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No Wal-Mart for Cherokee

Wal-Mart will not build a new Supercenter in Cherokee. After months of speculation that the deal between the tribe and the mega-retailer had fallen through, a company spokesperson confirmed the news this week.

“We decided not to move ahead with the project,” said Bill Wertz, Wal-Mart spokesperson. “It is a combination of things. We have to consider a number of factors.”

The tribe hoped Wal-Mart would be the center of a new mega development bringing an array of services to Cherokee, saving residents a drive into Sylva or Waynesville to purchase household wares that they can’t get on the reservation. But the planned Wal-Mart also drew criticism for its potential to hurt local businesses.

To lure Wal-Mart, the tribe intended to build a 150,000-square-foot store at a cost of $25 million on Hospital Road near downtown Cherokee and lease it to Wal-Mart. The store was projected to create 200 jobs and nearly double the tribe’s sales tax collections, theoretically paying for the tribe’s upfront cost of the building over time. Last May, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council approved the deal, which was four years in the works, by a vote of 9 to 3.

Last month, Cherokee’s director of economic development, Mickey Duvall, said a consulting firm working on behalf of the tribe was still trying to persuade Wal-Mart’s upper management to move forward with the deal.

“Our consultants informed us in early 2010 that Wal-Mart’s domestic focus had changed primarily to urban markets due to the recent recession, however they would continue to pressure Wal-Mart’s upper management to get the Cherokee deal approved and construction scheduled as soon as possible since lease negotiations with the Tribe had been ongoing prior to the downturn in the U.S. economy,” Duvall said in an update published in the Cherokee One Feather newspaper.

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The Tribal Council split on the issue of offering hefty incentives to Wal-Mart to bring the store to Cherokee, and some local retailers said the store would kill their businesses if it came. With the announcement that the project is scuttled, Wertz stopped short of saying Wal-Mart would rule the site out in the future.

“Every year we have a certain amount of investment capital, and we have to determine the sites best suited for its use,” Wertz said. “This site didn’t meet the threshold this year, but that’s not to say it couldn’t do so in the future.”

Wertz said Wal-Mart has focused more energy on remodeling existing stores since the recession hit.

“Two or three years ago, we made the decision to build fewer new stores and devote some of the money to remodeling existing stores,” Wertz said.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks, whose administration has been characterized by an aggressive agenda of economic development, did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Last month, Hicks had been hopeful that the deal would still go through.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee remains committed to opening a Wal-Mart in our community however we cannot discuss the content of those negotiations at this time,” Hicks said.

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