Cherokee leaders make their case for a indoor adventure park
A $93 million family adventure park in Cherokee would likely turn a profit during its first year of operation, according to early projections from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ finance department.
Tribal leaders see the adventure park as the missing piece of their tourism puzzle. The reservation already has a burgeoning casino and resort to attract the 21 and older crowd, a spa and golf course for the business class, hiking and fly fishing for outdoors types, and a suite of cultural attractions for inquisitive travelers — but there are few family themed offerings.
The high-profile, year-round adventure park would 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.
“We are looking at an age range of 7 months to 70,” said Corey Blankenship, treasurer for the Eastern Band.
Blankenship and the tribe’s Commerce Director Jason Lambert facilitated a public hearing last week to answer questions and gather feedback about the proposed adventure park from tribal members.
The public hearing was broadcast live over the tribe’s closed circuit television station and collected comments from callers throughout the meeting. One caller asked that tribal leaders allow enrolled members to vote for or against the project. A few other enrolled members phoned in their support for the adventure park.
“It is a great idea. It will give people more to do,” one commenter stated.
The new project is part of a decade-long conversation about how to improve Cherokee’s tourism image and diversify its revenue streams.
“This project is lengthy in nature. It is not something that came about in the last year,” Lambert said.
Families may come for the day to visit the cultural sites, such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian or the Oconaluftee Indian Village, but may not choose to stay overnight.
“You need a high-level attraction to not only bring people to the reservation but also to capitalize on the people who are already here,” Blankenship said.
According to Cherokee’s numbers, more than 80 percent of visitors are 45 and older. The adventure park would hopefully remedy that.
“This is a different customer. This is a different market than is coming to Cherokee,” Lambert said.
Exact details of the adventure park are still unknown, but more will become available during the next phase of planning. Lambert will go in front of the tribal council this month asking for $4.5 million to complete a comprehensive park design and create a brand, on which the marketing campaign will be based.
Although some details are lacking, research by the tribe’s finance department showed that the venture would be profitable. Tribal planners looked at possible costs as well as occupancy rates at similar indoor adventure parks throughout the year.
“On a weekend in December, you may still be looking at 75 or 80 percent occupancy,” Lambert said.
Estimated net cash flow for year one is $1.9 million, which the tribe calculated would increase annually. By its fifth year of operation, tribal financiers predicted that the adventure park would bring in $5.1 million.
One reason that tribal leaders think the adventure park will fare well is because of its lack of competition from Atlanta.
“The biggest thing we have going for us is Atlanta doesn’t have one of these, and Atlanta is a big feeder market for us,” Lambert said.
The only two indoor adventure park competitors in the area will be The Great Wolf in Charlotte and Wilderness in the Smokies in Sevierville, Tenn. However, Lambert said that Cherokee’s adventure park would provide more to visitors than Wilderness in the Smokies.
Under its current plans, the adventure park would cost about $93 million to construct. The tribe would use three methods to pay for project construction: $22.6 million from tribal equity; a $32.4 million bank note; and $38.4 million from a tax credit.
While tribal financial projections indicate the adventure park would turn a profit almost immediately when it comes to operations and overhead, it’s unclear whether those profits would also be enough to cover annual debt payments.
Lambert emphasized that the adventure park would not prohibit the tribe from completing other community development projects. In fact, Lambert said, revenues from the new attraction could help the Eastern Band augment its current list of services for enrolled members.
“At the end of the day, the profits, whether directly or indirectly, will benefit this community and its members,” Lambert said.
The adventure park would also mean jobs — about 300 to be exact. The business would need a hotel manager, lifeguards, maintenance employees and engineers to work on all the plumbing needed to pump water into the park, among other positions. And because the tribe will own it, headhunters will give enrolled members preference when finding employees.
However, a couple of enrolled members were concerned about how many of those jobs would actually go to members of the tribe. The casino has a tribal preference hiring law in place, but lack of necessary skills and substance abuse prevents some enrolled members from securing or keeping a job there.
“If our people can’t do the work for whatever reason, then how is it really enriching the lives of our people?” asked Amy Walker, an enrolled member.
Attendees were also concerned that the addition of a 302-room hotel attached to the adventure park could hurt private hotels, motels and other accommodations already in Cherokee.
“There are accommodations out there now that are shutting down,” said Jimmy Bradley, an enrolled member from Yellowhill.
Bradley asked if the hotel was needed or if the tribe could just build the adventure park. According to research, the answer is “no.”
“Essentially, the answer is you don’t make any money directly off the adventure park,” Lambert said. “That is why we have to do the comprehensive package.”
Rooms for a family of four in the hotel would cost $190 to $200 a night but would include the cost of entry to the adventure park. However, enrolled members and nearby residents would not likely want to pay to stay overnight if they live within 45 minutes to an hour from Cherokee. Planners with the tribe are looking into offering day passes. However, they may only be available during certain times because of crowd limits.
“There may be times of the year that may be prohibited because of fire codes and things like that, depending on how many people are staying in the hotel,” Lambert said.