The chances of it not happening are pretty slim at this point,” Wood said.

Several pieces have to fall in place simultaneously: financing to buy the land, lease agreements with retailers and property owners willing to sell.

Wood said they are not at liberty to say which retailers are being courted since negotiations are not finalized.

As for financing, Wood said lenders are interested, but he can’t say who.

“They are not ready for us to disclose it until it is all wrapped up with a neat little bow on it,” Wood said. Two pieces of financing are needed — one to buy the land and the other to undertake construction, Wood said.

Property options are still forthcoming as well, Wood said. During their initial foray into the community in 2007, the developers say they secured a few property options here and there but mostly gauged willingness to sell through verbal conversations. The property options they once held have now expired, Wood said.

Mike Sorrells, owner of a service station and convenience store on Jonathan Creek, was among the few who were actually offered signed property options. Sorrells got to keep the money they put down when the option expired.

“They were always aboveboard with me,” Sorrells said. “I understood it may or may not happen.”

Sorrells said the plans were so ambitious that they were likely unrealistic.

“All that was premature, totally out of the box. That was someone’s dream,” Sorrells said. “I think that was a big dream and probably an unrealistic dream. Nobody really believed it.”

Wood disagrees that the grand plan is unrealistic. But he would agree that they went public prematurely.

“This project came into the public light before we were ready for it to come into the public light,” Wood said.

Sorrells believes a retail and commercial development centered around Interstate 40 would be quite viable.

“I think the majority of people would like to see something at that exit one way or another,” Sorrells said.

“Jonathan Creek will grow eventually,” Jimmy Leatherwood agreed. “Whether it is going to be this, I don’t know, but eventually it will grow.”

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