COMMENTARY: Sitting by the pool

by May 16, 2022OPINIONS0 comments



One Feather Editor


We continue to debate internally how we will use our land. And the debate boils down to political versus practical applications of the land.

The latest battle over property has been the discussion of work force housing versus tribal housing. Some believe that any land development on the Qualla Boundary should only be for enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. An emotional case can be made for this argument, since there is allegedly a waiting list of tribal members who want homes on the Boundary. I say allegedly because I have not seen an actual list. I remember filling out some forms several years ago that was supposed to put me on “the list”, but when I recently inquired about my status on the list, I was told that there is no list. So, if anybody has access to the list, I would be curious to know, and I am sure others would too. But I digress…

In recent sessions of Tribal Council, we were informed that the two casino operations are in need of additional labor force with officials indicating that there are in the neighborhood of 1,000 unfilled positions. Now, we all know that there is a nation-wide issue with labor. COVID-19 continues to be a factor in the hiring difficulties with some companies even lowering their education and experience standards to hire folks that they would not have normally considered. Because of the nature of our adult gaming business, lowering hiring standards is not an option for us. So, we need qualified workers at an education and experience level that will satisfy the wants and needs of the rollers who we want to spend money in our establishments.

Since we know that we do not have enough housing on Boundary to satisfy the wants of our people, then we can be assured that there is not enough housing for those workers who are not tribal members. And while it feels good to say that we want to home our people first and foremost, we have also gotten into a mindset of saying that we aren’t going to provide workforce housing until we put all tribal members who have a want to live on the Boundary a home. While this is great idealistic thinking, it defies logic.

We have grown accustomed to the incredible amenities that our gaming operations have provided. In addition to the obvious, the per capita dividend that we receive every six months (the latest distribution being the largest of the June installments), we are able to provide food services, child and youth services, elder services, medical services, post-high school educational funding, burial services, and, yes, housing. And the bulk of the remittance for all of this comes from our adult gaming tourists who pull the levers and sit at the card tables. And it is those workers who service those tourists who facilitate collections.

We have heard Tribal Council, on many occasions, but particularly when a per capita payment is announced, give thanks to the workers at the casinos for providing the good customer service and hard work that ensures our gaming revenue continues and continues to increase. And the way we keep and reward them is through employee benefits – paycheck, health, retirement. But, based on this significant development of being 1,000 positions down in the workforce, something else is needed. We are having to search farther and farther away from the Boundary to find qualified workers. And we already employee people from over two counties away from us in the current workforce. It would seem that a logical, beneficial amenity to add would be assistance in finding suitable accommodations for workers so that they may contribute to that bottom line that we all enjoy so much.

The same applies to other enterprises that we want to have progress on the Boundary. There has always been a disconnect in our community in the understanding of how community development and economic development interact. Community development is about the wants and needs of the citizenry. Economic development is how you pay for the wants and needs of the citizenry. You will not have community development without a way to pay for it and it is paid for by economic development. A playground and community building doesn’t pay for themselves. They do not take in revenue, and if they did, it would be very little, nothing in comparison to the cost. And the cost goes beyond the building, as it’s use requires ongoing maintenance for as long as it is in use.

Gaming for us has been so successful that I believe that we may have become a little spoiled. We have become unaccustomed to being told that we cannot have a particular want, because our governors want us to be happy, after all they are elected by us, and we have, for the past 20 or so years, had money to burn. Oh, we have had officials urging us to conserve and be prudent, but the much louder voices are the ones who holler “I want this or that”, and worse, “I am not letting anything else happen until I get what I want”.

If you have good credit and a healthy income, you can get a lot of your wants fulfilled. But, at some point, you will reach the limit of what your credit and income will allow. And if you live to the limit of your means long enough, there will come a day when you have a want or need, and you will not be able to fulfill it. Our community wants and needs are dependent on our credit and income. And for years we have been living right up to what our economy provides. We have been anything but austere. We create strategic plans that map a three, five, 10-year course to prepare for and mitigate financial threats that are coming, then the year after we create them, we go off the course that we set in them.

We, as a government and people, need to create and own a true community plan that includes an overall assessment of our current land inventory and specific planning for the long-term. Planners should include not only Tribal Council and Executive, but the Community Club Council and a representative group of those members of our tribe who live off-Boundary. It may be time to get representation in the government for all tribal members, including the interests of those living away.

The Tribal Council and Executive find themselves in Catch-22 situations all the time. We, the citizens, sometimes ask them to do the impossible. First, we say we want all the tribal land to be used for community services. Then we say that we don’t want them developing business off-Boundary because we want all that to be on-Boundary for local benefit. Clearly, you cannot do both, nor is it logical or practical to do so. Our leaders struggle constantly to maintain the balance between community and economic growth. But they do so in an environment and with a people that says you better make concessions for us or we’ll vote you out in two years.

The two-year term made sense in the past, but it is no longer logical or practical. In fact, it is one of the things that keeps us in constant turmoil. It is a hinderance to the strategic mindset that we all need to get in to. It creates a lever for special interests to push a want agenda instead of taking care of needs and preparing for the future. Until we address fundamental changes in our governance, we will continue to have a government that is tactically focused, forcing it to continually put out fires, instead of creating long-term solutions. We shouldn’t wait for catastrophic failure before we become engaged as citizens of the Eastern Band.