While the mayor hopes to delay the vote, Vice Mayor Barbara McRae, who also serves as co-chairwoman for nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative, says the vote will still happen during the May 6 board meeting.
“I fully expect the board to go forward with a vote on May 6, and I am confident it will be six ‘ayes,’” McRae said.
After much input on both sides of the issue, Franklin Town Council is set to vote on transferring the deed to the mound from town ownership to a joint ownership agreement with Nikwasi Initiative, a nonprofit organization made up of representations from Franklin, Macon County, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust.
While the nonprofit sees a joint ownership as a positive step toward honoring the mound’s Cherokee history and creating a cultural tourism corridor through the region, opponents of the deed transfer say the town is the only suited entity to maintain and preserve the mound for all Macon County residents.
Franklin Town Council members have expressed support for transferring the deed to the Nikwasi Initiative, and even though an official vote hasn’t been taken, five Macon County residents have already filed a lawsuit against the town board claiming the town is violating the conditions of the 1946 Nikwasi Mound deed.
During the town’s April 1 meeting, the council voted to hire legal counsel to defend the town against the litigation. As of April 26, one of the plaintiffs — Betty Cloer Wallace — said she received notice that Franklin Town Council Attorney John Henning on behalf of the Town Council requested a one month extension from District Court to respond to the citizens’ complaint and request for injunctive relief. Wallace said she sees an upside to the delay.
“Plaintiffs will have more time to ensure that the citizens of Macon County understand the full scope of this matter,” she said.
Mayor Bob Scott has been against transferring the deed and said he doesn’t think a change in ownership is needed in order for the Nikwasi Initiative and its partners to move forward with their plans to develop the adjacent mound properties and create the cultural corridor.
“What has yet to be explained to the public is why turning over the deed is key to revitalization of the area these groups are promoting? What do they want to do?” Scott wrote in a recent newspaper article. “Mainspring has bought some property near the mound and the EBCI has bought a building adjacent to the mound, but so far nothing has been done with either of these properties. It is time to see some action and concrete plans before the town turns over the deed.”
Even though the Nikwasi Initiative already considers the town a partner — with McRae as the town’s representative — Scott says the town council has never voted on any kind of formal partnership agreement. Instead of rushing to give away something the town can’t get back, he said, a slower transition approach should be taken in allowing the Nikwasi Initiative to maintain the mound.
“A better solution is for the town to become a partner in whatever it is the Initiative wants to do in East Franklin. Then, after a reasonable length of time, when the Initiative establishes a track record and the public sees actual progress, the issue of the deed could be raised again. It may be a year or two for this to take place,” he said. “But there should be no rush to turn the deed over to the Initiative, which is a relatively new organization when compared to the town which has been around since 1855 and has preserved and protected the mound since 1946.”
Scott and others opposed to the deed changing hands claim the Initiative doesn’t have any kind of track record to establish itself as a viable and reliable organization to manage the culturally significant site.
Nikwasi Initiative is young — receiving its nonprofit status in 2017 — but its leaders say the group’s work precedes its tax-exempt status. The group originally started out as an informal community group called Mountain Partners in 2015 with the collective goal of cleaning up and revitalizing East Franklin along the Little Tennessee River.
Much progress has been made — Mainspring purchased the former Duncan Oil site next door to its office in 2015 with plans to clean up the abandoned gas station property that had caused some level of ground contamination close to the banks of the Little Tennessee River. The final result was a larger parking area for Mainspring and the public in addition to greenspace and picnic tables to better enjoy the riverbanks.
EBCI more recently purchased the former Dan’s Auto property on the other side of the Nikwasi Mound with plans to invest over half a million dollars to construct a visitor center and an annex for the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. The tribe is also working with a designer to plan for what exhibitions will be located in the museum.
Scott said he warned McRae and others with the Nikwasi Initiative that the issue of transferring the deed would create a divide in the community, which is exactly what has happened, he said.
“Unfortunately, some friends of mine in the groups wanting the deed to be transferred have given me side glances and stated their anger at me for taking the stand I have,” Scott said.
McRae agrees that the issue has caused a divide in the community, but she hopes all the conflict will be resolved and that ultimately the town and all residents will benefit.
“There have been negative impacts, at least in the short run, but I think that in the long run, all will benefit from this transaction,” she said.