By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Following the recent passage of legislation to hold bi-annual Town Hall Meetings for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the first such event was held on the evening of Tuesday, May 15 at The Gathering Place on the campus of Cherokee Central Schools. Five issues were discussed during the event by tribal leaders, officials, and members including: alcohol referendum, large projects of the Tribe specifically the proposed Adventure Park, the upcoming Crisis Stabilization Unit at the Cherokee Indian Hospital, the use of the old Cherokee High School site, and the proposed EBCI Constitution.
Denise Ballard, EBCI Election Board chairperson, commented, “There is only one question. ‘To allow ABC permits to be issued to allow retail sales of alcoholic beverage on tribal trust land at a tribally-owned package store and ABC store.’ Now, the Election Board interpreted this to mean that it would be on tribal land, one store separated so there’s two entrances – one for spirits, wine, alcohol, hard liquor…and a package store for beer.”
She noted that the referendum is scheduled on Thursday, May 31 with the polls being open 6am – 6pm. “This will be a hand count. We’re not using any machines. It will be hand-counted at each polling location at the end of the day after 6pm.”
Ballard added, “There seems to be a lot of questions out in the community. I hope all of the Council members have certainly gone to their communities and tried to explain this more. We got the question from Tribal Council. The Election Board did not come up with this question.”
Peggy Hill, Yellowhill Community, stated, “As I read and understand this, the Tribe will own it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the Tribe will operate it. It could be contracted out for management.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed answered, “The intent is just that – it would be tribally-owned. As far as the details of who operates it, the TABCC would operate a package store at this time…that would be up to the TABCC at that point.”
On the referendum question itself, he went on to state, “The language in there is confusing enough I think; to put in there all these other details would only confuse the issue further. It would be tribally-owned, and the profit would go to the Tribe.”
He said the point of limiting the referendum question to only a tribally-owned ABC/package store was to ease into the process. “The intent was we didn’t believe there would be widespread support for just across-the-board, everything-all-at-once, and I don’t think anybody in the community wants to see, certainly I don’t want to see, bars on every corner…”
Paula Wojtkowski, EBCI Secretary of Commerce, said, “The Commerce Department has, for a number of years, done a lot of work to get the proposal to the point where it is today which is the Tribe has approved $180 million for the Adventure Park project.”
She noted that another presentation on the project is forthcoming. “If you think about our entire Destination Marketing strategy, the cornerstone of that strategy is, of course, our cultural amenities and our cultural attractions. But, in addition to that we need additional things to attract what used to be our traditional demographic to Cherokee. It’s been a little over-shadowed by gaming for these last 15 years or so. So, we’re working diligently to come up with plans and put them into place for long-term viability and return of the regional leisure tourist which the Adventure Park does target very specifically that regional leisure tourist.”
Mary Jane Ferguson, Painttown Community, asked, “Have the numbers, the demographics, been updated? Because you’re now competing with Charlotte who has a white water park and white water rafting, Pigeon Forge who has several, and on WLOS news last night, there was an announcement that Ghost Town was going to be reactivated by some former Disney executives. That brings to my mind, are you satisfied with your numbers? Have you updated your numbers? One-hundred and eighty (180) million dollars is a lot to invest, and all around our region people are begging for help. So, do we have the workforce to sustain this endeavor and how large is it going to be? I want to see things move forward here as well, but I just want to make sure that’s going to be a viable economic driver for not only Cherokee, but for our region.”
Wojtkowski said the feasibility and marketing study has been updated within the last six months with new numbers. “With regards to the concerns about workforce, I think we all share those concerns. We’re very lucky, in some regards, to have a low unemployment rate right now. But, the flip side to that is anytime you expand, you’re going to have to account for that.”
Chief Sneed, in addressing the workforce issue, said that Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has a high turnover, sometimes 40 percent or more for some quarters, in some front-line jobs, specifically food and beverage jobs which pay in the $10 – $14 an hour range.
“One of the biggest drivers in that turnover is that lack of affordable workforce housing,” he said. “So, when I talk with governmental leaders in the surrounding counties, they’re all facing the same issue. Real estate prices are to the point where people working $10 to $14 an hour jobs can’t afford the housing. So, in traveling around to the different community clubs, I’ve said, the Tribe is going to have to invest in workforce housing. Now, we will get a return on investment if we build apartment complexes off-Boundary specifically for workforce housing.”
Hospital Expansion/Crisis Stabilization Unit
Casey Cooper, Cherokee Indian Hospital chief executive officer, said the Crisis Stabilization Unit, which is in Phase II of the hospital’s expansion project, is a necessary piece of their Recovery Community Continuum.
“The niche that the Crisis Stabilization Unit would help us to meet is currently we don’t have a secure facility for people who are in acute psychiatric crisis or people who need acute detox services so that they can be stabilized but also have their freedoms temporarily limited, but be stabilized in a safe environment and then be transferred to a more long-term facility after that,” he said. “The entire Recovery Community Continuum was a vision that was co-developed with Analenisgi, the Healing and Wellness Coalition, tribal leadership, and a number of community stakeholder groups. It was decided that if we really wanted to advance sobriety and we really wanted to help and come from a position of treatment for this community, that we needed an entire continuum of services, that there wasn’t just one solution.”
He also discussed other Phase II projects. “The entire bottom floor, underneath the Crisis Stabilization Unit, is planned so we can take all of Analenisgi and our community-based services and move them onto the campus. It’s very desirous to have the Behavioral Health staff co-located on the campus in a contiguous facility…there’s been a lot of concern about the number of offices that are in Phase II. I think the current number is around 47 offices in Phase II. Part of the reason for that is we have a lot of staff that are currently officed in the old hospital. We have to tear down two-thirds of the old hospital. They have to be relocated. We have to construct new offices.”
For the project, Cooper said, “We’re ready to go. If its determined that this is still a priority for tribal leadership, we are ready…most of the schematic design is done. We’re still tweaking the budget. As a matter of fact, on our original project, we were originally scheduled to start demolition this month.”
He said they are hoping to start in August, and he is concerned about delays to that plan. “Delays in a decision are surely going to result in price escalation, as the economy is revving up. As there is a lot of construction going on, we’re seeing pricing going up. So, there would definitely be escalation in the project. The other thing that concerns us about delay is if we end up being behind the retail development (project) at the casino, we’re really going to be struggling for workforce, good, high quality workers, contractors, and so it’s going to create a real resource constraint on the project.”
Old Cherokee High School site
Chief Sneed started the discussion by explaining the need for the demolition of the old high school which occurred last fall. “We were spending approximately $600,000 a year keeping the lights and the HVAC going on the building, that if we did anything to it when you look at the cost of remodeling and bringing it up to code, it was going to cost more than it would to demo it and build something back that was more efficient, that met our needs.”
He said that an intensive archaeological survey would have to be completed prior to any projects being constructed at the site.
Wojtkowski spoke on the idea of having a one-stop shop for all tribal programs built at the site. “If you think about it, from purely a customer’s standpoint, with the customer being us as individual tribal members, when we go to get services from the Tribe, oftentimes we’re running all over town because we don’t have one centralized location.”
She said most of the Tribe’s administrative functions could be housed in one place. “The second benefit of having a centralized campus is being able to recapture some of that real estate where we’re currently located all over the Boundary. We’ll be able to turn that into a revenue generator, via lease, for the Tribe.”
Chief Sneed said that is one idea, but it’s not a solid plan, and he related there is not a solid plan in place at the moment – just ideas. “The concern I would have with centralizing the administration there, and certainly it’s a good location, it’s also a prime commercial location. Even though we have probably the most outstanding revenue stream anywhere in the country as far as the amount of revenue our two casinos properties generate, the size and scope of this government and the programs that we have are currently consuming 88 percent of that revenue annually.”
He did state that the budget he plans to put forth for consideration for Fiscal Year 2019 will only consume 80 percent of that revenue, and he plans to cut that each year going forward. “We’re trying to be a leaner government, a more efficient government, and certainly more fiscally-responsible with the revenue that we have.”
Chief Sneed said revenue diversification is greatly needed, “The fact still remains that we have yet to diversify, and everybody’s talked about it for 10 to 15 years now. So, we have one revenue stream that we rely on and that’s the casino. So, we have to start looking at these parcels of land, and that is a tremendous parcel that has great revenue-earning potential.”
Terry Taylor, Birdtown Community, commented, “I agree that that’s prime property for tourism. When you go through downtown Cherokee, you see the same thing and you’ve seen it for the past 30 years. When you go to Bryson City or Sylva or Waynesville, those people have a vested interest in their business, and they are very versatile and they’re busy.”
Speaking of the trend for some businesses in Cherokee to close during the tourism off-season, she noted, “In the wintertime, you can’t go anywhere and sit down and eat unless it’s at the casino or unless it’s a fast food restaurant. I think growth is good. Times have changed. Minds have changed. People have grown, and the casino, I’m very grateful for it, but we have got to find something else to bring money in.”
Chief Sneed pointed to the recently-approved Tribal LLC (Kituwah Economic Development) and said, “That is economic diversification. Growth is good, but the reality is we can’t continue to build here. We just don’t have the buildable land base. So, there are opportunities off-Boundary. There are opportunities off-shore.”
He said the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama own resorts in Bermuda and Aruba as well as other properties and businesses around the United States. “One of the ideas that has to get through to the general public is that economic diversification doesn’t mean that we always build something here. It could be just investment. It could be endowments. There are a plethora of things that we can be doing rather than trying to build on property that is very expensive to build on. There are so many hoops that we have to jump through to do anything with our own land here that it drives the cost of production up. There was a study done, probably 15 years ago, and this is the most expensive place in the state of North Carolina to build per square foot. That hasn’t changed, and I don’t think that it ever will change…”
Mary Wachacha, Yellowhill Community, said, “If this Tribe had more foresight, and it’s got a lot of hindsight, the day the middle school and the high school moved out of that building, the Tribe would have moved in right then. That building should have never been allowed to deteriorate. We don’t have that kind of money to build a new building. I agreed back then, in the Hicks administration, it would have been a great central location for tribal business.”
She agreed with Taylor’s point saying of the businesses in downtown Cherokee, “A lot of them are shuttered and closed? Why do we let them do that? But, when you go in those buildings, the businesses, the owners have literally let them fall apart. There is no money being put by tribal members back into those businesses downtown.”
EBCI Tribal Constitution
Lloyd Arneach Jr., a member of the volunteer EBCI Tribal Constitution Committee, said their group has been working on the current proposed draft of the constitution for a little over a year. He said they have set up a website, www.sgadugi.org, where people can read the current draft, and he noted that the committee meetings, held each Monday from 6 – 8pm at the Shawn Blanton EOC building, are open to all tribal members.
“I advise people to go out and take a look at it on the website, or if you don’t have a computer at home, go to the Qualla Library and use their public access terminals there. They also have copies printed to give out,” he noted. “Right now is the time to get input. We need people to look at it and have some thought and feedback while it’s still in a draft form.”
Arneach said the Committee hopes to have a final draft finished by the end of June to be able to present to Tribal Council during their regular session in July.
Vice Chief B. Ensley thanked the Committee for their work and said, “I feel like if we put the one document out and it gets voted down, it just goes dormant for another 5 to 10 years before another group comes along and picks it up. I just think we need to put it out in sections.”
Arneach said the Committee has thought about going that route and has discussed it. “The problem is that because we have an unbalanced government currently, with the current Charter and Governing Document that only lays out the Executive Office and the Legislative Office, how do you introduce the Judicial without balancing out the powers of the other two? It would be kind of difficult to do this in sections because it’s so integrated in what it does.”
He added, “We understand this is not going to be the right answer for everyone. This is not going to be the perfect document for everyone. Not everyone is going to be able to agree on the entire document. What we’re asking for is to understand that this is a living document. This is going to be a framework, a foundation for our government. This is how we move forward and progress.”
Chief Sneed commented, “The purpose of a constitution is just that – it is saying this is what constitutes our government, and it outlines the rights of the individual and places constraints upon the government. It has to come from the people. It comes from the governed, not the government.”
Bo Lossiah, a member of the Committee, read the draft Preamble in the Cherokee language and spoke of the importance of the document. “It means something to the heart that we can hold onto our sovereignty. You can talk about the United States Constitution. We need to have our own. It needs to be ours.”