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Tribal Council approves $75 million for ‘themed spectacle,’ site development at Exit 407

Leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Puy du Fou and Kituwah LLC gather during a visit in France to discuss the partnership. Donated photo Leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Puy du Fou and Kituwah LLC gather during a visit in France to discuss the partnership. Donated photo

One of the world’s top amusement park companies, France-based Puy du Fou, is partnering with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to create a “themed spectacle” centering Cherokee history at the 200-acre property under development by Kituwah LLC, at Exit 407 of Interstate 40 in Sevier County.

The Cherokee Tribal Council voted 11-1 May 5  to appropriate $75 million for the project, with $45 million of that budgeted to build the attraction and $30 million for site development costs on the entire 80-acre section of property slated for Phase 1 development. The Puy du Fou  project is expected to command 4-5 acres when it opens in 2024. 

“This project in Tennessee developed together with the EBCI means a lot for us: it will initiate our presence on the American soil, where there are so many great stories to tell,” Nicolas de Villiers, Chairman & Artistic Director of Puy du Fou. “As lovers of history and cultural roots, we are proud and honored to partner with the EBCI Tribe to achieve this goal.”

Twice elected “Best Theme Park in the World,” Puy du Fou operates an original flagship park in France that draws more than 2.3 million visitors each year and trails only Disneyland Paris for the country’s highest number. The park offers multiple shows, period villages and more than half a dozen on-site resorts custom-designed and built with authenticity as a focal point. The company now has attractions in Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and China. 

This would be its first foray into the American market, and as part of the agreement Kituwah LLC would have the first right of refusal on any future projects in the United States. 

“We are excited to take the first steps towards developing this world-class attraction that will help support our nation economically while creating a new platform to share dimensions of Cherokee history many have never heard,” Tribal Council Chairman Richard French said in a statement. 

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The concept 

The tribe’s relationship with Puy du Fou at Exit 407 will be similar to its relationship to Caesar’s Entertainment at its casinos. The tribe will own the property, the building and the business through a newly formed company called Cherokee Rose that is in turn owned by Kituwah LLC, but Puy du Fou will design and operate the attraction. 

The attraction itself will consist of 125,000-175,000 square feet of “retail-tainment,” dining and entertainment space, featuring an immersive walk-through show that will be the first of its kind in the United States, said Matthew Cross, CEO of OE Experiences, the Knoxville-based experience development company that has represented Kituwah and The 407 in their global search for ideal partners. 

“The closest example would be something like Titanic there in Pigeon Forge where you’re walking through a themed space, but this is a lot more focused on the immersion and the authenticity of actually being there,” Cross said. “And these sets are augmented with live actors, which is sort of Puy du Fou’s signature style.” 

“The vocation of Puy du Fou is to tell stories in an innovative, original and rooted way,” said Puy du Fou’s international press officer Manon Rigaudeau. “This new immersive show is the embodiment of this vocation: it will plunge visitors into the heart of a moving epic, from the Appalachians to the plains of Champagne.”

Puy du Fou is one of the only companies in the world that does its own creative design and operates the attraction, allowing them to “seamlessly integrate” guest experiences to the space. 

The show itself will feature the “authentic and heartbreaking” story of Cherokee heroism during World War I through a “fully immersive” walk-through show that will take guests on a “patriotic and moving journey for the entire family,” according to a press release. 

“These are Cherokee that did actually participate on behalf of the Allies, and this experience will put you right in the action as someone that travels overseas with them and has this experience,” said Cross. “Our goal, as is the goal with any experience, is to have it be highly transformative. This will be a very emotional but very positive story, and we hope everyone leaves with a sense of awe over a story that a lot of people don’t know about and I think deserves to be told.”

Debate in Council 

During discussion in Tribal Council May 5, Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy said that the proposal met a favorable response from Big Cove residents when she discussed it with them during a meeting. She said that she also was “comfortable” with the decision, despite the high price tag. 

“If we give our people the information, they will read it and make their own decisions and eradicate the fear of just seeing us sitting here and handing out $75 million, because it’s scary,” she said. “It is.”

Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose was the sole vote against the project. He took issue with the fact that the tribe, not Puy du Fou, would be paying to build the attraction and questioned what the return on investment would be. His gut feeling is that it’s not a good deal, he said. 

“Commercial gaming, you’re going to get a return pretty quick,” he said. “This, I don’t know when were going to get it back.”

Enrolled member Ernest Tiger also spoke against the proposal. 

“I just feel that money could be better spent,” he said. “Why don’t we spend $75 million and buy every tribal member a home?” 

Progress on The 407 

Buc-ee’s, the first company to announce its partnership with Kituwah, is now working on vertical construction of what will be the world’s largest convenience store  when it opens next summer. The entire 80 acres of Phase 1 is now under letters of intent from restaurants, retail chains and concepts looking to build there. While those letters are non-binding, Cross expects the announcement from Puy du Fou to spur those companies to make their own public commitments. In December, Tribal Council voted to allow another of its LLCs, EBCI Holdings, pursue construction of a sports betting bar  on the property. 

In addition to the work at Buc-ee’s, fine grading has begun for construction of a Marriott Courtyard owned by Kituwah LLC. The tribe hopes to see that facility open in 2023, but achieving that goal will be “challenging” given current supply chain issues, Cross said. 

Cross said he doesn’t anticipate any zoning issues with the development because the property was designated a tourism improvement district prior to the tribe’s purchasing it in 2019 . However, he said the developers are discussing how the current labor shortage could impact development plans and considering potential solutions, including workforce housing, and are evaluating infrastructure needs in the community too. 

“A lot of new timelines start all at once after a milestone like this, but we’re putting a lot of focus on the City of Sevierville, Sevier County and Tennessee Department of Transportation about the infrastructure in the area, and what’s necessary to support not just our development, but the community itself.” 

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