Taking the lead

As Michell Hicks gazed out over the audience in a private dining room at Haywood Community College last week, he clearly stood out from the crowd.

At age 39, he was a good 10 years younger than most of the other elected officials and bigwigs in attendance at the second meeting of the Regional Assembly of WNC Communities, an economic and community-development organization. And with his close-cropped hair, snappy suit and yellow power tie, Hicks also outscored most of his colleagues on the style meter.

But as principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — and the featured speaker at the March 23 meeting — Hicks had a message for his Western North Carolina colleagues.

“We have chosen to make economic development a key initiative for our community,” Hicks told the group in measured tones. “And we share that initiative and that desire with each community that’s represented here today.”

In some ways, the Eastern Band is in an enviable position at a time when manufacturing-plant shutdowns have put thousands of people in the region out of work. The tribe itself, Hicks pointed out, employs some 3,000 people (including about 1,800 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel).

Gaming and tourism, he said, fuel Cherokee’s economy. Yet two tourism mainstays — the Oconaluftee Indian Village and Unto These Hills (an outdoor drama) — have suffered more than a 30 percent drop in attendance over the past five years, noted Hicks, a certified public accountant.

The nonprofit Cherokee Preservation Foundation, funded by gaming revenues, is probably the short-term answer to any revenue shortfalls at these venerable attractions, said the chief. The Eastern Band has also hired a consultant to come up with ideas for updating them and revamping Cherokee’s business district.

But in the long term, said Hicks, the Eastern Band must out-think its competitors — Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn. To capture more of the “ever-shrinking tourist dollar,” he argued, the region needs to develop improved family-friendly attractions and entertainment — and put pressure on the National Park Service to devote more resources to the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

His speech then took a partisan turn.

“One asset that we have in Western North Carolina is [U.S. Rep.] Charles Taylor. Charles sits … as the head of the Appropriations Committee, and I think that’s an asset that we need to promote. And as a fellow Republican, I support Charles and any efforts that he is making for Western North Carolina.”

That last point wasn’t lost on audience member Patsy Keever, a Buncombe County commissioner who’s running against Taylor. After the meeting, she gently chided Hicks, saying she’d liked his speech until he endorsed her opponent.

The chief also touched on a topic that seems to warm the hearts of economic-development officials throughout WNC: technology. The Eastern Band recently teamed up with Southwestern Community College and Drake Enterprises (a Franklin-based software company) to build almost 200 miles of fiber-optic cable, which Hicks said will enable Cherokee and six far-western counties to obtain high-speed Internet connections.

“The Eastern Band has become the leader among those in Western North Carolina, and we graciously accept that responsibility,” Hicks remarked. “We welcome any economic challenges and hope to provide much-needed solutions to these challenges.”

[To learn more about WNC Communities, call (828) 252-4783 or check out their Web site (www.wnccommunities.org).]

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