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Cherokee plans massive family adventure park

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is planning a $92-million adventure park, which is expected to attract families to Cherokee and open up a new source of revenue for the tribe.

Tribal council last week approved the idea in a 9-to-2 vote.

The adventure park is still in the early planning stages, and limited information is being released about what it will entail. But now that with the go-ahead from tribal council, the tribe’s planning department will spend the next seven months nailing down the specifics of what exactly visitors can expect from the park, said Jason Lambert, director of planning and development with the tribe.

In broad terms, the year-round adventure park will include a 302-room hotel, restaurants, retail shops, an arcade, water slides, interactive pools, rock climbing, zip-lining and splash pads, among other possible attractions. Many of the features, including the water park, could be indoor to allow for year-round visitation.

“It’s as good a project as I’ve seen in my eight years with the tribe,” Lambert told tribal council.

The goal of the new park is to diversify the tribe’s income and attract families to Cherokee.

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Currently, its main source of revenue comes from the casino, which caters to people 21 and older. Although children can stay in the hotel, they are not allowed in the casino, and there is nothing at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel specifically for the under 21 crowd.

“What we have is not bringing families and it’s not going to,” said Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band, who is a supporter of the project.

The adventure park is expected to draw families of all ages to Cherokee. And if one parent wants to gamble at the casino, the other can spend time with the children at the park.

“We know that we need something in this town,” said Bo Taylor, a council member from Big Cove, suggesting that project leaders educate enrolled members about the plan. “They need to know how this is going to help them.”

Originally, the project was estimated to cost about $142 million, but designers were able to slash the price by reducing the number of hotel rooms, though they did not want to eliminate the hotel altogether.

“The concept, to be successful, has to have a hotel,” Hicks said.

All council members approved the project with the exception of Perry Shell and David Wolfe. Councilwoman Terri Henry was absent.

“I don’t know if we have the numbers year-round to support this, and that is my concern,” Shell said, adding that he had similar reservations about the Sequoyah National Golf Club, which has yet to become self-sustaining. “I am hesitant on this because I don’t really trust the numbers at this point.”

Other council members disagreed, thinking people would be drawn to the adventure park during the winter to take part in water activities that are typically reserved for summer.

The amount of debt the tribe would have to incur was also a concern for Shell and his constituents.

“This is tough. We had a meeting in Big Cove, and they are concerned about the debt,” Shell said.

The tribe will own the adventure park, but it is unclear who will manage it. The tribe could run the park all by itself or enter a similar agreement to the one it has with Harrah’s, which has a contract to manage the casino operations on behalf of the Eastern Band.

The new attraction will mean 200 to 300 new jobs and is expected to bring even more visitors to Cherokee than it sees already. The casino alone draws more than 3.5 million people to the area, and that is expected to grow to 4 million in the coming year with the advent of live table games.

“There is a lot of opportunity for younger people,” Lambert said. “This can positively impact other businesses.”

Visitors to adventure parks stay two-and-a-half to three days on average, according to a study conducted for the tribe.

Currently, the tribe estimates that a room in the hotel and admission for a family of four to the adventure park will cost $200 a day.

One council member expressed concern about whether enrolled members would be able to afford admission to the adventure park.

However, Lambert said the park would offer cheaper day passes for those not staying at the attached hotel.

The tribe has fast-tracked the adventure park project to take advantage of available federal tax credits. Lambert said he and other project leaders hope to break ground in March or April of next year and open the park in June 2014. The tribe will pay for the adventure park using tax credits, equity and a $32-million bank note.

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