In 2012, Tribal Council gave the go-ahead to construct a $92 million park featuring water slides, rock climbing, zip-lining, splash pads and indoor amenities such as a 302-room hotel, restaurants, retail shops and an arcade. But the plan found itself growing alongside pushes for other expensive construction projects — most notably a new casino in Murphy and a new hospital — and it got sidelined. Now, the casino and hospital projects are built and open for business, and Tribal Council has a renewed interest in the adventure park concept.
“It wasn’t the project or the studies or anything that we had done at the time that had stopped it,” said Councilmember Alan “B” Ensley, of Yellowhill, when Tribal Council discussed the idea during a March 23 work session. “It was the state of the tribe.”
With the continued threat that someone closer to population centers like Atlanta and Chattanooga will build a casino and cut off Cherokee’s share of the casino market, diversification has long been a buzzword for tribal leaders. A theme park showcasing Cherokee culture and Smoky Mountain beauty could be the magic bullet to sustaining and growing Cherokee’s share of tourism dollars.
“Everyone says you need an anchor,” Ensley said. “You need a wow factor to come into Cherokee. This could be our wow factor right here.”
Envisioning the park
That’s a statement with which Tom Pientka — CEO of the design, engineering and construction company Iconica, which is working on the project — whole-heartedly agrees.
Cherokee’s “captive audience” — spurred by the millions of tourists funneled through each year en route to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the 18 million people who live within a three-hour drive of town, its stunning natural beauty, its cultural uniqueness and potential for collaboration with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in this type of venture make it a perfect choice for the project, Pientka said.
“It starts to become a no-brainer for me,” he said.
The park could tie in Cherokee culture as its main “brand,” Pientka said, urging councilmembers to think about it as an opportunity to “create Epcot here in your backyard.”
In fact, Pientka said, Cherokee should really start thinking bigger than the $92 million, 300-room project originally envisioned in 2012. Up the capacity to 400 rooms, maybe, and by all means consider adding an outdoor adventure park component to the existing plans.
“Today everybody’s built water parks. We think given the lay of the land here it’s time to take it to the next generation of adventure park,” he told Tribal Council. “Elements of this are being built out on the East Coast, but nobody’s really done it holistically, and we think your location is perfect for that.”
The adventure park component would include snow tubing, mountain biking trails and perhaps even a rapid river course with pumps that allow the rapids to increase or decrease in intensity.
“How cool would that be here?” Pientka said. “It will become a true destination.”
Of course, all that will probably increase the cost by millions, though the exact figure remains to be seen. However, Pientka urged council to strongly consider adding the extra dimension to the plans, promising that it would be worth it in the long run.
“This is what makes it work 365. It’s not just your summer destination. Your seasons are longer than they are up in Wisconsin or up in the Poconos, so I think we should take advantage of that,” Pientka said. “Of course it will require capital and an investment, but it’s going to help ensure the success.”
Regardless, the adventure park — if built — would have a huge impact on the local community as well as on tourists. Pientka estimates such a facility would provide 300 to 350 jobs, with about 150 of those positions full-time. It would also jumpstart retail business in town.
“You’ve got a captive audience. You can bring the families back in multiple ways,” he said. “Destination retail shopping is something that’s needed. I don’t see it here.”
Reactions from tribal leaders
Ensley wasn’t the only councilmember to react favorably to Pientka’s presentation.
“We can sit back and talk about it for another two to six years, but it’s not going to do us any good,” said Councilmember Travis Smith, of Birdtown. “I would be in full support of this and move forward with it.”
“I like the idea that it is going to be more Cherokee-themed,” agreed Councilmember Adam Wachacha, of Snowbird. “I think that’s what this town needs.”
“I think everybody’s ready to move forward with that,” added Chairman Bill Taylor, of Wolfetown.
But nothing’s set in stone. There are still a lot of unknowns.
That’s the position the tribe’s executive office is taking.
During the meeting, Principal Chief Patrick Lambert said that the adventure park is “something that is very intriguing in concept and idea,” but his Chief of Staff Sage Dunston clarified that it’s hard to tell for sure, at this point, whether it’s a good idea or not.
“We’re not in favor or in opposition but just studying the proposal,” Dunston said.
Factors affecting cost
The exact proposal will depend on which option Tribal Council decides to pursue once it gets some hard numbers back on the costs associated with various approaches to the project.
“This isn’t an exercise in design,” Pientka said. “It’s now about the numbers.”
How much is Tribal Council willing to spend to get the project done? How much should be spent to get it done right?
In 2012, council had approved a plan for a $92 million facility, but that plan included only 300 rooms — the general idea had been to bring the total up to 400 rooms later — and some of the outdoor adventure components Pientka is now presenting weren’t included. Pientka didn’t have any numbers on hand for how much the adventure component might account for but offhand threw out $5 or $10 million as possible marks.
The change in economic climate will also affect the total price tag.
“We budgeted this in 2010 in the heart of the recession,” Pientka said. “Costs have gone up. I don’t know where it’s going to land. But the last thing I want to see happen is not put the right horsepower behind it to make that destination.”
The degree to which Tribal Council decides to tie the adventure park to the casino could also impact the total price. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino sports a variety of amenities that could be attractive to adventure park users as well, such as restaurants and stores and hotel rooms.
“We can leverage the casino meeting space, we can leverage the restaurants, and we can start to downsize some of the things we would typically build in the creation of a destination resort,” Pientka said.
Especially, he said, if Tribal Council elects to go with a possible, though rather mountainous, location sitting catty-corner from the casino itself. In that case, perhaps a tram could even be installed to ferry visitors back and forth between the two establishments.
“The difficulty with the site is the terrain, but that can be dealt with,” Pientka said. “We can knock the mountain down to a certain point. I’m sure we’re going to hit rock somewhere, but we don’t know what we don’t know at this point.”
The other site option would be on the site of the old Cherokee Elementary School.
If the casino didn’t exist, Pientka said, he’d lean toward that second site as the best option for the park, especially since shaving the mountain down is a wildcard cost for the first site. But potential cross-pollination with the casino could prove extremely valuable, and it might be harder on a site that was farther away.
“What’s best for the customer, and that’s where I need a little help,” Pientka said. “If we have all these ancillary services here at the casino, it might make more sense there.”
There are a lot of variables to consider, but dialing those down to objective measurements will be the next step. Councilmembers’ feedback to Pientka was overwhelmingly positive, and they ultimately directed him to start working on a dollar figure for what the project might cost. With those numbers in hand, they’ll be able to move forward on the project.
“We can sit around here and old school it all day to where we’re scared to spend our money,” Smith said, “but unless we’re scared, we’re not going to make it.”