By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
We live in interesting and, in some ways, frightening times. More and more, we find our way of life challenged, sometimes by individuals, sometimes by groups, sometimes even by the government. We don’t go very long without some announcement in the news that something has gone wrong. We look for places of peace and times of security, and those have become more valuable than an extra dollar in the per cap or more free goods and services. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-words spoken of as unalienable rights given by the Creator, our Creator. Not privileges bestowed by a group or government in the form of charters or codes, but actual rights that each person enjoys regardless of the consternation of powers and principalities.
Our leaders are telling us that our adult gaming monopoly in North Carolina has come to an end. Other tribes, state-recognized native entities, and even the state of North Carolina itself are moving to cash in on domain that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has enjoyed alone in western North Carolina for two decades.
In a recent public debate, Principal Chief Sneed mentioned that we, as a Tribe, knew these threats were coming long ago, but we were slow to react, for whatever reason, and now we, too, are rushing to diversify and branch out in other industries and states (and countries) to offset anticipated losses from the competitive gaming launching in our market. Adult gaming has a profit margin so high that it is challenging to identify businesses that will ramp up quickly enough and generate the kind of revenue needed to maintain the way of life we are used to enjoying. So far, while the earning potential is there for these new projects of the Tribe, the initial impact is minute compared to the return currently being enjoyed by our on-Boundary casino operations. As this situation unfolds, more important than money may be time.
Attention to detail is a critical element in the planning and execution of anything, and it is difficult to sustain, especially in an environment where there is routine leadership and employee turnover. Transition is the enemy of consistency, and consistency is necessary to produce good products and services for the community. It is important to have a good organizational chart and that the positions on the chart be filled with experienced and committed team members. The process starts and restarts every time there is a leadership change or change in personnel essential to the planning and execution.
The tribal government is juggling several balls, projects of both commerce and community service that keep staffing at the forefront of the Tribe’s critical need list. Signs of the need for additional focus are obvious. Our Cherokee Fairgrounds went from an unsafe state of repair to hayfield in less than a year. Plans were developed to raze and then raise a new and improved layout for the property, but changing leadership, negative public sentiment, and an election year collided to kill the proposed design and sent the planning office and Commerce Division scrambling for a new plan. Now, varying estimates of time needed to complete the Fairgrounds have been shared, some as long as five years, particularly since partial plans are being shared with the community, indicating that the process is stalled in concept development.
In the meantime, decades long third-party events, like the annual Gourd Gathering, are being lost to neighboring communities like Waynesville. On the event promoter’s Facebook page, it now says, “The Gourd Gathering-formerly known as the Gourd Gathering at Cherokee”.
I was attending an event at that Smoky Mountain Event Center, the new home of the Gourd Gathering, at a separate event and ran into one of the organizers of the gourd event. She said that they were getting some very negative feedback from having to move out of Cherokee, but they had no choice as no suitable venue was offered to them after the tribe shut down the Fairgrounds. Destination Marketing attempted to find a space that would work, but it was too little, too late. And so, we lost an important event to another municipality, one that is unlikely to return, even after the Fairgrounds is rebuilt – a two-decade-long relationship severed in less than a year. And these are the kinds of relationships the Tribe needs – vendors and promoters who rent the grounds and create a tourist draw with no or minimal cost to the tribe. The Tribe should be less in the business of creating and paying for events, and more in the business of hosting third-party event promoters and managers who create tourism draws at minimal cost to us. I hope Haywood County sends us a thank you note.
Years ago, the tourism office of the Tribe partnered with local businesses to create and maintain wayfinding signage. Businesses paid a small fee for having their brand names on directional signage. Many of you will recall the arrowhead signs that featured local businesses with arrows pointing out the way to get to them. Those days and signs are gone. Wayfinding signage is one of the detail items that seems inconsequential but has big time economic impact.
For example, our casino gaming operation is, by far, the biggest attraction on the Qualla Boundary. It is critical that those who are potential patrons of that establishment get to where they are going. But signage in the town pointing folks to the casino is all but nonexistent. I’ve had tourists stop me on the bridge at the Museum intersection, asking for directions to the casino. What few wayfinding signs we have are faded, worn, moss and mold covered, in some cases outdated, and in many cases hidden by kudzu. And while Cherokee still has a Chamber of Commerce, it has no funding, authority, nor manpower to address the wayfinding signage issues. Hopefully, there is a way that some partnership may be made between business and government to reconstitute the Chamber of Commerce because the Tribe’s tourism strategy, particularly the signage plan, is too important to allow to flounder.
Staffing and adequate resources are key needs for first analysis and then provision. Filling key positions and ensuring that those positions’ descriptions are specific and detailed to perform tasks in support of a detailed strategy will provide a much-needed boost to the tourism effort and overall economy of our tribe. And if we may apply resources needed to market our event venues (and yes, we must move forward with fast-tracking the Fairgrounds rebuild) and wean ourselves from spending significant budget dollars on creating and executing events, then we will see true return on investment in our communal economic development projects. And any fully tribally-funded events should be fully staffed and have enough budget to provide the target audience with the experience they come for. Cost cutting and austerity measures should not include negatively impacting the visitor experience. From marketing to execution, guests should receive a premium experience at our events and attractions. Just ask Harrah’s if they skimp on the customer experience.
“Sign, sign. Everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t to that. Can’t you read the sign?” We, as a Tribe, must stop being reactive and focus on being proactive. The economic war of our tribe won’t be won with poor work ethic and lack of attention to detail. We absolutely must focus, plan, then execute. Here’s your sign.