By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a lot of economic development projects and expansions in the works, but there is one problem looming on all of them – suitable housing for the workforce to man them. That issue was discussed during Tribal Council requests for time on Wednesday, Dec. 5.
“The main purpose of bringing this to your attention is just so that there is an understanding that as we move forward with economic development and any kind of economic expansion here locally, that we must have workforce housing – that the two are going to have to go hand-in-hand,” Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, who brought the issue forward, said during Wednesday’s discussion. “We can’t continue to plan to expand here if we’re not also, at the same time, expanding the offerings of workforce housing…”
He said the biggest need is for housing for the “front-line employees” at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and said dormitory-style housing might be an option for the future. Chief Sneed said not having proper workforce housing can negatively impact all tribal members. Once the new convention center at the property is finished and opened, around 400 additional employees will be needed to operate that area.
Chief Sneed said this issue is not unique to Cherokee. “It’s not just here. It’s across the region. Every time we have a Southwest Commission meeting, that’s always the subject of the meeting – workforce housing.”
He said apartment complexes are going up in several spots in Cullowhee right now. “They’re responding to the need. We have to do the same.”
Yellowhill Rep. Tom Wahnetah stated, “Maybe we should look into buying some of these older motels and turning them into apartments. That might be the quickest route to get people in houses.”
EBCI Secretary of Housing Travis Smith said discussions have been had with casino officials to determine immediate and long-term needs, “We’ve had some early, preliminary discussions about their needs, what the future needs coming along are…capturing this project and putting it on the ground in a short amount of time is tough. There’s a timeline there, and it’s hard to meet. We’re working as diligently as possible.”
He added, “We are developing a team to work on this.”
Secretary Smith said they’ve looked into the possibility of acquiring some of the hotels, but noted, “Some of these things that we’re looking at, they’ve got the prices jacked up really high and it’s hard for us to negotiate on some of these things.”
Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell commented, “We’ve known about this problem for many years. I don’t know how this organizational structure is going to be set up to implement the solution to this problem from identifying what the actual need is and what type of houses are we looking at. Are we looking at rentals, home ownership? But, we need to identify the scope of the problem.”
Chief Sneed reported on Wednesday that he has received word from the BIA that the Tribe’s survey on the Coopers Creek property has been accepted and said the process is very close to having that land put into trust. “We’ve got to start looking at how we’re going to develop that as there is a lot of acreage down there as well.”
Secretary Smith said that housing is considered “affordable” when it comprises no more than 30 percent of a family’s income. “In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at $800 per month, a family needs to earn $34,560…most families around here make that.”
He added that the housing can be located anywhere and doesn’t necessarily have to be on the Qualla Boundary. “Right now, my focus is in the surrounding counties to purchase these properties to build housing. There’s opportunities, not necessarily for revenue, but our payoff is having people come here to fulfill these jobs and make the casino work or anything else that we build. They have to have a place to live.”
Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha suggested moving the issue forward to a full work session for Council to discuss tangible solutions and to develop strategies. He suggested inviting the Kituwah Economic Development Board LLC to the table and noted, “There’s a huge opportunity for the Tribe because that’s what they’re designed to do is to manage businesses.”
Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley said workforce housing is an important issue, but noted, “This is just one small segment of our housing issue…this is just one small segment of the overall economy of our town here, and if we’re going to grow, we’ve got to grow in every direction. I think we’re headed in the right direction by doing this.”