While the rest of the mountains remain mired in a construction slowdown, a new building supply and home improvement store opened in Cherokee last month, filling what seems to be a very real void.
A steady stream of construction workers on tribal building projects and a massive expansion at the casino have been frequenting the store since it opened four weeks ago. Saw blades break, nail guns run out of nails, the bolts brought to the job site are the wrong size.
But there wasn’t anywhere in Cherokee to buy them.
“You couldn’t buy a paint brush, a gallon of paint, a hammer or nail,” said Danny Wingate, who is vice president and a partner in the new Cherokee Home Center. “I had a guy come up to me the other day and say Mr. Wingate, I want to thank you. This cost me 22 cents but if you weren’t here it would cost me $5 and 22 cents because I would have to drive to Sylva to get it.”
Of course, Wingate isn’t going to make payroll and keep the lights on by selling nuts and bolts and pipe fittings. Cherokee Home Center is a miniature version of Lowe’s or Home Depot, stocking a little bit of everything a homeowner might need — washing machines, refrigerators, light fixtures, faucets — none of which could be found on the Cherokee reservation until now. Even simple tools like drills, lawn mowers, chainsaws and ladders weren’t available at any local stores.
Wingate invested close to $1 million to get the store up and running, most of that in inventory.
Wingate looks forward to his daily forays over the mountain to Cherokee from his home base in Waynesville, where he is the manager of the successful and longtime building supply store Haywood Builders.
Cherokee’s thriving economic scene fueled by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is a welcome contrast to the rest of Western North Carolina, where the construction trade is still very much stuck in the recession. Sales at Wingate’s Haywood Builder’s store in Waynesville are off 65 percent from their high during the peak of the building boom.
“It is exciting to be doing something like this at time when people are still in a slow down,” Wingate said of the new Cherokee enterprise.
The venture wouldn’t be possible if not for the booming casino business and its trickle down effect — from the salaries it provides local people, the annual cut every tribal member gets from casino profits, and the myriad tribal programs and services it funds.
The casino attracts 3.5 million guests a year. There are hundreds of hotel and motel rooms in Cherokee — and that means hundreds of potential plumbing malfunctions. Every time a hotel had a leaky faucet or broken toilet handle, they used to make a trip to Lowe’s in Sylva. The casino has its own stock room for the parts that commonly tear up in its hotel rooms, but inevitably they don’t have everything and have already been hitting the new Cherokee Home Store.
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“They have hundreds of hotel rooms that tear up every day. They come in here with certain light bulbs, certain plumbing valves, certain knobs,” Wingate said.
There has also been a steady stream of construction workers working on the $633 million expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort stopping in for parts and tools. At its height, the expansion boasted 1,100 construction workers and was the largest building project in the Southeast. While it is in the final stages now, it’s still the biggest construction site in the region and won’t be completely finished for a year — and there’s still plenty of money to be made selling to the contractors.
Crews building a fountain for the new casino entrance keep stopping in and buying concrete mix and epoxy.
“Nobody figures everything they need on a construction job. It makes sense to pick it up here instead of having to drive for miles,” Wingate said.
Wingate has also realized that with over 1,000 campgrounds and RV sites in Cherokee, travelers constantly need parts to fix or outfit their camping rigs.
Wingate and Haywood Builder’s manage Cherokee Home Center under a contract from its majority owner, tribal member and Cherokee businessman Chandler Ray Cooper.
A service to the tribe
The casino nets a profit of close to $400 million. Half goes to tribal members, and Wingate hopes to figure out just what kinds of things tribal members want to buy so he can stock them. Next week, he is bringing in a line of mattresses, something else you couldn’t buy in Cherokee.
“If we match the products up, appliances, bedding whatever it is, with what people want, we know they would prefer to spend their money at home rather than go out,” Wingate said. “We want to be everything they could get at a big box store.”
Tens of millions of dollars hit the wallets of tribal members twice a year on per cap day. But many tribal members spend ahead, buying things in advance with the promise to pay when their casino checks come in. So Wingate has an in-house financing and credit department at Cherokee Home Center.
There’s also the commercial side of the business, and Wingate anticipates the tribe may be one of the store’s biggest customers.
The tribe has been engaged in a constant construction cycle for the past decade. Casino revenue has allowed the tribe to expand services, and with that comes new buildings: a massive public school, an emergency dispatch and IT center, a transportation hub, a new courthouse, soon a new jail — even a movie theater and skateboard park.
The tribe has a major housing division, and just keeping pace with the maintenance needs of the tribal housing developments, from government-run condos to a retirement home, is big business. The Cherokee Boys Club also builds tribal housing, with more than 40 new units planned for the coming year.
Cherokee Home Center acts as a distributor for construction materials for job sites, shipping truckloads of drywall, siding, you name it. It will soon have a lumber yard for builders to pick their stock if they choose.
It’s one thing to snag the low-hanging fruit — the big wholesale orders for truck loads of lumber, drywall and siding. But Wingate say he and Cooper are making a real investment in the community with a fully-stocked hardware and home improvement store, from paint brushes to shop vacs. Cherokee Home Center even has a line of construction clothing, from Carhartts to work boots.
“That’s the thing where it is a service to the community and a cost savings to the tribe,” Wingate said. “They were having to go elsewhere for all this, primarily to Lowe’s.”
Now the money can stay on the reservation with a Cherokee-owned business.
The money stays at home, plus it saves tribal workers gas money and work time.
“We are on a mission to try to meet the needs of the repairs they have,” Wingate said. “We find something everyday they need but we don’t have, and we promise to put it in stock.”