Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced?
If not, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and its partners are going to change all of that…
In a swirling vortex of synergistic jargon, officials representing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the organization’s business development arm, Kituwah, LLC., announced plans for a 200-acre mixed use “experiential destination” at Exit 407 in Sevier County.
While the announcement clarified certain questions that have lingered since the land was purchased last year for $13.5 million, the fine details are still a little hazy.
The plans, as announced, indicate the ECBI through Kituwah will partner with a Knoxville Company called OE Experiences to create a destination at the I-40 exit, which draws more than 11 million tourists who travel to Sevier County and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park annually.
Details about the new attraction emerge
The destination will feature entertainment, dining and shopping designed around a common, as yet unidentified, theme and serve as a gateway and “first stop” for visitors to the area.
“Our tribe established Kituwah, LLC to move at the pace of business and to diversify our economic interests in areas other than gaming,” said ECBI Principal Chief Richard Sneed. “We are pleased with the strong interest in the property and look forward to strengthening partnerships with Sevier County.”
Kituwah CEO Mark Hubble, who has helped other tribes nationally to build tribal-owned businesses for the benefit of enrolled members, sees this development as a rare opportunity.
“This land is strategically located and has the benefit of significant infrastructure investment from prior development attempts,” Hubble said.
Dumplin Creek’s ancestral Cherokee roots
Not only is the land a significant investment in the ECBI’s future, it also serves as an important link to the Cherokee Tribe’s past.
The Dumplin Creek site is ancestral territory for the Cherokee. Their rights to the land were essentially stolen in a 1785 treaty signed with leaders of what was then known as the State of Franklin.
A historical marker in nearby Kodak commemorates the Treaty of Dumplin Creek.
The marker reads:
“The only treaty made by the state of Franklin was signed here after some negotiation. Commissioners were John Sevier, Alexander Outlaw, and Daniel Kennedy. Signatory Cherokee chiefs were the King of the Cherokees, Ancoo of Chota, Abraham of Chilhowee, The Sturgeon of Tallassee, The Bard of the Valley Towns and some thirty others.”
Planning for the new development is now underway
OE Experiences, a Knoxville-based firm, has been retained to identify the highest and best use of the development and to seek out development partners.
OE’s website explains its mission thusly.
“In the near future, we will be building our own unique experience that highlights the delicate balance, beauty, and wonder of our home in the infinite universe,” it says. “’OE’ stands for the Overview Effect, a term coined by author Frank White, which describes the profound impact on astronauts caused by seeing our planet from space: our small, miracle home in an infinite universe. This moving sentiment inspired us in today’s experience economy to create, support, and operate sustainable businesses that entertain our customers, enlighten us, and engage us uniquely.”
Matthew Cross, of OE Experience says the 407 development represents a major investment from the EBCI.
“It is a unique opportunity for the tribe to form strategic partnerships in one of the best tourism markets in the country,” he said. “Millions of tourists drive by this location every year on their way to the national park, and they will stop here first.”
It appears the unifying theme of the site’s “experience” is as yet unidentified, or at least flexible.
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.
The site’s location allows easy access from nearby Knoxville, something the developers are counting on to supplement daily visits and labor options. The Tri-Cities and Asheville also remain in easy driving distance.
“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.”
An unpredictable climate in a COVID-19 world
It’s interesting the site plans are moving forward even in uncertain economic times. Previously the site had been leveled and prepped for development, but the economic downturn of 2007 scuttled those original plans. The land has sat empty ever since and became something of an eyesore at the entrance to the Smokies.
Still, for generations Exit 407 was marked by a giant papier-mache head of NASCAR legend Richard Petty, so eyesores can be relative, I suppose.
Regardless, developers’ confidence remains high despite the lingering issues associated with COVID-19.
“We are keeping our expectations managed about the future. It is too early to know how exactly the virus will affect us long-term,” Cross said. “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.”
Chrissy Arch, Chair of the Kituwah Economic Development Board said, “We are moving quickly in plan development and key tenant acquisition.”
OE Experiences is collecting bids and proposals from interested parties to co-develop portions of the site. SIG Real Estate’s Keith Widmer is acting as broker on the development and accepting applications for lease.
Additional developments near the Smokies Stadium may follow
Interestingly, this may not be the only ECBI project at Exit 407. As Tennessee Smokies owner Randy Boyd envisions moving the team to a new Knoxville facility, the ECBI purchased a large amount of land behind the current Smokies Stadium, directly across the interstate from the site of the “experiential destination”. There is speculation that if the Smokies vacated the baseball stadium, the ECBI may have interest in that land, too.