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Wednesday, 26 December 2007 00:00

On Cataloochee Wilderness: Project spokesman Frank Singleton talks about fitting into the community and facing possible opposition

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Frank Singleton, the spokesman for the 4,500-acre proposed Cataloochee Wilderness Resort in Haywood County, stopped by The Smoky Mountain News office to answer some questions about the planned development. Singleton said the ball is definitely rolling on the project, with announcements about retail operations set to come in the next few weeks and a public presentation planned for the end of January. He addressed public opposition to the project, the developers’ appearance at a county commissioners meeting on Dec. 17, and the involvement of Dean Moses, a Haywood County businessman notorious for questionable business dealings he made here six years ago.

According to a Cataloochee Companies information packet, the project is divided into several residential, commercial and retail phases that will include more than 1 million square feet of leasable area in 30 buildings, a 450,000-square-foot Home Store, a 14-screen cinema, restaurants, a 100-room hotel, a ski resort, two lakes, two golf courses and 2,250 single-family lots.

Singleton said Jonathan Creek was picked for the site of the development due to its location at the intersection of I-40 and U.S. 276 near the Tennessee line.

Smoky Mountain News: At the county commissioners meeting, Frank Wood, the president of Cataloochee Companies LLC, spoke about the inevitability of development coming to Jonathan Creek.

Frank Singleton: One of the realities of this, is this is a major freeway exit off of I-40. There is absolutely without a doubt going to be some development within that area because of the nature of the traffic and nature of the land prices and growth in that area. (There are) two ways to do it. One is a piecemeal plot by plot sale off the interstate, (which means) more local businesses which have a lot of transition in terms of economics and in terms of being involved in destination travel. Typically off a major freeway exit, a master development is something communities go after. You end up with an infrastructure grid, planned impact zone, and some official master plan. When you do those things one piece at a time, that’s not necessarily the most effective or efficient way.

At this point you want to let people know that the company is very serious. I think that’s a reasonable approach because I think you have to give people realistic expectations.

SMN: Is it important to the developers that the project fits in with its surroundings in Jonathan Creek and Haywood County?

FS: I heard people say the other night (at the county commissioners meeting), there’s going to be clearcutting and mass devastation. The most marketable aspect of the entire project is to retain the values and keep that destination traffic. It’s a great town and it has all the attributes of small-town America, (plus) wilderness and backcountry — this would have to fit into that to be a successful venture.

The stock and trade of a project like this is to continue to enhance the draw of the destination traffic you’re already getting.

SMN: How can you be sure to attract people with this kind of project? Have you determined that the interest is there?

FS: I’ve worked with a lot of development companies and tourism and hospitality companies, and one of the first things that happens is a market feasibility study. You look at traffic and you look at access. This area along I-40 attracts 18 million cars a year.

SMN: How long has this project been in the works?

FS: Four years informally and during the last two years (there have been) very real discussions with landowners and private equity companies.

SMN: Has any land been acquired?

FS: There are selling agreements in place now to acquire some of the property, but no land has been acquired. The permitting process has begun with state, county and federal government officials. The first parcels should be purchased by summer of 2008.

SMN: What will happen if Cataloochee Companies LLC isn’t able to secure all the land they say they need for the project?

FS: If you look at the history of any large developments, there’s realization that things aren’t going to be the same as our master plan. We’re going to have to work around those things. This is not an eminent domain project, it’s a private equity project. I think truly you’ll find some folks at this state of the project saying they don’t want to participate, and at some point they will say they are interested.

SMN: Have retailers been secured for this project? The plan calls for a Bass Pro Shop or Cabela’s.

FS: There are confidentiality agreements in place with the retailers. I’ve had direct consultation with some of these retail brands, including one specific one as an anchor right now. None of those things have been firmed up, and absolutely no contracts are in place with those folks. Conversations have taken place informally.

SMN: Is there a development project in the Southeast you know of this scale and this type?

FS: I can’t think of one in the Southeast. There are several in the West and in the Midwest. The Telluride analogy (mentioned by a speaker and the county commissioners’ meeting) probably wasn’t as appropriate, but Colorado and Jackson Hole, Wyoming – you can tell it’s happening there.

SMN: Did you guys plan to go public with the information so soon?

FS: The desire was to not go public with the project until we had finished the one stop meeting (with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources) and had a chance to go through those regulatory requirement type things with them. At that point we wanted to go public with some of the plans. The state released all the one stop documents from the first meeting.

SMN: How do you plan to address public opposition to the project?

FS: My hope is that people would give the development group and the project an opportunity to get the information out there; to disclose and discuss the width and breadth of it to a degree. You hope to find compromise and agreement to the point there is no acrimony. There are a group of people that are on the fence that are waiting to see who’s involved, how big it’s going to be, etc. I’m trying to focus as much transparency as I can on the process. Over the next few months that’s going to become really clear.

SMN: What is Dean Moses’ involvement in the project?

FS: Dean is a consultant to Cataloochee Companies LLC with Carlton Consulting. That’s his role, but there are probably 25, maybe 30 companies involved in this whole thing.

SMN: Can you speak on the lawsuit in Tennessee right now involving Dean Moses, specifically, whether the company named in the suit is related to Cataloochee Companies LLC?

FS: The other company was incorporated in Delaware, while this company and this project were incorporated in North Carolina. This is not the same company.

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