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Tribe Anxious Over Performance of Golf Course


Despite a 20 percent increase in revenues during 2011, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is feeling some heat from continuing losses at its Sequoyah National Golf Club in Whittier, N.C.

Designed by Robert Trent Jones II, the course is highly ranked in the Tar Heel State, but the $9 million construction price tag combined with annual maintenance and staff costs have continued to put the tribe in the red since the course opened in 2009.

"The cost of maintaining a golf course is astronomical," Ryan Ott, director of golf, told reporter Caitlin Bowling of the Smoky Mountain News.

Ott added that stand-alone courses like Sequoyah National have a more difficult time, particularly in this down economy, when their annual costs aren't defrayed by subsidiary elements such as real estate sales. "Golf courses aren't self-sufficient," Ott added. "Most golf courses are built around some sort of housing."

The course was built as an amenity for tribal members and visitors to the tribe's Harrah's Cherokee Casino. Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band, met with Ott earlier this month and discussed the golf situation with tribal leaders.

"This is dead weight expense to the tribe right now," said Mike Parker, a council member from Wolftown, about the course's budget. Of particular concern is that the subsidization of the course takes money away from other tribal programs.

The golf club's debt from the construction was paid off this month, Ott said, yet the tribe will supplement the course's budget with $1.2 million in 2012.

Among the problems faced by the golf facility is the lack of alcohol sales, which is banned by the tribe. However, an alcohol referendum is up for a vote in April; if it passes, the tribe might seek a liquor license.

According to Ott, alcohol sales would "make a dramatic difference in the guest experience. Guest satisfaction is what keeps people coming back," he told Bowling. "Our goal is to get them back year after year after year."

Another factor is the difficulty of guests finding the course, which lies off U.S. 441. The turnoff is marked by a single sign, which is easily missed among the surrounding greenery. Ott has heard complaints from people getting lost en route to the clubhouse. Because of a Jackson County ordinance, the signage options are limited. He's worked with GPS companies for nearly three years in an effort to remedy their misleading directions.

Despite its economic travails, the tribe is not ready to pull out of the golf business anytime soon. "Our goal is to make this a break-even or at better a profitable center," said Hicks.

For Bowling's full story, visit http://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/5895-going-for-the-green-tribe-debates-future-course-for-sequoyah-golf-club.