The Wednesday, May 23, ceremony took place at a new, imposing entranceway to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on U.S. 441.
Tribal officials and others gathered to hear the designation of the path as Veterans Memorial Greenway, and to watch the unveiling of permanent artwork at the site — one of a series of painted bears by Eastern Band artists being placed throughout Cherokee. This bear, by William Harris Jr., was a red, white and blue version that includes a rendition of Charles George, a tribal member awarded the Medal of Honor after smothering a grenade with his body during the Korean War. He saved two fellow soldiers.
“It is about pride, in our heritage and who we are,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the ceremony.
The greenway and new entrance is also about trying to get tourists out of their cars and into shops, key parts of a larger master plan that has been designed to beautify Cherokee and emphasize the tribe’s cultural heritage.
An advisory committee of Cherokee business owners and tribal staff adopted a downtown master plan in 2001. The process included public meetings and surveys where people were asked what they wanted downtown to look like in 20 years.
The plan included aesthetic guidelines for businesses to follow in doing renovations, and pointed the way toward a downtown with architecture that reflects Cherokee heritage. It also laid out a future river walk to run behind businesses and the greenway.
Low-interest loans for businesses to undertake renovation work are available through the Sequoyah Fund, a nonprofit Native American Community Development Financial Institution. The organization evolved from a loan fund program of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and among other programs offers up to $150,000 for façade renovation of buildings in the Cherokee central business district.
The money can be used to purchase materials and labor to renovate the facade of a business, in accordance with the pre-approved appearance plans. Thee loans are priced at 1% and can be borrowed for up to 10 years. The Sequoyah Fund also has grant funds available for architectural reviews prior to construction.
The Cherokee Preservation Foundation, established in 2000 by the tribe and the state to work on cultural preservation and economic development, also has played a key role in revitalization efforts and the ongoing downtown facelift, Nell Leatherwood, the Sequoyah Fund’s executive director, said.
“If you can encourage people to move in certain manners, it can have an impact on your economy,” Project Manager Jason Lambert said. “Get them out of their cars and they’ll stay longer and spend more money.”
Along with the business renovations that the tribe hopes will encourage visitors to make different stops in town, the greenway is intended to link those shop-stops throughout the downtown district.
Lambert said the greenway would eventually run into downtown — using some existing sidewalks — via the pedestrian path beginning in the area of the new entrance at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. 441.
The entrance has the words, “Welcome, Cherokee Indian Reservation,” in both English and the Cherokee language. Fountains are in front and a lit torch on top, plus the official flag of the Eastern Band is now being flown nearby.
That should help clear up the most often-asked question by tourists arriving via this particular reservation gateway, said Tribal Council Member Marie Junaluska.
‘“Where’s the reservation?’” she said. “That’s the first thing they want to know. This should help. And we have our language on the sign to show them we have our own way of writing and that our language is still alive, and that we as a people are still here.”
The greenway, Lambert said, also fits nicely into health initiatives of the tribe intended to encourage tribe members to exercise. The preventative health measures are primarily aimed at combating diabetes, which strikes down tribe members at epidemic proportions, but also at other health issues such as obesity.