The quest to bring live table games to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino faces a final political hurdle.

Both the Governor and N.C. Senate have given live table games their blessing, with the N.C. House of Representatives now the lone hold-out.

Harrah’s Casino is limited to video-based gambling only. Adding live table games like roulette and poker would attract a new clientele of player, and in turn more money and jobs flowing through the entire region, according to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“We aren’t going to see a big influx of industry coming in to Western North Carolina, so we have to do what we can to ensure we have economic development,” said Rep. Roger West, R-Marble. West sees the casino, which could employ more than 2,000 if it gets live dealers, as a key economic pillar that spins off in the region.

Whether the Eastern Band has the requisite votes to get the measure passed is unclear at the moment, however. But West is hopeful.

“I think the votes are there. If they aren’t, it is just a matter of getting them,” said West, who represents Macon, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties.

However, many of the House legislators who are opposing live dealers cite moral and religious grounds, and convincing them to relinquish their convictions in the name of economic development might not be easy.

“My opposition stems from my longstanding belief that state sanctioned gambling has a corrosive effect on our society,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the good the casino has done in the region outweighs any negatives.

“I remember the days before they had Harrah’s — it has brought a whole lot of prosperity to the Eastern Band,” Haire said.

Haire said the jobs provided by Harrah’s are significant, not only the salaries but the health insurance. And Haire personally enjoys going to the concerts at Harrah’s major performance venue. He saw Diana Ross recently, and is headed to see Natalie Cole this weekend.

Haire hopes Cherokee’s casino operation won’t be held hostage to personal ideology.

“I think some people want to put a moral tag on it, but nobody makes you go to Cherokee to gamble. It is all voluntary,” Haire said.

Rapp was willing to go along with live table games for the existing casino campus, since gambling was already going on there. But Rapp is not comfortable with the prospect of Cherokee opening more casinos in the region on their land holdings.

The deal initially inked with the governor would have permitted Cherokee to open more casinos anywhere on land holdings it owned currently.

However, in an attempt to assuage legislators uncomfortable with expansion of gambling onto some of Cherokee’s more recently acquired holdings, new language was added. The new language limits the Eastern Band to a max of four more casinos, and they can only be built on land under the tribe’s domain as of 1988 — making newer land acquisitions off the table.

Live table games passed the senate last week by 33 to 14. All four state senators from the mountains voted for it: Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin; Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine; Sen. Tom Apadoca, R-Hendersonville; and Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

The tribe has hired lobbyist Steve Metcalf, a former legislator from Asheville, to shepherd live table games through the General Assembly. Metcalf declined to comment for this article.

A vote could come as early as next week. If it doesn’t come, it could be a bad sign.

“You never go to a vote unless you have the votes,” West said.

The General Assembly will only be in session for about six weeks.


Education fight resolved

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to reach where it is now. In an historic agreement signed with Gov. Bev Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would grant live dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

While Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

The Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money.

A compromise was reached that places the money in a special “Indian Gaming Education Revenue Fund.” The General Assembly can tap the fund at will — so it does put legislators hand in the till — but they have to hold a special vote to get money out. Otherwise, the money will be disbursed quarterly to school systems across the state based on their student body population, and can only be spent on “classroom teachers, teacher assistants, classroom materials or supplies, or textbooks.”

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

Franklin leaders declined last week to offer a formal apology to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for using weed killer on an ancient Indian mound.

“I don’t think we did anything destructive,” said Franklin Alderman Sissy Pattillo. “And I have a problem with the chief or whoever saying we did something disrespectful. That just bothers me.”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks earlier this month said he was “appalled” by Franklin’s use of a weed killer to denude the mound. Hicks called on the town to formally apologize for what he termed a culturally insensitive action and one that demonstrated a marked lack of respect for the Cherokee people.

Alderman Bob Scott was the lone town leader who wanted to issue an apology. He had drafted a letter to the chief expressing regret for what had taken place, and said that perhaps the dustup could serve as a means of opening new dialog between Franklin and the tribe. His call to send the letter received a lukewarm response from fellow town board members, however. The other aldermen pointed out that they had never been formally asked by the tribe to apologize, but instead the demand for an apology had come only through the media.

“I’ve got a question,” Alderman Farrell Jamison said to Scott at a Franklin town meeting last week. “Was there actually a letter or are we just listening to media stuff? Do you have a copy of a letter?”

“I do not,” Scott responded.

Pattillo made the point that the town didn’t just dump weed killer on the mound out of malicious intent. Franklin leaders have said they were merely trying to cut back on weekly mowing maintenance of the 6,000-square-foot mound, which is located on town property. After the grass was killed off, the town intended to replant it with a low-growing native grass variety that wouldn’t need mowing.

Nikwasi Indian Mound is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain, Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.

Pattillo defended the town’s stewardship of the mound. She said that the town’s ownership dates to 1946 when then-owner Roy Carpenter was offered $3,000 to sell the mound for commercial interests. Someone wanted to doze the mound down and develop the property.

“School children, people in town, people out of town and people out of the county sent in their pennies and money and it was bought for $1,500 dollars and given to the town of Franklin,” Pattillo said.

Mayor Joe Collins had earlier told The Smoky Mountain News that Town Manager Sam Greenwood had exceeded his authority in ordering the weed killer to be applied.

“But decisions were made and that’s where we are at right now,” Collins said. “It didn’t jump out at me as being an affront or an indignity to the mound and certainly not to the Eastern Band. I hope it’s not an issue of strong sentiment to the tribe in particular — I’m over there on a regular basis and I’ve not picked up on it.”

Collins noted that the mound does belong to Franklin and that he was satisfied that the town has been a good steward of it.

“It really is our decision to make because it is under our ownership,” said Collins, whose mother was an enrolled member of the Eastern Band.

The mayor said that he for one would welcome working with the tribe on issues concerning Nikwasi Mound, perhaps in connection with a town hope to one day acquire some of the land around the mound. There has been some discussion about creating a park there. The town also has plans to install an informational kiosk at the mound to inform visitors about the historical significance of the ancient site.

Scott said one good thing about the weed-killer incident is that “it has brought the issue of the mound into the public eye.”

Scott’s motion to send the letter expressing regret failed for lack of a second. Alderman Billy Mashburn then made his own motion — that no apology be considered by the board, and that the town attorney be instructed to look into an ordinance that would ban all foot traffic from the mound unless there was prior town board approval.

“And I think at this point we need to dissolve the mound committee,” Mashburn added, explaining that he believes decisions about the mound need to be made by the town board.

The mound committee was made up of town leaders and residents who discussed issues about Nikwasi Mound. Scott and Collins both served on the committee.

Scott, a bit testily, asked “Would you be more comfortable with the mound committee if I weren’t on it? I’ll just step down.”

No one replied to Scott.

Collins noted that there was no reason to vote on a motion noting that no apology would be considered since there wouldn’t be an apology issued anyway.

The board then dissolved the mound committee, voted to have the attorney research the needed legalese for banning foot traffic and to plant eco-grass on the denuded mound.

The advent of alcohol in Cullowhee is fueling efforts to implement some kind of land-use plan to guide growth in the community around Western Carolina University.

Some speculate that development could be fast and furious in Cullowhee in the wake of last week’s vote that paved the way for bars and convenience stores to peddle booze in the once dry reaches of Jackson County.

“There’s going to be tremendous growth, and Cullowhee is already the fastest-growing township in Jackson County,” said Vincent Gendusa, a recent graduate of Western Carolina University. “That growth needs to be thought out. But, it’s going to be very hard to keep up.”

Cullowhee grew 47 percent between the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010 U.S. Census. Those numbers, coupled with the results of the alcohol referendum, led Gendusa and other concerned Cullowhee residents to gather this week to discuss the possibility of community-based planning.

“We must be pragmatic and incremental,” County Planner Gerald Green cautioned the group. “I want our effort to be the right way and the correct way and to have the support of the community.”

Cullowhee is not its own town, and in the absence of a county ordinance regulating commercial development, Cullowhee has no way of ensuring commercial growth is in keeping with its character.

Jackson County has precedent, however, for enacting spot land-use plans for specific areas of the county, namely in Cashiers and the U.S. 441 Gateway area.

Green cited the Cashiers plan, created in 2003, as a possible model for Cullowhee.

Community-based planning was accepted in Cashiers, Green said, because there was a “well-formed commercial area with people who were interested in protecting property values.”

Doing the same in Cullowhee will mean gathering the signatures of one-third of the property owners who would be in the planning district. The designated zoning area would have to be at least 640 acres and be made up of at least 10 separate tracts of land. Most of the meeting held this week centered on deciding in a rough fashion which parts of the Cullowhee community ought to be considered.

Jim Calderbank, a Cullowhee property owner who lives in Waynesville, suggested the group consider for inclusion old Cullowhee, Forest Hills and some residential areas that might want to be included.

The group ultimately agreed that any plan would start with WCU, with its 540-acre land mass.

“Use the university as the core and go out in tentacles,” said Roy Osborn, another Cullowhee resident and member of a homegrown Cullowhee revitalization group.

Ultimately, it was decided that Green, with help from Osborn, would rough out a potential designated area.

After the meeting, farmer and Cullowhee resident Curt Collins said that he believes the sell of alcoholic beverages will mean more good for the community than bad.

“I think that it will increase the economic vitality and increase the need for greater community participation in Cullowhee — and I think those are both good things,” Collins said, adding that it will be hard to stay ahead of the growth now that alcohol has been voted in.

“It is going to be slow,” Collins said of the prospect of instituting community-based zoning. “We may have businesses who take advantage of that and outpace us.”

On one hand, the new ability to sell alcohol could fuel local, independent-type restaurants — on the other, it could bring the proliferation of chain restaurants, said Mary Jean Herzog. The chair of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE), a community group dedicated to revitalizing and beautifying Cullowhee, said the potential for businesses to sell. She hopes zoning can be implemented ahead of the curve.

“This could be the most beautiful college town in the country,” Herzog said, citing the great natural beauty of the area.


Taking the political pulse

Jack Debnam, chairman of the county commissioners and a Cullowhee resident, doesn’t believe growth in Cullowhee will explode as a result of the referendum vote, at least not immediately.

“I think we’ll have some places selling beer,” he said in an interview. “But as far as bars, there’s no one there — who would support them in the off-season? I don’t see a big spurt happening.”

That said, Debnam also believes that the county and community does need to get a handle on growth in Cullowhee in the form of community-based planning or something similar.

“I think that’s something we are going to have to look at, whether it’s a business district or if Cullowhee decides to incorporate,” Debnam said.

Vicki Greene, an incoming county commissioner, said she believes this is a critical time for the Cullowhee community. While she believes there may be “a short timeframe for folks to get ready,” movement on the issue is promising.

“The community is taking the lead,” she said. “And in the long term, that is the most effective way of instituting planning efforts.”

Greene, who attended last week’s meeting, won the Democratic primary for commissioner and given the lack of opposition for the seat in the general November election is poised to become a commissioner in December. None of the current commissioners attended the meeting.

But, it appears county commissioners would be willing to consider a land-use plan for Cullowhee if that’s what people there want.

Commissioner Doug Cody said he think there will be “a natural evolution of this thing as it goes on.”

Cody said the important thing is that the Cullowhee community is in the driver’s seat during the process.

“At some point and time, people will want planning. And we’re all for letting people decide — we’re not for ramming anything down anyone’s throat,” Cody said.

The sale of alcoholic beverages, he said, “will help the Cullowhee revitalization effort. I think five years down the road we’ll look back and see this as a very good thing for the county.”

For his part, Commissioner Charles Elders said that he hasn’t yet given thought to whether some form of growth controls are needed in Cullowhee, though he does believe it will become a topic of discussion for commissioners.

Joe Cowan, who did not run for re-election, said that the zoning plan for Cashiers has worked well, and that it is possible something similar could be done for Cullowhee.

Commissioner Mark Jones did not return phone messages requesting comment.


Cashiers: a precedent for community land-use planning

A spot land-use plan was passed in 2003 to govern commercial development in Cashiers, making Jackson one of the first, and still to this day one of the only, counties in WNC to have land-use planning outside town limits.

Cashiers has two districts: a “village central” and a general commercial zone. The Jackson County Board of Commissioners created the five-member Cashiers Area Community Planning Council, which is tasked with reviewing and overseeing development guidelines in concert with the county planning board. The council also votes on requests for conditional uses and variances in Cashiers.

The plan set growth regulations, such as building set backs, lighting and sign standards. The only type of development that was banned outright was cell phone towers in the Village Center district.

A political impasse over live dealers and table games at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has been resolved, but the tribe still has some heavy lifting to go before it can close the deal.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians needs the blessing of both the governor and state lawmakers to add live dealers and table games. The tribe offered to give up a cut of gross gaming revenue to win the needed support.

While Gov. Beverly Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money. It’s up to members of each General Assembly to craft the state budget each year as they see fit, regardless of instructions left behind by previous lawmakers.

For its part, the tribe preferred that the state’s cut of casino revenue be directed to education as well.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said it was admirable of the tribe to choose such a worthy cause for casino revenue, but it’s simply not possible to make those kind of promises.

“I think it is totally appropriate for the Eastern Band to express their wishes for where the money goes, but the General Assembly cannot determine for future General Assemblies where money goes,” said Davis, the state representative for the seven western counties, including Cherokee.

Based on letters written between the Republican leadership in the General Assembly and Perdue in recent months, each blamed the other for holding up Cherokee’s live dealers. The dispute underscored a longstanding source of acrimony between Perdue and her Republican counterparts over education funding.

It appears Perdue eventually gave in, according to a recent version of the live gaming deal.

New language in the proposed deal acknowledges the wishes of the governor and the tribe to see the state’s cut of casino revenue go to schools. But it likewise acknowledges that “the General Assembly is not bound” to spend the money for education. It will simply go into the state’s general fund instead.

Perdue seems to have extracted a promise that at least for the next couple of years, however, the casino money will go to education. But there are no guarantees after that.

“Gov. Perdue believes that the state’s revenue from the new compact should be used for education, and we are confident that will be the case for at least the next two years,” according to a statement from Chris Mackey, Perdue’s press secretary.


Other hurdles not yet cleared

While one logjam has been broken, the tribe still faces a challenge in mustering the necessary support to pass the General Assembly.

The tribe is actively lobbying to get the number of votes needed to bring bona fide live dealers and table games to the casino. On the Senate side, things are looking good, according to Davis.

“I think we have the votes in the Senate. I have been working really hard to get those,” Davis said.

It appears to be much closer in the House of Representatives, however — perhaps too close to call right now.

“Some people were concerned it might be another Las Vegas,” Davis said. “There are some people who have real ethical principles against gambling.”

One of those is Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has been torn over the issue.

Rapp is against gambling for the social ills it causes. For some, gambling is simply a form of entertainment and recreation. But for others, it is an addiction.

Rapp voted against the state lottery several years ago and has been public enemy number one against the video gambling and video sweepstakes industry, leading the charge to outlaw the digital gambling terminals.

“Many of the people who are playing these games have little or no disposable income. They are taking away from their family’s basic needs, food and housing money, to gamble,” Rapp said.

Rapp had resigned himself to the casino’s presence in Cherokee and was willing to support the addition of live dealers there — but only there.

“If they were going to stay in those confines of the existing campus, I would be fine. They already have gambling there, so I could support that,” Rapp said.

But the deal brokered with the state would have allowed live dealers at any new casinos built by the tribe in the future on other tribally-held lands in Jackson, Swain, Graham or Cherokee counties.

“This wasn’t permitting it in place, but was allowing an expansion,” Rapp said. “That brought me up short.”

Specifically, Rapp was concerned about a tribally-owned tract of land near Andrews that is being eyed by the tribe for a small-scale casino — something less than a full-fledged casino but something slightly more than a bingo hall.

There has been movement to amend the language in the compact with the state to limit live dealers to gambling facilities on land held by the tribe prior to the mid-1980s — not tracts it has added to trust lands in more recent years. But that still may be too much of a blank slate for some legislators. If the vote was held today, it’s not clear how the final count would come down.

“It will be a very, very close vote in the House with both Republicans and Democrats voting against it,” Rapp said.

Davis said lawmakers might be a little more flexible after this week’s primary election is behind them.

Davis said while he personally doesn’t gamble, his Libertarian streak doesn’t think the government should over-regulate and limit free enterprise. He also is eager for the economic boost live dealers may bring.

“I think we need to do everything we can to enhance the economic climate in the western part of the state,” Davis said.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino currently is limited to video-based gambling. The tribe has touted the economic impact of adding bonafide table games and real cards.

It would attract more guests — those of a different caliber and demographic than its core base of players today — which in turn will mean 400 more jobs and an economic boost for all of WNC.

It will also mean more money for the tribe, which uses casino proceeds to fund social programs, education, health care and other services for tribal members, as well as a twice-annual personal check for each of the 14,000 members of the tribe.


Years in the making

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to get to this point. In an historic agreement signed with Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would allow real dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

Perdue’s office is putting a positive spin on the prospects of passing the measure before she leaves office in November.

“We are comfortable that all of the issues around the agreement will be settled in time for the General Assembly to pass the appropriate legislation this year,” Mackey said in a statement.

Cherokee Schools has launched a year-long process to develop a new strategic plan, a move prompted by issues raised in a recent accreditation review of the school system.

As a sovereign entity, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates its own school system and does not have to comply with the state standards as other public schools do. But, Cherokee Schools are subject to certain oversights through the Bureau of Indian Education.

“We have to meet a lot of different standards,” said Lori Blankenship, chair of the Cherokee school board. And “It is in our best interest to be accredited.”

The schools must go through an accreditation process every few years.

The new strategic plan is in its infancy and will take the better part of a year to piece together, said school officials at a recent tribal council meeting. The first step is a public meeting to gain input from students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders about what they would like the plan to include.

“That may give us even more precise direction (for the schools) or it may change the direction depending,” said Mark Rogers, acting superintendent for Cherokee Central Schools. “It won’t just be me going through striking; it will be a group effort.”

The recent review found three areas where the schools needed to make changes to be full accredited. They have until 2014 to make the adjustments.

The first of three required actions is more staff development opportunities, which can help the schools attract and retain quality teachers. School officials plan to join the National School Boards Association and the National Indian School Board Association.

“They provide lots of training and structure that really assists in policy making,” Rogers said.

Another, more holistic required action is the continuity of curriculum from grade-to-grade. The schools are currently looking at a top-down approach to connecting the curriculum and ensuring that the students in one grade are adequately prepared for the next.

By looking at what a high school senior should learn and know before they graduate, administrators can figure out what the juniors should study to be ready for their senior year, what sophomores should study to be ready for their junior year, and so on. The continuity will not only exist among grades but also among subjects.

“That will start the conversation with the eighth grade. What do they need to do to develop that ninth grade student?” Rogers said.

The final required action includes tracking more quantitative data to show marked improvement — something that the schools currently do, Rogers said.

“We just did not put it in our strategic plan,” he said.

Students at Cherokee Central Schools recently finished their end of year testing, and the results are looking good, Rogers said. “Our tests scores are way up. Preliminary result look very positive,” he said.

The test scores were not being released as of Monday because students had not been notified of their scores.

The review marked the first time it was done for the elementary, middle and high schools collectively, rather than as separate entities. The three schools are all part of the same campus now, after the construction of a massive, new $109-million school for K-12 students in 2009.

“This is the first time they’ve come together,” said Terri Henry, a tribal council representative from Painttown.

The new strategic plan will include elements of the current plan, which was approved in 2009. One element that will likely be removed from the plan will be additional course offerings, which would mean hiring more teachers, supplies and other related items.

“We hope to maintain what we have,” Rogers said. “We are in a bad economy, and the money is not flowing, and our main goal to maintain what we have right now.”

There are currently about 1,150 students enrolled in the Cherokee Central Schools.


Voice your opinion

Cherokee Central Schools will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m., May 24, at the school to hear input from students, parents and other stakeholders regarding a strategic plan for the school system.

A move by the town of Franklin to spray the ancient Nikwasi Indian Mound with weed killer is not sitting well with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks last week described himself as “appalled” and called on the town to formally apologize for what he termed a culturally insensitive action and one that demonstrated a marked lack of respect for the Cherokee people.

“I’m going to make an issue out of it. I am not a happy camper. I’m not happy at all,” Hicks said in an interview. “I think this is really disrespectful to the tribe.”

Hicks said he plans to talk to both town and county leaders in Macon County.

For its part, Franklin leaders said they were merely trying to cut back on weekly mowing maintenance of the mound, which is located on town property. After the grass was killed off, the town intended to replant it with a low-growing native grass variety that wouldn’t need mowing.

“If they were tired of taking care of it or something, they could have approached us for help. We would have sent over our own mowing crew,” Hicks responded.

Nikwasi Indian Mound is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain, Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.

Last month, the town sprayed the 6,000-square-foot mound with an herbicide to kill the grass with the intent of replanting with “eco-grass,” a grass that grows much slower and shorter than regular grass. It had taken a town crew of four workers about half a day once each week during the spring, summer and fall to take care of Nikwasi Mound.

Town Manager Sam Greenwood said he’d made the decision to use the weed killer independently of the town board or of the town’s mound committee. Greenwood said replanting had not taken place yet because “we’re still waiting on the herbicide to break down so we can made sure there’s nothing residual.”

Greenwood said he felt the decision was in the best interest of the town, the mound, and that it was respectful of the tribe.

“This way we can put in a permanent ground cover and keep the town crews off the mound,” he said in explanation.

The future eco-grass won’t require mowing.

“I think they had good intentions, but they went about it wrong,” said Tom Belt, a Cherokee scholar who teaches at Western Carolina University. “It is like deciding you would like to make a change to an alter in a church and not consulting the clergyman or congregation. It would have been appropriate for the people doing that, the caretakers in Franklin, to consult with someone first, to talk with them about what would be the appropriate thing to do.”

The mound is not just a historical marker or symbol to the Cherokee, Belt said, “but has a deeper meaning. A spiritual meaning. And I know the Cherokee people would work with anybody to conserve it.”

Franklin town Alderman Bob Scott was accused in a town memo as having triggered subsequent media coverage of the now denuded mound. He in fact did not do that. Scott said, however, that he didn’t comprehend how some in town had thought the action of spraying herbicide on Nikwasi Indian Mound would pass unnoticed.

“You can’t hide a 500-year-old mound in the middle of town that’s turning brown,” he noted accurately.

Scott, who is a member of the town’s mound committee, said that his understanding was that the town would “let the grass grow up naturally on the mound until we decided what to do. We were trying to do it right so that it would be OK with everybody. We were in no hurry.”

Mayor Joe Collins stopped short of saying the town would issue an apology to Cherokee. He did express regret that the spraying had taken place and said that Greenwood “had overstepped his authority.”

That said, Collins noted that running mowers up and down the mound also isn’t a good caretaking solution. The new grass, he said, “will allow for less tromping around on it.”

Collins is in a particularly sticky situation. He and Hicks both noted his family ties to Cherokee — Collins’ mother was an enrolled member; the mayor is what’s called a first descendent.

“Cherokee is me,” Collins said. “We certainly want to be in accord with the Eastern Band, which is our neighbors and, in some ways, our family.”

Collins said this situation might prove an opportunity to engage in a conversation with the tribe about the mound.

There have been some discussions in Franklin about turning the area into a park of sorts.

“We have been a faithful steward of Nikwasi Indian Mound,” Collins said. “We are acutely aware of its significance. We have protected that mound for generations and will continue to do so.”

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is taking matters into its own hands in the tug-of-war over the best route to Cherokee.

A tribe-purchased billboard on Interstate 40, heading west of Asheville, will soon tout two possible routes to Cherokee. Official highway signs direct Cherokee-bound traffic through Maggie Valley, but both Cherokee and Jackson County leaders had asked the state highway department to change the sign, touching off a dispute between Maggie and Jackson County, both hoping to lay claim to passing tourists en route to Cherokee.

The DOT rejected the request to change the official signs, prompting the tribe to put up its own billboard noting that U.S. 74 is also a direct route to Cherokee. The billboard will target drivers coming from the east, according to Robert Jumper, head of Cherokee Travel and Tourism. The new billboard is in production now, and Jumper expected it to be on I-40 within the next week or so.

Jumper said the tribe hears multiple complaints from motorists at the Cherokee welcome center who have been surprised, and sometimes scared, by the winding two-lane route thru Maggie Valley and over Soco Gap. Some also complain of getting stuck behind slower vehicles because there are no passing lanes, Jumper said.

U.S. 74 through Jackson County, by contrast, is a four-lane highway.

“This is for the benefit of everybody,” Jumper said. “Cherokee is going to provide a billboard that provides the customer with a choice.”

The new billboard will list both options, reading “easy access to Cherokee via U.S. 74 or U.S. 19.”

Jumper said the billboard’s message would ultimately benefit Maggie Valley, too, because some motorists now are frustrated by the trip through the small town on U.S. 19, and that could potentially repel them from wanting to go that way next time. This way, Jumper said somewhat ingeniously, the tribe can redirect those visitors looking for a more “scenic route” on their return trip, and they’ll have a more positive impression of the small Haywood County town because they’ll know what to expect on the two-lane highway.

More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After receiving some poor tourism-related numbers last year, Jackson leaders went hunting for a method to entice more visitors to the county, hence the sign request.

Cherokee quickly jumped on the sign bandwagon, sending letters of support for a new sign from the chief and the tourism office.

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the state DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

DOT turned down the request for a new sign citing safety concerns, as in the possibility of more wrecks as motorists attempted to puzzle out a sign offering dueling routes. Cherokee’s billboard will be bigger than a standard highway sign, allowing the information to be read clearly, and will be placed on I-40, giving people plenty of time to decide which route to take rather than a highway sign giving only a split second of decision time before the exit.

Large, walk-in beer coolers are ready and waiting to be stocked at Dwight and Jamie Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center, a gas station directly across the street from the entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on U.S. 441.

They’ve been there for eight years in anticipation that one day alcoholic beverages could be sold countywide in Jackson. The day of reckoning has finally come, with Jackson voters poised to decide on countywide alcohol sales in the May primary election.

And the financial stakes for the sale of alcoholic beverages by the Winchesters and others in the Gateway community along U.S. 441 just got a lot higher after Cherokee voters overwhelming decided this month to keep the reservation dry except for the casino.

Winchester’s gas station is literally the first and closest stop for potential beer buyers from Cherokee, literally a stone’s throw from the reservation boundary line.

Winchester is keenly positioned to capture the business of anyone in Cherokee looking for beer, saving them what would otherwise be 15-minute drive west to Bryson City or a bit more than that east to Sylva.

“We don’t have to have beer to be successful,” said Dwight Winchester, gesturing at his bustling store, mid-morning on a workday. “But we do, of course, want it.”

Winchester said there has been a lot of land speculation along U.S. 441 in anticipation of a “yes” vote to alcohol sales. Winchester said that he expects plenty of company in coming days, in the form of other businesses setting up to sell alcoholic beverages, if the vote indeed passes.

The Winchesters currently employee 42 people, and they expect to add two or three more workers if alcohol sales are allowed.

Winchester, though he clearly and unabashedly hopes the referendum does go through, is concerned about perceptions of his business on the nearby Cherokee Reservation when he begins selling alcoholic beverages.

“I have great respect for the folks and the pastors who feel so strongly against it,” said Winchester.

The Bryson City native added that he’s struggling with how exactly to broach the matter with those Cherokee residents who just voted “no” so clearly — more than 66 percent specifically voted against the sale of beer and wine at gas stations and grocery stores — firmly and unequivocally.

“But, the economic increase is going to outweigh any negative you can come up with,” Winchester said.

Winchester said the beer companies clearly believe the sale of alcoholic beverages will pass in Jackson County because they’ve frequently been in his store to discuss the matter. Those sellers’ guesses are as good as any: there’s barely been any discussion of the matter publicly, for or against, in Jackson County since commissioners first decided on the vote last year. That, however, certainly wasn’t the case in Cherokee.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the sale of alcoholic beverages on the reservation were busy mailing out flyers, putting up signs and giving speeches to bolster their cases.

A recent study by Martin and McGill found that the tribe conservatively would have received up to $3.8 million in revenue via an ABC retail store within five years. The tribe’s version of sales tax was projected to pump a total of $1.7 million into Cherokee’s general fund from the addition of alcohol sales.

Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center is a combination gas station and Huddle House. The Winchesters have an identical business in Cullowhee, too, another potential hotspot for the sale of alcoholic beverages with the captive Western Carolina University population. The Gateway business was built in 2004, the one in Cullowhee in 2001. When both were built large beer walk-in coolers were included in each.

To say they are now perfectly positioned to benefit financially from the sale of alcoholic beverages is to indulge somewhat in understatement.

If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.

The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, at least according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

Jamie Winchester said she is uncertain how quickly the couple’s stores would be able to sell alcohol if the measure passes May 8. She has been undergoing a self-taught crash course in North Carolina alcohol sales to, in part, try to determine just that.

Dwight Winchester said if the vote is “no” that’s OK with the couple, too.

“We’re not going to go anywhere regardless,” he said.

About two dozen people gathered outside the tribal council house broke into song with the words “Praise God, Praise God, Praise God,” after the final results of Cherokee alcohol vote were tabulated last week.

The Cherokee Reservation will remain dry, keeping in place the historic ban on alcohol sales, following Thursday’s vote on the issue. Enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sent a strong message with about 60 percent voting “no” to alcohol sales.

“It sent a clear message that we are not going to be affected by those few who would benefit” from the sale of alcohol, said Amy Walker, an enrolled member from Birdtown.

Opponents of the referendum said that easier access to alcohol would lead to increased rates of alcoholism, drunken driving and domestic violence.

“If we made $100 in revenue from alcohol, it would cost us $10,000 to treat the problem,” said Peggy Hill of the Yellow Hill community.

A few of those gathered wore T-shirts that read, “We have come too far to die by our own hand.”

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the only establishment in Cherokee where alcohol is sold. Cherokee residents instead have to drive 20 minutes or more into Sylva or Bryson City to get a six-pack of beer or bottle of wine.

That could change later this year, however, as voters in Jackson County are having an alcohol election of their own in the May primary. If Jackson County voters approve countywide alcohol sales, it would become available literally a stone’s throw from the reservation.

Jeff Arneach, who was leaving the polls last Thursday, voted to allow alcohol sales on the reservation partially because he had read that drunken driving is more common in areas that are dry. If alcohol can be purchased in Cherokee, the incidents of drinking and driving might decline, Arneach theorized.

Proponents had also said that alcohol sales were necessary for the tourism industry. Businesses have lost customers because visitors can’t get wine or beer in Cherokee, even on the menu in restaurants, supporters of the referendum said.

For some enrolled members who live in other states, the vote was important enough to them to travel back to the reservation to vote in the election.

Larry Maney, a 70-year-old enrolled member who lives in Tennessee, drove more than two hours to have his say.

“I’ve seen a lot of harm — broken homes, marriages, a lot of abuse in families,” Maney said. “It just doesn’t make sense” to approve the referendum, he said.

Earlier Thursday, before the vote results rolled in, students from Cherokee High School presented the results of their own vote to Cherokee leaders. During that vote, an even larger percentage of students — 66 percent — voted down the measure, said Missy Crowe, an enrolled member whose son attends the high school.

Crowe was one of at least 40 Cherokee who filed an injunction three days before the election trying to derail the vote. The injunction said tribal council, the election board, the ABC Commission and Chief Michell Hicks violated tribal law by holding the vote. The Eastern Band held a referendum vote in 2009 to allow the sale of alcohol in its casino. The law states that the tribe could not hold another alcohol vote until 2014, according to the injunction request.

A judge later denied the request, saying that an injunction is an extraordinary remedy. The enrolled members had not sought out other avenue in which to air their grievances, such as filing a formal protest with the election board, the judge’s decision reads.


Sovereign say

As part of the referendum, each community had the option of voting alcohol sales up or down. The flexibility meant any of the six communities in Cherokee could separately opt out even if the majority elsewhere on the reservation had approved alcohol sales.

However, the option is moot at this point since the reservation will remain dry.

Birdtown was the only community where a majority of voters approved any form of alcohol. They narrowly voted in favor of opening an ABC store — the final total was 308 for and 306 against. But, like other communities, they voted against alcohol sales in restaurants, groceries or convenience stores.

The vote was close in Yellowhill and Birdtown, communities closer to the center of town, with the anti-alcohol sentiments winning by only a narrow margin.

Meanwhile, one of the reservation’s more traditional communities of Big Cove answered an emphatic ‘no,’ with more than 75 percent of voters striking down the referendum.

“I think there was a lot of emotion involved” in people’s decision, said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board. Rose spearheaded a committee who promoted the referendum.

Rose said alcohol sales could have garnered millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe and the economy on the reservation.

“I am not terribly surprised” that people voted against the sale of alcohol in restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores, however, Rose said.

Of those who voted, 1,640 enrolled members voted down the sale of beer or wine in grocery and convenience stores — compared to the almost 1,500 who voted down the other two questions. Critics of the referendum disparaged the words grocery and convenience stores, asking if someone could put a can of beans on a shelf and call it a grocery store. People did not want beer joints cropping up all over the reservation.

In the election, 2,517 people cast a ballot. Voter turnout among local members of the tribe is difficult to determine, however. All enrolled members no matter where they live are eligible to vote in tribal elections, but have to travel to Cherokee to cast a ballot.  There are a total of 6,715 eligible voters in the tribe, making total voter turnout around 30 percent — but the turnout was likely much higher than that among local enrolled members as enrolled members who live elsewhere in the state or country may have opted not to make the trip to Cherokee to vote, bringing down the total voter turnout.

Now that the vote has taken place, the tribe cannot hold another referendum vote on alcohol for at least five years.


Vote results

There were three separate questions on the ballot related to different types of beer, wine and liquor sales:

• 60 percent voted against an ABC store where the public could purchase liquor.

• 61 percent voted against the sale of beer, wine or mixed drinks in restaurants.

• 66 percent voted against the sale of beer or wine in grocery and convenience stores.

Although the anti-alcohol movement handily won this time around, supporters of alcohol sales have gained a little ground during the past two decades. In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated by a wider margin of 72 percent in a vote of 1,532 to 601.

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