Plans for the development remain flexible, but organizers say it will feature a common theme or narrative that heightens the experience for visitors. Tourists and shoppers will have “dining options, unique shopping experiences and entertainment attractions that fit the overall theme and vision,” according to a press release. The destination is expected to serve as a gateway and first stop for the millions of tourists who travel the highway en route to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year.
Tribal Council voted to purchase the property in July 2019 for $13.5 million and tasked its business arm, Kituwah LLC, with deciding how best to develop it. Its first pitch — up to $30 million upfront to bring the story-themed resort Ancient Lore Villages to the property, with the tribe retaining at least 40 percent ownership of the company — was shot down by a unanimous vote from Tribal Council in December. In phone interviews after the vote, members said “it was just a lot of money for something that has never been built before,” that there were “a lot of unanswered questions” and that they “felt like we were being misled on the information we were given.”
This new development effort, however, has definite links to the previous one. Kituwah LLC has hired Knoxville-based firm OE Experiences to help the tribe make plans for the development and seek out partners. The company was founded this year by Matthew Cross, who at the time of the December vote was CEO of Boyd Hollow Resorts — the company that would have been the developer for Ancient Lore Villages. Tribal Council voted on the previous proposal because Kituwah was requesting tribal funding, but the LLC has the authority to decide how to develop the land so long as it can do so using partnerships or existing funds.
Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in a press release that the tribe is “pleased with the strong interest in the property and look(s) forward to strengthening partnerships with Sevier County,” while Kituwah CEO Mark Hubble characterized the project as a rare opportunity.
“This land is strategically located and has the benefit of significant infrastructure investment from prior development attempts,” he said in the release.
The property is already flat, with about $2.5 million in site work done prior to the tribe purchasing it.
“This will be a major investment by the EBCI into our local community,” Cross said in a press release. “It is a unique opportunity for the tribe to form strategic partnerships in one of the best tourism markets in the country. Millions of tourists drive by this location every year on their way to the national park, and they will stop here first.”
The site’s location at Exit 407 of the highway allows easy access from nearby Knoxville, something developers are counting on for both visitor volume and workforce. In addition to the 197.5 acres it purchased last July, the tribe also owns 122 acres on the other side of the interstate. Council approved that purchase in February 2019.
“We know Knoxville residents will visit this location for a unique date night, dining experience, shopping trip or an easy weekend getaway,” Cross said. “It’s merely a 20-minute drive from Knoxville and a little over an hour from Asheville.”
OE Experiences is currently collecting bids and proposals from interested parties to co-develop portions of the site. SIG Real Estate’s Keith Widmer is acting as broker on the development and accepting applications for lease. While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge planning efforts nationwide, Cross said that he is cautiously optimistic about the development’s future success. According to Kituwah Economic Development Board Chair Chrissy Arch, the LLC is moving quickly to develop plans and acquire key tenants.
“We are keeping our expectations managed about the future,” Cross said. “It is too early to know how exactly the virus will affect us long-term. However, we are seeing that most people feel safer in their car than on an airplane. That is great news for this market, as we are one of the most drivable destinations in the country with most of the nation’s population east of the Mississippi River living within a one-day-drive of the Smoky Mountains.”