CHEROKEE, N.C. — Like anywhere along the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Native Americans in Cherokee, North Carolina, try hard to attract tourists and their dollars to the reservation.
But now the tribe is shifting its economic development strategy by buying real estate creating new businesses beyond the boundaries of Cherokee.
"Economic development doesn't mean we always build something here," said Principal Chief Richard Sneed. "There are obstacles to building here including the topography of the mountains. We're on federal trust land which means there are federal guidelines that don't exist just off the boundary."
The EBCI is working on plans to hopefully build a new casino near Bristol, Virginia. The tribe just closed on a more than $13 million real estate transaction to obtain nearly 200 acres in Sevier County at the busy 407 exit of Interstate 40.
"The Dumplin Creek property was in the process of being developed when the great recession happened," said Sneed. "Some of the things we've talked about are possibly putting a resort, hotel, maybe branded hotels, dining, retail, those are the ideas being floated right now. There's nothing concrete."
Just north of the interstate, the tribe will likely turn a 122-acre piece of property it bought in 2019 adjacent to the Tennessee Smokies baseball stadium into new housing.
Chief Sneed said you can bet he is consistently asked the same question about any property the tribe purchases.
"Are you going to put a casino there? That's one of the first questions we get," said Sneed.
The question is reasonable considering the Cherokee are professionals in the gaming business. But Tennessee law would have to change to allow physical casinos or sports-book facilities.
"Tennessee would have to amend its constitution. Will it happen? Maybe someday. I don't know. If it ever does, someone is going to do it [build a casino]. We want to position ourselves well if that opportunity presents itself. But the property at Dumplin Creek is in a great location for any kind of business with visibility from the interstate and a high traffic-count," said Sneed.
The Eastern Band set up a new limited liability corporation (LLC) to make these kinds of investments on behalf of the tribe. Sneed said other tribes throughout the country have created LLCs for commercial investments.
"The more important part is it moves at the pace of business and not at the pace of government," said Sneed.
Sneed said another reason it is important to seek opportunities beyond the boundary is limited space on the reservation. Any property developed for commercial use takes away from the native land available for housing.
Seeking revenue beyond the reservation also allows the EBCI to diversify its financial portfolio.
"We want to have economic diversification away from gaming. We shouldn't necessarily just rely on gaming for revenue stream. Sevier County is a premier tourist destination in the Southeast. It's great property. We think it is a good real estate investment," said Sneed.
The tribe's LLC will present formal ideas for ways to develop the property in Tennessee within 90 days. Sneed said there are no current plans to buy additional land in Tennessee at this time.