SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) plans to take a huge plot of empty land at the Sevier Co. exit and turn it into an “experiential destination" for visitors on their way to the Great Smoky Mountains.
The tribe purchased the 200-acre lot just off exit 407 last year for $13.5 million and it sparked a lot of conversation and speculation on what they could build there.
While many people immediately thought casino, that's not in the current plans. It would be against existing state law to place a casino in that area.
So what are the plans?
"While the vision for the development remains flexible, the organizers say it will feature a common theme or narrative that heightens the experience for visitors. Tourists and shoppers will have dining options, unique shopping experiences, and entertainment attractions that fit the overall theme and vision," according to a press release.
Knoxville-based company OE Experiences is tasked with ironing out the details and bringing this vision to life.
"Things like stay where you play, we see hotels being a component here, restaurants," said OE Experiences CEO Matthew Cross.
It said it expected the development to be a "first stop" for the 11 million tourists who travel to the area every year.
Cross projects the economic impact on Sevier County alone to be $1 billion over the first decade of operation.
The tribe purchased the land under a business development entity known as Kituwah, LLC.
“Our tribe established Kituwah, LLC to move at the pace of business and to diversify our economic interests in areas other than gaming,” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed. “We are pleased with the strong interest in the property and look forward to strengthening partnerships with Sevier County.”
Kituwah, LLC and OE Experiences confirmed there will be no casino on the property. It's illegal to operate one in Tennessee.
“This will be a major investment by the EBCI into our local community. It is a unique opportunity for the tribe to form strategic partnerships in one of the best tourism markets in the country. Millions of tourists drive by this location every year on their way to the national park, and they will stop here first,” said Cross.
The COVID-19 pandemic does provide many challenges to such a development, but confidence is high for those behind the development.
“We are keeping our expectations managed about the future. It is too early to know how exactly the virus will affect us long-term. However, we are seeing that most people feel safer in their car than on an airplane. That is great news for this market, as we are one of the most drivable destinations in the country with most of the nation’s population east of the Mississippi River living within a one-day-drive of the Smoky Mountains.”
The developers are also counting on visitors from Knoxville to boost the development and help provide a workforce.
“We know Knoxville residents will visit this location for a unique date night, dining experience, shopping trip, or an easy weekend getaway,” Cross said. “It’s merely a 20-minute drive from Knoxville and a little over an hour from Asheville.”
“We were excited to hear of the announcement today by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” said Sevierville City Administrator Russell Treadway. “It’s very encouraging news for our city, county and region and we’re ready to work with EBCI as they move forward towards development.”
OE Experiences is looking for suggestions about what locals would like to see at this development. You can submit your ideas here.