COMMENTARY: Give the Ceremonial Grounds back to the community

by May 19, 2023OPINIONS0 comments


One Feather Editor


First, keep in mind that this is an opinion piece. Everyone has an opinion. You, and the government, may have a different opinion from my own and that is great. I am a big advocate for all of us as a community sharing our opinions on these things that affect our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Please feel free anytime to submit your thoughts on community concerns to us and we will add your voice to the discussion.

After all, “they” did say that they wanted community input.

There has been quite a bit of back-and-forth regarding the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds or Ceremonial Grounds. What you call it depends on how old you are, or whether you are trying to cater to that age group who remember the old days when events were more of a communal nature. From youngsters to elders to political candidates, people have attempted to explain what it was and what they want. The One Feather has polled you. The government has told you. The next-door neighbor has chatted you up about it. The Fairgrounds has been a topic of discussion in planning meetings, town hall meetings, and Tribal Council meetings.

There is one thing for certain about the Fairgrounds at this moment. It is a great place for Canadian geese to rest and an excellent place to grow grass. And while the demolition of the buildings on the property was needed, it is beginning to look like it was very premature.

When the Cherokee Indian Fair was canceled due to the failure and hazard of the amphitheater, the Cherokee Indian Fair Committee, along with the public via the One Feather, was told by the leadership that the potential downtime from scrapping the old and ribbon-cutting the new which was estimated to be a couple of years was later extended to an estimated three years. More recent estimates have put the completion time at more like five years. Five years because a plan was not solidified and approved by the government before the demolition took place. Oh, there was a plan, but one that had not been blessed by the community and certainly not by the Tribal Council.

So, all we have now in that space is a good stand of grass – knee-high grass.

The types of events held on the Ceremonial Grounds were varied and split between community/family and commercial tourism events. Some overlapped their audience, like the Cherokee Rod Runs, which were sponsored and hosted by the local car club but drew both local and outside enthusiasts. Most of the events on the grounds were not profitable and minimally profitable in terms of direct dollars generated by booth fees and ticket prices. But many of those commercial or tourism events’ profit/loss estimates were never calculated properly because they routinely failed to factor in the value of a tourist other than paying a ticket price. When a tourist hits our Boundary, especially one from out of state, it is rare indeed for them to just come here for a ticketed event and then leave. They typically need a place to sleep, to eat, and to shop, to fish, to visit nature, to…well, you get the picture.

I wanted to share the most recent available intelligence on the “value” of a tourist who visits western North Carolina, but either the expertise doesn’t exist or is on vacation at the moment, so I did the next best thing. I queried a travel blogger who has done the math.

Her expert opinion is that, on average, the vacation traveler spends about $350 per day plus transportation costs. “This is based on spending $200-$250 a night on your accommodations and $75 a day on meals. For meals, I’m estimating $15 for breakfast, $25 for lunch, $30 for dinner, plus $5 for a snack.”

This amount doesn’t include those must-have souvenirs that could easily add $15-plus a day to the mix.

So, even for an event like the Talking Trees Children’s Trout Derby, which, on a slow day could bring 1,500 kids to the Oconaluftee Island Park (and to the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds for the registration day festivities), you could be looking at an estimated economic impact of a half-million dollars (assuming each child represented a family of four (the participant, mom, dad, grandparents, or other siblings). All theoretical of course, because no study of that depth has been performed on Cherokee events to my knowledge. The Derby is not a direct revenue generator because participants get to fish for free and dollars are spent for gifts and prizes for the young ones. But a negative cash flow event, it is not. All you must do is look at hotel and restaurant parking lots to see where the income is coming into our economy.

For both the Fairgrounds and those events that used the Fairgrounds as their venue, you also must look at the promotional value of the property and events.

Another issue that has nagged the property and events thereon is our total confusion as a Tribe on what we want out of the grounds. You will hear the government talk about the grounds in terms of dollar generation. In fact, at a recent Planning Board session, concepts for the reinstallation of the Fairgrounds were discussed and their discussion kept coming back to profitability. If they are going to continue to talk about the Ceremonial Grounds as commercial space and requiring a monetary “return on investment”, then the government should turn the project over to the Kituwah, LLC and let them create a profitable model. Several times over the last couple of decades, those of us who managed the grounds and events told our government that the size of the Fairgrounds was becoming an issue because the events we would create were outgrowing the space. The existing footprint of the Fairgrounds is simply not big enough for most of the opportunities. Think back to the days when Laverne Brown presented motorcycle rallies. The event and the town would bust at the seams in need of additional space.

From the community, the outcry is a little different – those who have used and have been accustomed to the Ceremonial Grounds, where their annual “Cherokee Indian Fair” or “Fall Festival” was held. And there were many other times of community gatherings that used the grounds as their home. Strawberry and Blueberry Festivals, indigenous dance, birthdays, Miss Cherokee Pageants, Week of the Young Child, Cherokee Day of Caring, Housing and Health Fairs, etc. None of the aforementioned activities were necessarily high-ticket profit-makers, but their value to the community was priceless. How do you estimate the value of our Tribal elders sitting down to meals and bingo in that old exhibit hall? What price tag do you place on the cotton-candy-smeared face of a Cherokee child as he or she weaves through, at lightning speeds, the crowds at the Fair? All those things happened in a place where now, we watch the grass grow.

So, my opinion is that we give the Ceremonial Grounds back to the community. Where the amphitheater once stood, design seating and stage to what existed there before the demolition. Add an enclosure that would protect the stage and seating from the elements. Construct dressing rooms for the performers in the enclosed stage area. Where the concession building stood, replace it with a storage building to house all the equipment and supplies necessary for events on the property. Reconstruct and modernize the Exhibit Hall in a position like its old footprint. Create a food booth/food truck area with utility connections for that purpose. Strategically position restroom facilities at each end of the grounds. And rebuild tickets booths-smaller ones but at each entrance. And build in an ability to handle livestock, so that the community might benefit from having and attending shows and sales, like back in the day.

And while proposed open-air concepts look pretty on paper, fair-ground venues without some types of secure fencing are not practical. My example is the Maggie Valley Fairgrounds, which pretty much has an event going every weekend of the season every year (booked third-party events that do not cost the town a cent and generate tax dollars on top of rental fees). It would be impossible for them to book events from third-party promoters and producers without fencing to contain their event and control the gate for ticketing purposes. It is great to allow as much flat open space for event placement on the grounds, but security will be a big factor in selling the grounds in those times when the community doesn’t need it.

Over the years, many of our people have had heart and soul poured into that piece of property. In my relatively short time working for the Tribe, one of my first assignments was working at the Cherokee Indian Fair. In those days, it was nothing to put in 16-hour days making sure that all the work necessary to make the Fair successful happened.

One community member commented during the recent Town Hall meeting, “I wish some of our old people would speak. They are hurting. This is where they gathered. This is our gathering place.”

Again, just my opinion, but I think we need to fast-track the development and implementation of a construction plan for our Ceremonial Grounds and our government needs to come to terms as to what the community wants it to be, and the community’s answer may not be “we want it to generate dollars”. Because soon, we won’t be able to see the fairgrounds for the grass.