EDITORIAL: A vibrant economy needs business and community engagement

by Apr 24, 2018OPINIONS





People love Cherokee, North Carolina, and many people call and come to the Boundary looking for ways to make a connection with the people, culture, and history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. We have thousands of people who come from surrounding counties who buy their meals, sundries, shoes, well, you get the idea. There are pharmacies, dental offices, and even a tattoo parlor or two. Add in that we have three premium gaming facilities and a bowling alley (“multitainment”) with one on the way, and you have some of the ingredients for a great economy. We are a renowned place to shop for a thrilling experience, good meal, or a dandy piece of handmade art.

One of the things that has challenged us over the past decade is that we seem to have trouble deciding a direction to go in when it comes to continuing to grow and produce. Every three to five years, the EBCI Commerce Division goes through a process to develop a “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy” (CEDS) for the tribe. Other municipalities do similar planning in North Carolina. Many items of interest to the government are included regarding continued development and growth.

The Strategic Planner for the Tribe, Doug Cole, is guiding the process this year, as he has done for the past several. The reason the CEDS is so essential to the Tribe is that is supposed to be a roadmap for the economic growth and land development for the Tribe in the short term. One of the issues with the CEDS is that it is a guideline and not a rule that may be enforced. For example, the idea of an Adventure Park has been discussed by tribal leadership since I came on board with EBCI back in 2002. It has been a part of the strategic planning discussion for over a decade. And, an Adventure Park is still on the list of things the Tribe wants to do. We spend money, time, and energy to create plans and make decisions, but we are slow to follow through. Being cautiously slow can be a good thing; being slow because we cannot get consensus or politics invades is not. And, the problem for us as a community is that the current level of governmental transparency is less than ideal.

According to the Tribe’s Strategic Planner, participation in the CEDS public meetings is some of the best attended that he has seen, with some 40 to 60 business people, government officials, and community members attending. That is a sizable meeting in comparison to some planning sessions of the Tribe, but pales in comparison to the 15,000 plus members that are impacted by the decisions made through the CEDS process. It is reminiscent of the tribal elections, where less than half of the registered voters and a fraction of the overall population took the time to make a difference. We are going to have a referendum vote on another very important issue concerning tribal culture and economic development. If history is any indication, a few of our tribal members will again make a decision that affects us all.

Several years ago, EBCI Marketing and Promotions, then headed by Mary Ferguson, initiated a drive to establish a Chamber of Commerce for the Qualla Boundary. I was privileged to work for and with her on the project. She had the vision of having the Chamber being a voice for the Qualla Boundary business community. She understood that true economic growth required a partnership between the government and business. In the past, there has not been a unified voice to speak on behalf of the Cherokee business community. The Chamber of Commerce has the potential of filling that long existing gap. Some dedicated business people and tribal leadership came together, organized a board, and, with the help of Marketing and Promotions, created the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. Over the years, the Chamber Board of Directors developed a Visitor Guide/Chamber Directory and created the positions of executive director and administrative assistant. For a few years, the Chamber worked with the Fish and Wildlife program to assist with putting on their fishing tournaments. They also worked with a fly fishing organization to bring the Boundary its first Fly Fishing Museum. The Chamber was funded with a combination of grants, membership dues, and some tribal funding.

Politics and poor strategic planning resulted in the status of the Chamber. The organization’s grant funding sources were reduced or eliminated. It stopped receiving government support and could not sustain itself to any great extent through membership dues. They do sell advertising in their Directory, but that typically would not pay for anything about the cost of production for those directories.

The Chamber still produces a Directory and has an online presence. There was some controversy over the building that housed the Fly Fishing Museum. When the fly fishing organization that partnered with the Chamber heard that the government was considering reclaiming the facility, they moved the Museum to Bryson City and has been a successful attraction for Swain County.

I believe that our fastest and best hope for growing the tribal economy still lies in partnership with the businesses, who have a financial stake in the success of Cherokee’s economy, and community members, who have a personal stake in the success of this economy. I hope the Tribe will make every effort to find out the true “will of the people”.

Referendums like the one we will participate in May are a good start. It also looks like there will be a town hall meeting for all of us in May as well – a commendable accomplishment initiated by Principal Chief Sneed and Vice Chief Ensley. And, we need to find a way to revitalize the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. One possible option would be to include a line item in the tribal budget for funding the Chamber. There are models in municipal government that allow for Chamber to receive funds and the government supply guidance for board selection that would help the Chamber be the economic development leader and business community voice we need.

Without the engagement of the businesses and community, any plan we develop for sustainable growth is a house of cards that will collapse at the slightest pollical upheaval. To build a sustainable Qualla Boundary economy, we need to build a good foundation.  Community input and business voices unified in a Chamber of Commerce are part of the infrastructure we need for a successful strategy.