COMMENTARY: Downtown revitalization – It’s a smart thing.

by Mar 2, 2021OPINIONS






I applaud the members of the One Feather Editorial Board for taking a pro-economic growth and pro-safety stance on the issue of parking downtown. While I admit to not having some key information to make informed decisions (not entirely my fault, because much of the information is discussed behind closed sessions), and I may not be the sharpest pencil in the pack (although I consider myself smarter than a 5th grader – no offense to 5th graders), I have common sense enough to see the obvious, just like you.

It could very well be that something may be in the pipeline that hasn’t been made public. We know that something must change downtown. It is illogical to have two or three useable parking spaces in front of a store that might have a capacity of 20 or 30 or more people. When you string several stores of that size in two rows, the inevitable result is parking congestion. We know that the speed limit is more likely to not be observed downtown and that crosswalks are poorly marked, and many times ignored. And when you consider that the parking spaces were designed when there were no monster trucks and Goliath SUV’s, which cannot possibly get out of the roadway when parked, it is a recipe for more traffic congestion and accidents.

The difference between municipal and commercial. This has always been a fascinating disconnect in our community. A municipal project typically is a service or structure that services community members in a direct way, like a homeless shelter, a nursing home, a community pool, etc. The purpose of these projects is not revenue generation primarily, although they may have some membership fee or other source of revenue provision. They make a minimal amount of economic impact, but do not sustain themselves, typically, nor are they intended to. A commercial project, on the other hand, is designed for revenue and profit generation. It is specifically designed to either contribute retail income from sales of products or services. While community members may use and enjoy the services of a commercial project, the goal of the project is not directly municipal or communal in nature. Examples of commercial projects include the Cherokee Phoenix Theatre, Sequoyah National Golf Course, and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.

The connection between municipal and commercial. Yes, we need help and housing for the homeless and many other support services for our people. Yes, we should get the best that our dollars will allow us to provide for our elders, our children, our people. It is right and proper for municipal leaders to contemplate and create municipal programs for their communities. However, it does no good to promise or contemplate services that are unsustainable. For example, promising to fully fund post graduate education, provide unlimited health care, great elder amenities like the HELP program, without any way to pay for it would be irresponsible, and cruel. And when municipal programs and buildings are created, they are not a one-time cost. Each one requires manpower and maintenance, those are on-going, month after month, year after year, bills that must continually be paid.

And the way we pay for most of our municipal programs is with dollars earned through the commercial projects. The most glaring example is the impact revenue that adult gaming has had on the ability to provide municipal services to the community. Since the casino began operations, the Tribe has brought community program after program, community building after community building, free service after free service, creating the need for millions of dollars of infrastructure to support all the municipal spread.

We have also seen, in both Tribal Council and Executive, calls to either slow down on the development of additional community projects or increase the Tribe’s ability to generate revenue. The former is not popular with voters, so politicians are reluctant to pursue it. So, we must focus on finding more ways to pay for our municipal spending. The question is not “Why don’t we build a homeless shelter instead of a parking deck?”. The question is “Do we build a parking deck to facilitate revenue generation that we may use to build a homeless shelter?”, because when we come up with a municipal idea, we need to also come up with a plan to pay for it. Municipal programs are apples. Commercial projects are oranges. You cannot compare them because they are separate yet symbiotic concepts. Unless we want to go back to living pre-gaming or implement a tribal income tax structure, we are dependent on revenue from our commercial operations, by and large.

How we should be like Gatlinburg. I don’t think the Editorial Board was saying that we should be like Gatlinburg in the amount of commercialization that they have. They were referring more so to the “walkablility” of their downtown. I believe we can all agree that the Gatlinburg downtown is longer than our downtown strip. The Board was simply saying that there is no reason that our downtown couldn’t be made as attractive to pedestrians as that strip. We want increased and safe traffic downtown for both locals and tourists, and, in that respect, we have the same goal as Gatlinburg and, indeed, in the makeup of most existing businesses downtown.

The cost of idleness. Some argue that prime property should not be used for a parking deck. Based on its current usage, I think some think that the property shouldn’t be used at all. For over a decade since the elementary school moved to a new facility, the property has sat dormant, unless you count the recent, once per year rodeos that have been held on a section of the property, and those are not what you would call big draw, high return-on-investment events. Ironically, the one thing that the property has been used for from time-to-time is parking. Parking decks can be costly operations, no doubt, but they are also potential business catalysts. And, as one reader commented, while the cost per parking space may be higher than we are used to, we are able to potentially recoup the cost through increased use of our retail spaces (levy) and even parking fees.

The ability to pivot. A parking deck is an attractive amenity for existing business and those thinking of locating in Cherokee. With a functioning parking deck, you reduce the arguments from downtown owners and merchants about taking away their storefront parking in favor of pedestrian friendly walkways and potentially make room for bike lanes, further enhancing the use and attractiveness of the downtown. A parking deck could be designed to take only a portion of the existing property. Any revenue generating business that you might think to put on the property would likely increase the need for parking space downtown and even on the property itself. Having a parking deck on the property would increase its value, not be a liability.

The challenges of parking downtown. Many of the parking spaces downtown were created before community members and tourists fell in love with mammoth sport utility vehicles and king cab, extended bed pick-up trucks. It is not uncommon to see the tail end of vehicles sticking out in the roadway in front of downtown shops. Drivers on the outside lanes, many of whom are traveling well above the speed “suggestion” of 20 miles per hour, are either halted until traffic clears in the inside lane or swooping around the end of those vehicles which is another driving distraction. Add to that the lack of clear labeling at the crosswalks and their haphazard use, and it makes you wonder why we have let this go on for so long.

Consumers don’t want unwalkable retail. One reader speculated that people just wouldn’t walk the length of downtown. And yet most municipalities in the country are advocating for walkable shopping areas. Sure, there is much to be done downtown to make it more “walker-friendly”, but to say that it is too long or too uninteresting doesn’t make sense. Better, wider, well-landscaped sidewalks and common areas would need to be a part of the plan for downtown, but it can be and should be done. Walking has become a popular pastime of young and old. Give people a good, safe, and well-maintained place to park and you have taken a huge step in the right direction (pun wasn’t intended, but surely fits).

Parking decks do not have to be “eyesores”. We used to talk about “curb appeal” when it came to our public areas. Now, it seems to be a forgotten concept. We have even talked about parking decks for downtown before, but some of the younger folks have forgotten. There are many municipalities who have parking decks who have designed them to fit the cultural look and appeal of their communities. They integrate them into their overall plans for the look of their downtowns. I don’t imagine if they were that unattractive that we would have three of them on our casino property.

How sitting on our hands will be deadly for the Cherokee economy. Our Tribal Council and our Executive Office have told us that we need to stop thinking that the Tribe has an endless source of money. We have been told that gaming is facing significant threats and that, if the threats become realities, it will mean life-changing reductions in services and potentially in workforce. We just experienced economically-crippling effects of a pandemic for both independent retail and tribal operations. And activities are still stifled due to the virus.

One thing is certain if you read and watch the news, the potential competitors of our gaming operation have not sat idle during the pandemic. They continue to work and prepare. Even in the area of tourism marketing and advertising, municipalities around us, targeting our same feeder markets, are pumping out advertising for their destinations, and creating low contact and no contact ways to carry out events. Trying to entice businesses to our community and then thinking about the amenities to attract them is the definition of backwards thinking. Businesses shop towns and municipalities like we shop for a home. We look for the best deal, with the best amenities, with the best rebates and price. And if a seller tells us to buy first and then we’ll discuss amenities, we say no deal and walk out, just like those businesses looking at Cherokee.

One of the things we need to get away from is calling people stupid for their ideas and suggestions. I caught that comment from someone who I felt was more intelligent and had more integrity than to say something like that. It was one of the things that prompted me to write on this subject this week. Just because someone thinks differently than you, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong or, worse yet, worthy of some disparagement. If I must resort to name calling or calling an idea stupid, I am showing my own ignorance.

That being said, I am so pleased that you chose to participate in the poll questions, and I am grateful to those of you who engage in serious discussion and share personal experiences to help us better understand why you believe what you believe. I challenge you to, when it is appropriate, disagree, but don’t be disagreeable. Our people and our readership have much to contribute to the conversation and to paraphrase an old philosopher, more heads are better than one.