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Tribe keeps tap flowing for Sequoyah a while longer

“If at first you don’t succeed, simply make your case again” is the lesson the executives at the tribally owned Sequoyah National Golf Course learned earlier this month.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been propping up the golf course financially to the tune of about $1.1 million annually since it first opened in 2009. But tribal council signaled last year they wanted to scale back and eventually end the subsidies.

So when Ryan Ott, director of golf at Sequoyah, appeared before tribal council in December asking them to renew a $500,000 line of credit that helped cushion the golf course from cash flow issues, he got a lukewarm response.

Tribal council tabled the request, which in essence pulled the plug on the line of credit — reinforcing the message that they wanted the golf course on a path to self-sufficiency.

Tribal council had a change of heart this month, however, when Ott made his pitch again, with some help from Corey Blankenship, treasurer for the Eastern Band, and the tribe’s deputy finance director.

The tribe built the signature course, providing a missing form of recreation for residents and likewise adding to Cherokee’s tourist appeal. But it is notoriously difficult for a stand-alone golf course to break even no matter where it is, let alone a rural area in a down economy.

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The $500,000 line of credit from the tribe is part of the about $1.1 million in annual subsidies that keep the course afloat. The course dipped into the line of credit whenever it lacked the cash flow to make payroll or cover the costly maintenance and upkeep of the course. The tribe has oversight of the line of credit, however, approving what it is used for anytime the course dips into it. The course would be severely hamstrung without that cushion.

“You are taking away the means to pay them,” said Kim Peone, the tribe’s deputy finance officer.

Sequoyah could try to get a line of credit on its own through an outside lender, but without backing from the tribe and given the state of its finances to-date, it would not likely find a good interest rate, Blankenship said. Plus, the tribe ultimately would be on the hook for an outside line of credit since the Eastern Band owns it.

Council member Tunney Crowe brought the matter back up for discussion at the January meeting of tribal council. The council voted 9-to-3 to extend the line of credit until fall 2016.

In a rerun of past discussions whenever the subject of Sequoyah Golf Course comes, tribal council members bemoaned the fact that Sequoyah is still operating at a loss after being open for about four years. But, Blankenship asserted, things are getting better and will continue to improve each year.

“They are making progress,” Blankenship said.

The golf course is no longer ending its year with a multi-million dollar deficit. This year, the golf course is only projected to lose about $600,000 or $700,000, he added.

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