“Having a place to go and hang out with teachers and other kids — I think it’s very important,” said Adam Wachacha, Cherokee Tribal Council member who has been a proponent of the project. “I wish every community could have the type of atmosphere this brings to ours.”
The center was built mainly as a venue for the growing Snowbird Boys & Girls Club. The group, which began as an afterschool and summer program with two part-time workers, had grown its membership rolls and was bursting at the seams in its space at the Snowbird Community Center. The club shared the space with the library, health department and parks and recreation department.
“They didn’t even have classrooms,” Wachacha said. “All they had was they could go to the library and do research for homework.”
The new building, which cost $4.5 million, boasts a kitchen, a commons area and two separate wings for elementary students and teenagers. It has a dance room, a data center, an art room and several classrooms. There’s a gymnasium, and an outdoor walking path circles the whole thing. The building is certified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. A combination of grant money and funding from tribal council paid the bill.
The Boys & Girls Club has already seen its numbers swell in the scant time since the youth center opened for business, and its staff size has increased from the original two to eight.
“A little over 100 registered, and before the move we were averaging about 30 on average a day,” Wachacha said. “Since the new center opened we’re averaging over 60.”
That’s a trend that’s bound to have a positive effect on the community, he said.
“To me it’s very important because it provides them a good positive place to be besides out having the temptations to do wrong things,” he said. “They’re in a good, positive environment.”
The EBCI wasn’t able to find a suitable site for the new center on private land, however, so the new center is on land leased from the U.S. Forest Service. The EBCI first approached the USFS in 2010. The tribe paid for an environmental analysis, and in 2011 then-forest supervisor Mary Sue Hilliard signed the decision to grant a special use permit for 20 acres of Forest Service land.
“The Forest Service has a special uses screening process that we use to evaluate special-use requests on a case-by-case basis,” said Lauren Stull, a ranger with the USFS who at the time worked in Nantahala National Forest. “We analyzed the project through that.”
The EBCI won’t have to pay anything to use the land, but the tribe was financially responsible for the project from the first letter of the environmental analysis to the last brush of paint on the building.
The lease lasts for 20 years with opportunity to renew, but Wachacha hopes that won’t be necessary.
“The ultimate goal is to do another land exchange with them here in Graham County,” Wachacha said.
Wachacha hopes that sometime in the next 20 years the tribe can find a piece of land to trade to the Forest Service for the 20 acres it’s leasing for the youth center. Then, the tribe could own the property outright.
For now though, Wachacha is just happy to see the youth center up and running and to talk to the children who are excited to go hang out there.
“It’s an awesome project,” he said.