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Wednesday, 16 May 2012 12:43

Cherokee crafts plans for tree-top canopy walk and family adventure park

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The next five years could include the construction of an adventure park, a canopy walk and another casino for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, according to a preliminary outline of its 2012 economic development plan.

Every five years, the Eastern Band creates an updated economic development plan that outlines what the tribe accomplished during the previous five years and its plans for the future.

Several items in the 2012 strategic plan are simply continuations of work started in 2007, such as diversifying its attractions.

With the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel being its main draw, a number of Cherokee’s visitors are 21 years or older. To create greater family appeal, the tribe is looking into the possibility of adding a canopy walk  — a high-elevation nature stroll through the tree tops. The attraction would feature suspended bridges stretching from tree to tree and give visitors a bird’s eye view of the area.

“The environment, the mountains, the streams and everything are so important to Cherokee,” said Doug Cole, a strategic planner with the Eastern Band. “(The canopy walk) takes advantage of that; it doesn’t try to degrade it.”

A likely locale for the canopy walk would be near Mt. Noble in Birdtown, Cole said.

In addition to the walk, the tribe is also making plans to construct a family friendly adventure park, an idea that it has tossed around for a while. The park could include various activities, such as a zipline and climbing wall, as well as a water park. The facility would be open year-round, with some elements inside and some outside.

“There is an opportunity there for the kids and family market,” Cole said. “It could be something that all Western North Carolina could be proud of.”

After finding that project is indeed feasible and that there is enough demand, the Eastern Band then began looking into how it could finance its construction — something it is still figuring out. The park could cost between $90 million and $100 million, Cole estimated, calling the numbers a “pure guess.”

“It really depends upon … how much we want to build,” Cole said.

An adventure park would also help with another goal of the tribe — to diversify its job opportunities and revenue streams.

“I think diversifying the income from the tribe is very important. Right now, we depend on the casino quite a bit,” Cole said. “You don’t want to have all of your eggs in one basket.”

That is not to say that enrolled members are not grateful for the support the casino provides. In fact, the tribe has discussed expanding its gambling operations, not just within its current casino but also to another part of the reservations.

For a while, the tribe has discussed the possibility of building new casinos on other tribally owned lands. And now that the living gaming compact is looking more likely to pass, building a small-scale casino in Cherokee County is the gaming commission’s No. 1 priority, said Don Rose, a member of the commission. It would not be a full-fledged casino but would be more than a bingo hall, and Harrah’s would not necessarily be affiliated with the new casino.

“This would be a totally separate casino,” Rose said.

Although a large portion of the economic plan involves tourism, it also addresses quality of life for enrolled members.

The reservation only has one large commercial grocery, Food Lion, and no national retail stores. Many enrolled members must drive to the Walmart in Sylva for the simplest things.

“If you wanted to buy a tie or shirt, you would have to drive to Sylva and back,” Cole said. “We need to have that available.”

There is also no drug store, like a Walgreens or CVS, where enrolled members or even visitors can easily pick up a prescription when necessary, he said.

The tribe will also look into investing more into tribally owned businesses through operations such as the Sequoyah Fund.

The blueprint, formally called the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, helps the tribe when applying for federal monies.

Since 2007, when the last plan was drafted, the Eastern Band has received $3.37 million for economic development projects, states the report.

Mostly, however, the economic strategy plan is a map detailing what the Eastern Band hopes to achieve during the next half decade.

“The real reason we do this is to keep us on strategy on what we want to do during the next five years,” said Cole. “Hopefully by 2017, we can make a lot of that happen, too.”

It’s track record on seeing project through has been surprisingly good. Past CEDS projects include the construction of the Sequoyah National Golf Club, a movie theater, a skate park and smattering the reservation with painted bear statues, among others.

The tribe will spend this month prioritizing projects and developing action plans. A final draft of the economic development strategy will be submitted to the U.S. Economic Development Administration by the end of September.

 

Speak out

To voice your opinion, review the plan or find out information about public meetings regarding the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, visit

nctomorrow.org/cherokeequallaboundary.

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