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ABC store opens in Cherokee

Tribal officials cut the ribbon on Cherokee's first ABC store. Holly Kays photo Tribal officials cut the ribbon on Cherokee's first ABC store. Holly Kays photo

Just six months after Cherokee voters said yes in a referendum election , a liquor store is open on the Qualla Boundary — making the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians the first tribe in the country to have one.

“That gives us some sovereignty back that we didn’t have before,” said Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission Chairman Pepper Taylor at a ribbon-cutting ceremony held Thursday, March 10. 

Prior to the referendum, the only establishments on the Qualla Boundary able to sell alcohol were at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and a select few restaurants covered by a state law  pertaining to “tourism establishments” located within 1.5 miles of a Blue Ridge Parkway on-ramp. 

Over and over, Cherokee voters had said no to referendum efforts to expand the availability of alcohol, but in September 2021 they passed three measures  approving both on-premises and off-premises beer and wine sales, as well as a tribally operated package store. The margins were large, with approval rates varying between 57.6% and 62.7%, depending on the specific question. 

“The board, everyone was surprised by the outcome,” Taylor said in an interview. 

In the months since the referendum passed, the TABCC has been working to implement the results. The new store, located at the intersection of U.S. 19 and U.S. 441 next to the old KFC, is the most tangible example of those efforts, a sparkling interior space offering everything from moonshine to cognac. It is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 

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“This is a great opportunity for the tribe,” Principal Chief Richard Sneed said during the ceremony. “It’s a great opportunity for economic development for future generations.”

The TABCC hired Marni Queen, former CEO of New Hanover County ABC Stores, to manage the Cherokee store. Originally from Sylva, Queen said she saw the job as an opportunity to move back home. 

Profits from sales at the store go to the TABCC, which after paying its bills, servicing its reserve and spending at least 5% of proceeds on adult education efforts, turns excess cash over to Tribal Council. Like other retail sales on the Qualla Boundary, alcohol sales also produce a 7.5% tribal levy — akin to a sales tax — which also returns to the tribal budget. On the low end, said Taylor, the store is expected to produce gross sales of about $2.5 million, which would yield $187,000 in tribal levy. 

So far, he said, eight new retail permits have been approved since the referendum results went into effect. 

The referendum results gave the TABCC the ability to sell beer and wine at the package store, in addition to liquor, but the board decided not to offer beer and wine so as to avoid competing with private businesses, Taylor said. The board also dropped the 30% service fee it had originally charged retail businesses selling beer and wine — the fee was too high for businesses to make a profit at competitive prices. 

“Even at 15%, it wasn’t competitive,” Taylor said. “So we ended up making the move to drop it to zero percent off-premise.”

While the 30% service fee is waived for retail sales, it remains for on-premises sales in hotels and restaurants. 

The TABCC is pleased with the results of the 2021 election, but Taylor said the board is already considering a new referendum question for the public — approval for mixed beverage sales on off-casino lands. 

“To us, we got the first three corners of the pie, and now we need to finish that last slice,” he said. 

Taylor, who works as the jail administrator for the Cherokee Indian Police Department and grew up with a severely alcoholic father, is no stranger to the dangers of alcohol. But, he points out, alcohol and the issues it brings with it has been present in Cherokee for years, legal local sales or no.  If they’re going to buy it anyway, the line of reasoning goes, the profits may as well go back to the tribe, rather than to governments in Swain and Jackson counties. 

“Ultimately, these dollars end up affecting the bottom line for per capita payments  that are given to the members each year, particularly from the revenue drop from alcohol at the casino, $55 million over three fiscal years,“ said TABCC Attorney Mikael Gross. “That puts a significant amount of money back into the per capita pot for consideration.” 

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