By ROBERT JUMPER
ONE FEATHER EDITOR
Tribal members are very concerned about the future of the Tribe. You can hear it in the water cooler discussions at work, family conversations over dinner and from your representatives in Council. Much of the concern is expressed through talk about minors’ fund distribution, tribal enrollment audits and the status of the Cherokee language. All are extremely important issues that the people must deal with in order to ensure the preservation of our children, who are, indeed, the future of the Tribe.
A big piece in the sustainability of the Tribe is laying out a plan for smart growth in the economy of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We have heard our casinos and adult gaming being referred to as the “golden goose”. There is no question that our gaming operation has given us the opportunity to improve the lives of all of our members and, in the process, made life better for our neighbors in surrounding counties. We also know that there are others, in the state and outside, who would love to establish our style of adult gaming in their communities. And it is only a matter of time before somebody’s desire becomes a reality. There have been several knocks at the door of our enterprise over the years; state recognized tribal attempts at seeking a status to be allowed enter the business, tribal attempts from Native Americans in other states petitioning to build in North or South Carolina, and most recently, Georgia considering legislation that would permit the construction of four new casinos in their state. With each new attempt, we get closer to not being the “only game in town”.
Our most obvious next economic driver is tourism. We have sustained ourselves for decades with the help of those who come to the Boundary to experience Native American culture and, specifically, Cherokee culture. They fish, sing, dance and eat with us. They come to experience our people and history. They feel a connection and, just for a moment, see what it is like to be Cherokee. The Tribe needs to diversify and working the many facets of tourism is not a bad place to start.
Tribal Council recently convened a work session to explore, actually re-explore the 2010 proposal, the feasibility of an adventure park complex. Tribal discussions and interest in a water park attraction go back as far as 2001. The 2010 concept included a water park, convention space and accommodations. Tom Pientka from Iconica, a firm headquartered in Madison, Wisc. and specializing in this type of theme park construction, reprised the six-year-old presentation that was made to Tribal Council. From the onset, Pientka expressed that the first step would be to update the plan via a new feasibility study. He said that many things had changed since the initial presentation, including construction costs, casino expansions, and visitor demographics. Pientka, along with the EBCN Commerce Secretary, Dr. Mickey Duvall, expressed great enthusiasm for this project and felt that it could be an anchor for family tourism marketing efforts and a retail catalyst, stimulating interest from other large retail suppliers. Pientka estimated that the initial workforce for the adventure park would be approximately 300 to 350 with 150 of those jobs being full time.
Many of the Tribal Council representatives at the session stated that they were ready to see the plan for the adventure park executed. Some suggested that property is available and as soon as an updated plan was completed and approved that it should move forward on existing property. No one at this point knows what the best location will be, but most agree that it needs to be done and done quickly. Pientka stated that once he had the approval from the Tribe to begin construction, the build time would be two and a half years until a finished product could be achieved. So time is of the essence.
Some feedback that we have received on social media suggests that some people believe that, instead of investing in the adventure park, we should pay for more doctors and housing. Some said we need a “real world” approach to sustainability. I would say that this project is probably one of the most important things that the EBCN could do to build a base for sustainable economic growth. No single restaurant or big box retailer can do for the identity of Cherokee what a themed attraction like the adventure park can do. An attraction of this size and variety will attract other major retail companies to consider locating in Cherokee. This could be the spark that brings other economic opportunities, like industrial parks and educational facilities to the Boundary. The adventure park has the potential to spark the economic diversification that we desperately need and would secure the future of our Tribe. Long term, the growth brought about by the adventure park will mean more doctors, more housing and real world sustainability, creating job opportunities and revenue generation for many years to come.
The clock is ticking. We have great leadership in our Executive Office. Both our Principal Chief and Vice Chief are well educated and have entrepreneurial experience with business successes. We have arguably one of the most progressive Tribal Councils in recent history. We have strong leaders in our Commerce Department with extensive expertise in sustainable economics. It is time for the Tribe to take the next step into its future.