Arts + Entertainment

Ghost Town in the Sky wants more time to prepare its bankruptcy reorganization plan and is seeking an extension.

The Maggie Valley theme park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March in hopes of holding off bill collectors long enough to get back on its feet. Ghost Town was supposed to submit a reorganization plan in U.S Bankruptcy Court within four months, which would have been early July, but is seeking a three-month extension.

In addition to a $9.5 million mortgage, the park has a trail of unpaid bills with more than 215 companies totaling $2.5 million, from electricians and contractors to marketing agents and souvenir vendors. Those owed money get to vote on whether to accept Ghost Town’s reorganization plan.

The court has not ruled on whether to grant the extension.

Meanwhile, Alaska Pressley, a longtime Maggie Valley resident and business owner, has offered a $250,000 loan to Ghost Town to help the beleaguered theme park on its road to recovery. The loan would be used to help get the incline railway working, according to the bankruptcy filing.

The incline railway was once used to transport visitors up the mountain to the amusement park, but it has not been operational for many years. Ghost Town owners began rebuilding the incline railway when they purchased the park, but ran out of money to finish.

Pressley has been a player in the Maggie tourism industry for more than 50 years and was friends with the founder of Ghost Town, R.B. Coburn. When new owners came on the scene and reopened the park after a five-year hiatus, Pressley was quick to join their side as a stalwart supporter.

Ghost Town proposes to pay back the loan over the course of five years, with $1 per customer this year and $2 per customer for the next four years.

The arrangement would allow Pressley to sidestep others who are owed money by Ghost Town by directly tapping Ghost Town’s revenue stream. BB&T, which holds a $9.5 mortgage on the property, objected to the proposal as it would funnel profits off the park to pay back a select lender. The fate of the loan and payment arrangement will ultimately be up to the bankruptcy judge.

The much-anticipated roller coaster at Ghost Town opened amid fanfare last week, then was promptly shut down again.

The coaster is one of the primary attractions at the mountaintop amusement park in Maggie Valley, but has been plagued by a series of glitches in the two years since the park opened under new ownership. The new owners pledged to breathe life into the 1960s-era amusement park, including rebuilding the coaster that had been shut down due to safety issues under the former owner.

The park hired a ride manufacturer to build an all-new roller coaster train that could run on the existing track. The new train has been slow to pass state ride inspections, however — from the type of harnesses it used to the way the cars rode on the track.

All those hurdles were finally cleared, however, and the coaster debuted to the public for a single day last Wednesday (July 1). By Thursday, it was shut down again.

The latest glitch involves the way the seat frames are bolted to the cars, according to Jonathan Brooks, head of the N.C. Elevator & Amusement Device Bureau. The seats will have to be taken apart and the connections analyzed — all the way down to which forge and which batch the steel came from, Brooks said.

Brooks said the ball is now in the ride manufacturer’s court to do an evaluation and come up with a fix.

“Until their engineers come back to us with a suitable solution to the problem, there is where we are,” Brooks said.

Ghost Town characterized the issue as “fine-tuning” in a press release sent out last Friday announcing the set back.

“The maintenance of a coaster is an ongoing and continual thing. This is just part of a process,” said CEO Steve Shiver. Indeed, a roller coaster at Carowinds was shut down by the state over the weekend due to concerns that arose there.

Shiver said the ball is already rolling on a new design for the seat brackets. If the new design is approved by the state, it should not take long to make the modifications to each seat.

Shiver said issues like this aren’t unusual and in fact are to be expected as part of the process in launching a new roller coaster.

“If it were easy everybody would be doing it,” Shiver said. “Some of it is trial and error, particularly given the uniqueness of our location and the logistics of being on top of this mountain. That’s why we are excited about having one of the most unique roller coasters in the world.”

 

How it was discovered

The state signed off on the final round of lengthy and arduous inspections Tuesday afternoon, but Brooks asked one of his inspectors to hang around and keep a close eye on the first couple of days of the ride’s operation.

“This being a brand new coaster, it is not unusual to have the inspector hang around and make sure the operations are running properly,” Brooks said.

In fact, ride inspectors make both surprise and announced inspections of all amusement parks and fairs in the state. Sometimes inspectors will pay the admission price at Carowinds and go in undercover as a tourist. Brooks said the repeated monitoring goes with the territory.

“You are taking people and turning them upside down and flipping them and spinning them, so there is a constant oversight that happens,” Brooks said.

The Cliffhanger roller coaster was open to the public all day on Wednesday. But Thursday morning, a Ghost Town ride operator detected something that didn’t seem quite right. He noticed what seemed to be abnormal movement of one of the seats in a car at the back of the train. The movement was most likely imperceptible to most, but not for an attuned ride operator.

“You get to know every little clink. They know when they see some abnormal movement,” Brooks said.

The ride operator in turn called the state inspector over who was still on the grounds. The inspector examined the seat fastenings, which wasn’t an easy task in itself.

“You have to get on your belly, standing on your head with a flashlight and mirror, to be honest,” Brooks said.

The inspector called Brooks and told him something didn’t look right in there. Brooks’ response: shut down the coaster and take the seat apart. The ride inspector found a hairline crack in the seat frame near the bolt that fastened it to the car.

“I took some heat for shutting it down, which I was willing to take. I don’t have an issue with that. My family may be on it and I certainly want it safe for my family, your family, everyone else,” Brooks said, reciting the rule of thumb behind his decisions.

Shiver said that while the setback is “absolutely frustrating” he, too, puts safety first.

“We want a safe and enjoyable experience for all our patrons,” Shiver said. “We have waited this long to open the coaster and because of our false starts in the past, we want to make sure that all of our theming and the complete Cliffhanger experience is satisfactory according to the high standards I personally set when we embarked upon the renovations and remaking of Ghost Town in the Sky.”

 

Inspection process works

The closure is a testimony to the state’s inspection system working properly, Brooks said. Brooks said his inspectors had been all over the roller coaster train examining every bolt and the crack wasn’t there. Brooks surmised it is a stress crack that developed during operation. It’s one reason the state requires a roller coaster to make 1,000 runs loaded with 170-pound sand bags in each seat before it can pass inspection.

The test runs not only familiarized ride operators with the coaster enough so they would detect any abnormality, but also meant the stress crack appeared early in the coaster’s debut while an inspector was still on site and not back in Raleigh already.

“We crossed all our T’s and dotted all our I’s,” Brooks said.

Shiver agreed.

“The process worked like it should,” Shiver said. “That’s why we have daily inspections and well-trained ride operators. It worked.”

Brooks’ expertise in ride operations helped the amusement park overcome a problem that had been stumping them for months. The roller coaster was repeatedly getting stuck on the track in certain places. The ride manufacturer, Rotational Motion, was unable to diagnose the problem that seemed potentially insurmountable without either rebuilding the cars or making serious alterations to the track itself.

Ghost Town had hired Brooks’ former counterpart with the state ride inspection bureau, Clyde Wagner. The two were on site at Ghost Town one day trying to troubleshoot the confounding problem.

“He and I were just talking one day and I said something ain’t square here,” Brooks recounted.

It turned out the neoprene wheels weren’t quite hard enough. Using an instrument to taking readings on the softness of the wheels, they tested the old wheels from the original roller coaster cars and discovered they were slightly harder than the ones on the rebuilt cars. New, harder wheels solved the problem.

There was another issue as well. The park has greased down the track with cooking oil. Lubricants aren’t uncommon to reduce friction since roller coasters operate on gravity.

The cooking oil left a residue, however, and sand sifting out of the bags placed in the seats during test runs had stuck to the track and even gotten in the bearings. Brooks had the maintenance crews strip the tracks of the build-up.

The ride manufacturer suggested switching to baby oil as a lubricant, which is applied to the wheels of the cars by hand every morning.

 

The Cliffhanger

Ghost Town’s Cliffhanger roller coaster is truly amazing. The track perches on the side of a 4,700-foot mountaintop, offering sweeping vistas of distance mountain ranges in every direction and the valley floor visible far below. See footage of the short-lived opening of the coaster filmed by a tourist, including footage of the ride from the front seat of the coaster train at www.ghosttowninthesky.com/Special/cliffhanger.html.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver told players in the Haywood County tourism community they need to pull together if they want to effectively market and brand the region.

Shiver invited members of the tourism and business community to a breakfast meeting at the Maggie Valley theme park last week for what he called a tourism rally. Shiver appealed to the community to engage in cross-marketing, partnering and co-branding. Shiver said Ghost Town could use its pull to market the region as a whole, and alluded that other business could help drive traffic to Ghost Town.

Shiver has said visitation will be what gets the park through its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. If enough people come through the gates, it can make the money it needs to stay open and reorganize. Without Ghost Town, Maggie Valley will lose a major player in tourism and suffer economically, Shiver said.

Shiver said the tourism community has had trouble working collectively in the past.

“Being an outsider and coming in relatively new, looking at the tussle that I have sometimes seen in the past, that does nothing but hurt us all,” Shiver said. Shiver named at least half a dozen tourism entities that all play a role in marketing the region.

“The different groups out there all want the same end results,” Shiver said, but sometimes end up competing.

Shiver came to Haywood County from Florida less than 18 months ago.

The tourism community in Haywood County has been known for its factions over the years. Some tourism entities have historically been at odds, often pitted in a tug of war over the best way to spend tourism promotional dollars.

That division has subsided over the past two years, however. The money tug-of-war was largely solved when Haywood County Tourism Development Authority increased its tax on overnight lodging from 3 percent to 4 percent. That created more money to spread around. The extra money was earmarked for niche tourism initiatives that didn’t fit with the big picture marketing of the countywide tourism authority.

But Shiver questioned whether money could be used more effectively if pooled to make a bigger marketing splash rather than dispersed to myriad smaller entities.

“If we are not on the same page, it dilutes our affect,” Shiver said.

Shiver said Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge continue to claim a bigger piece of the market share “because they had their act together and we were fractionalized,” he said. “If we don’t pool our resources and leverage our resources we are going to lose it.”

Miracle opening

Shiver said he proved hundreds of people wrong by opening the park in the face of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“We have done what many said we could not do,” Shiver said.

Shiver also addressed the question everyone wants to know: when will the roller coaster open?

“Everybody, the roller coaster is on the way,” Shiver said. Shiver said he couldn’t say when, but that it would open one day soon. Shiver has been promising the public that the roller coaster would open soon for over a year now. Many in Maggie Valley feel Ghost Town’s success hinges on whether the roller coaster opens.

Ghost Town is in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. Shiver said the park is committed to pulling through and paying off its debts, which total some $2.5 million in unpaid bills to businesses, many of them local.

“I apologize on behalf of Ghost Town and its owners. We are going to do everything we can,” Shiver said. “We don’t take it lightly. The position we are in right now we don’t like to be in. But we are going to reorganize and move through.”

Ghost Town was forced into bankruptcy after defaulting on its $9.5 million mortgage. The 1960s-era theme park was rife with major infrastructure problems the owners weren’t privy to when they bought it more than two years ago, Shiver said. The park was also hit by a drop in tourism from the recession. Shiver thinks business will pick back up this year as families look for vacations close to home.

“We heard often Ghost Town is the thing of the past, that if it is not bullets and baggie pants kids don’t want it these days,” Shiver said, referring to the gangster and rap culture of today’s youth.

Shiver said he didn’t agree, however. Shiver said Ghost Town is built on a foundation of family values and that’s just what America needs today. That said, Shiver said the park hopes to expand its rides to increase its appeal for teen-agers. Another goal for next year will be to create an Appalachian heritage village with living history demonstrations.

Shiver has been raising money from investors any way he can to help overhaul the park. Shiver showed that he hasn’t lost his since of humor when thanking Marla Banta, the owner of Jude’s Coffee and Creamery, for giving out free ice cream scoops in exchange for donations to help Ghost Town.

“That million dollars you gave us really helped,” Shiver said.

Ghost Town in the Sky drew around 2,500 people over Memorial Day weekend, despite the daunting challenges of getting the theme park up and running while grappling with Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

All eyes had been on the park to see if it would open for the season on May 22 as owners predicted, and if so, how many visitors it would rake in.

The Old West theme park opened to mixed reviews from visitors. Those interviewed with young children were delighted by the gunfights playing out in the mock western town and pleased by the line-up of rides, many of which are well suited to young children.

“It was great. We love it,” said Melinda Turner who brought her 9-year-old son and his friend to the park from Cumberland Gap, Tenn. “We love the gun shows especially.”

Families with older children and single couples said they were disappointed by the limited ride offerings, however. The park’s two main thrill rides — a roller coaster and a drop tower — weren’t working for opening weekend. Both hit glitches when being inspected the N.C. Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau in the run-up to opening day.

“We thought it was cool, but if there are going to be rides down, they should give us a discount,” said Jennifer Conley from Ohio, who was visiting without children. “We thought there would be a little more to do up there.”

Conley and her partner heard about the park on a whim, while eating lunch at Sagebrush in Waynesville, and decided to check it out. She said she probably wouldn’t come back.

“Of course, everyone wants the roller coaster to be open,” said Dorene Pauley, owner of Travelowe’s motel. “A lot stems on that roller coaster. They need to get it open.”

The park is now entering its third year without the roller coaster, which has undergone an extensive rehabilitation including brand-new train cars. Park owners say the key ride will be open soon.

Pauley said calls have been rolling in to their motel all week from visitors with questions about the park, most wanting to know if the roller coaster is open yet. Once it does, visitation will take off, attracting roller coaster enthusiasts from all over the country, said Pauley’s husband, Scott.

The Pauleys said tourism in Maggie depends on Ghost Town. When Ghost Town reopened under new ownership in 2007 after a five-year hiatus, it brought a 30 percent increase in business to their hotel, especially among families. Visitors love Ghost Town, they said, witnessed by the children donning cowboy hats, vests and gun belts while re-enacting gunfights in the motel parking lot after visiting the park during the day.

Whether the Old West theme of Ghost Town resonates with today’s youth has been questioned by critics of the park, but that wasn’t the case for Seth Rogers, 9, visiting from Tennessee. Rogers said he has watched Westerns and loved the gunfights, but admitted the chairlift clinging to the side of the mountain was his favorite part of the trip.

Rhonda Chism, who was on an annual vacation in Maggie with her kids and grandkids from south Georgia over Memorial Day, came back to Ghost Town for the second year in a row only to find the coaster still wasn’t working.

“We were disappointed they didn’t have everything going,” Chism said.

Chism said the gun fights and musical performances were very good, however, a theme echoed by several visitors. Several visitors also commented on how well they were treated by the friendly staff.

“Everyone was really, really, really nice, very accommodating,” said Tina Justus, who was visiting with her toddler and pre-schooler from Washington, D.C. The family was staying in Asheville, but ventured to Maggie for the day after Justus found Ghost Town on-line when hunting for kid-friendly attractions in the area.

“It was good for our age kids, but if they were much older they would have been disappointed,” Justus said.

Some visitors opted not to buy a ticket after learning the coaster wasn’t open, including Judy and Keith Parker of Greenville, S.C. The Parkers have a second-home in Maggie and opted to come back another day “once everything is working.”

“We are kind of holding off until then,” Judy said.

The cost of the ticket, with or without a functioning roller coaster, gave pause to one family visiting from Atlanta.

“It’s kind of high,” 13-year-old Nick Farmer said as his family stood in the parking lot discussing whether to go up. The family, who was staying in Cherokee for the week, picked up a brochure and said they might return later in the week.

“We are kind of limited on funds,” said Nick’s mom, Christi Farmer. “It will depend on what else we find that is comparable.”

The park operated at a loss last year, falling behind on its $9.5 million mortgage and racking up a backlog of $2.5 million in unpaid bills. The new owners inherited a host of problems lurking below the surface at the aging park, tapping their financial resources. The recession made loans impossible to get and put a dent in visitation, forcing the park to seeking bankruptcy protection while reorganizing.

The park will be submitting a business plan to the bankruptcy court this summer showing how it plans to get back in the black.

The park hopes to have the roller coaster and drop tower open by this coming weekend, pending the outcome of a second round of inspections this week.

The park had waited until the last minute to call for an inspection by the state. Inspectors were at the park all last week certifying rides up until opening day, including the chairlift that carries visitors to the mountain-top amusement park. The park ramped up its staff just days before the park was slated to open, with some workers reporting for work for the first time just two days before opening day.

The park was seeking a $200,000 loan from the town of Maggie Valley to help cover opening costs, but did not garner enough support among town leaders to pass.

The business community has rallied to help Ghost Town, with several business owners putting up money as investors. Others have offered in-kind services.

Maggie Valley Restaurant, Legends Sports Grill, Smackers Sports Grill and Joey’s Pancake House provided food for the employees over the week leading up to the park opening.

Free landscaping work was provided by Sheppard Landscaping Services and Caldwell Trucking and Excavating. Maggie Valley Excavating made parking lot repairs, filled potholes and cleaned streets for free. Brad Kuykendall provided gravel for roads in the theme town in exchange for a stack of tickets that Kuykendall will donate to the Broyhill Children’s Home.

“We are amazed how the town is really coming together and embracing Ghost Town’s continuing efforts and commitment to tourism and working with us to grow Maggie Valley into a southeast family vacation destination,” said Steve Shiver, President and CEO of Ghost Town. “With their support, we will be able to make it happen.”

By Becky Johnson & Julia Merchant

A surprising turn of events caused the Maggie Valley town board to call off its vote on whether to loan the struggling Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park $200,000.

Moments before aldermen were to cast their votes at a special called meeting Monday (May 18) — and after it became apparent the request was going to be turned down — Ghost Town President Steve Shiver stood up and told the board he didn’t need the town’s money. Shiver said a private business owner in the room, who did not want to be named, had stepped up with an offer of financial aid to help get the park open.

The board then rescinded its motion to vote on the matter.

Prior to Shiver’s announcement, the board had held an hour-long public comment session and was prepared to vote. After the public comment session, each board member stated their position.

Mayor Roger McElroy said he supported loaning the park the money. Alderman Colin Edwards in a last-minute decision asked to be recused from the vote. Alderwoman Saralyn Price said she was not willing to risk taxpayer money to provide the loan, a stance that aldermen Mark DeMeola and Phil Aldridge agreed with.

It became obvious that the loan would not be approved as the majority of the board members stated their positions against it.

Shiver would not speak to The Smoky Mountain News after the meeting. According to previous statements to this newspaper and other media, Ghost Town is still scheduled to open Friday, May 22, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

 

Public weighs in

The question of whether to loan Ghost Town $200,000 in taxpayer money proved to be a heated issue for residents and business owners in the town.

Two packed public hearings and dozens of written comments submitted to the town preceded the would-be vote.

Those who were against the loan fear Ghost Town will go under and the taxpayers will lose what they put in.

“It is throwing good money after bad,” said Roger Ferguson, who owns a mobile home park in Maggie Valley. “They owe everybody in the county. How do they expect to pay back Maggie Valley?”

Those in favor of the loan claim that Maggie Valley’s tourism economy hinges on Ghost Town’s success.

“Ghost Town has marketed Maggie Valley for years upon years,” said Joanne Martin, a local restaurant owner. “If we lose Ghost Town, what is Maggie Valley’s brand?”

The controversy has pitted the town’s business operators in the tourism trade against average residents, according to those on both sides.

“Please remember your obligation is not just to the businesses in Maggie, but also to its residents,” town resident Candace Way implored to aldermen Monday night.

Business owner Brenda O’Keefe said the “we” and “them” way of thinking isn’t new to Maggie Valley.

“I hope this will not happen over (the loan),” O’Keefe said. “I don’t want it to be the business people versus the local people.”

Shiver had said the amusement park would open its gates for the season regardless of how the town voted.

“We aren’t here to fold up our tent and walk out if we don’t get a loan from Maggie Valley,” Shiver told the town aldermen, acknowledging their difficult position. “We are committed, and we are not going anywhere.”

While Ghost Town billed its request as a loan, several speakers at the public hearing expressed reservations about the park’s ability to repay it.

“This it is a risky move and we shouldn’t be involved in this,” said Jim Casey, a town resident and voter.

Ron DeSimone, who lives in Brannon Forest, questioned the town’s ability to thoroughly evaluate Ghost Town’s business plan and finances to know whether the loan would have been on solid footing.

The town asked Shiver more than once to provide a business plan showing how the loan could be repaid. But the town was told such a business plan isn’t ready yet, Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth said. Ghost Town has to file a reorganization plan with the bankruptcy court later this summer, but until then, Shiver said the park won’t share it, Barth said.

The information Ghost Town has provided are one-page profit-and-loss summaries from 2007 and 2008.

“We asked for detailed information on revenues and expenditures, and that’s what they sent us,” said Barth. “They haven’t really volunteered anything. We had to ask for what we have received.”

Several speakers at the public comment session said the town should not be in the banking business, especially since Ghost Town has been turned down for a loan from financial institutions.

“Why should a local government lend money to a company that has filed banckruptcy?” asked Phyllis McClure, a property owner in Maggie Valley. “Elected and appointed officials are entrusted to be good stewards of public funds. Those funds should be handled more carefully than our personal funds. They are not ours to give away.”

“Your plan to invest tax money in a high-risk venture that most normal banks won’t touch seems to be a little iffy to me,” said resident Jack Ryan.

 

Tourism driver

Shiver said it is not uncommon for towns and counties to support economic development, whether it is through a revolving loan fund or outright grants to lure industry. In Maggie Valley, where tourism reigns, Ghost Town is proper investment for town tax dollars, he said.

“There is no denying that tourism and vacation home sales are driving your economy,” Shiver said. “There are many hoteliers in the audience and lodging partners that are here that truly depend on that.”

Maggie has a history of investing in its tourism economy, Shiver said, pointing out the town’s purchase in 2002 of the festival grounds. The town has spent more than $500,000 on the purchase, adding amenities and maintenance over the years.

Business owners say Maggie Valley’s tourism economy will wither up without Ghost Town.

“We gotta have it,” said Becky Ramey, owner of Smackers restaurant. “We’ll have a Ghost Town either way — either Ghost Town will open up, or if it doesn’t, Maggie Valley will be a Ghost Town.”

Dave Blankenship, owner of Alamo Motel and Cottages, said his business went up 30 percent in 2007 when Ghost Town reopened after a five-year hiatus.

“If Ghost Town closes, we would risk losing a lot more than ($200,000) for a long time to come,” said Tammy White, owner of the Clarkton Motel. White pointed out that the theme park draws in 130,000 visitors a year who then stay in the hotels and motels in the area. The local lodging facilities would have a hard time pulling in those numbers on their own.

 

Not on my dime

If Ghost Town is so important to the businesses in the Valley, let them put up the money, some speakers suggested.

“Maybe these businesses could form an alliance and lend the money to Ghost Town,” McClure said. McClure said residential property owners won’t see a direct benefit, yet will shoulder an increased tax burden if the loan isn’t paid back.

Dave Blankenship at the Alamo Motel argued that the money split among the town’s taxpayers doesn’t amount to much. The town has 1,600 individual taxpayers on its rolls. The loan is equivalent to just $125 a person.

“That ain’t nothing. You spend that going out to a good dinner somewhere,” Blankenship said.

Speakers in the “no” camp said the town would be better served to spend its economic development dollars elsewhere.

“If the town wants to increase the climate for business, there are certainly other things you can do that would be much more effective and less risky. I think this is very risky,” said DeSimone.

Roger Ferguson agreed the money could be put to a better use.

“If you have $200,000, put it in a trust fund for the kids of the Valley so they can go to college and don’t have to scratch and claw like a lot of us do,” Ferguson said. “Set up a scholarship fund so those who have the desire can get beyond what we have here.”

 

Support from within

Employees of Ghost Town joined business owners in speaking up for the loan.

“This is how I feed my family. I think we deserve a chance to prove ourselves,” said Michael Howard, the maintenance manager at the theme park. “You won’t find a group of harder working people in the county. I work my heart out at it every week.”

Howard said the park is on the right road and can pull through.

“We’ve gone through lows and we’ve gone through highs,” said Howard. “We are making strides in any and every way we can to support our community.”

Randy Bryant, an employee of Ghost Town, said he believes in Ghost Town so much he put $250,000 into the park since it filed bankruptcy.

“I took my hard-earned money, my retirement money, and invested it in Ghost Town because I love Maggie Valley,” Bryant said. “I put my money into that park to get it open this year so we can try to get everybody that’s owed that money you are talking about paid back. Without it being open, there is no way those people can ever get paid back.”

A gunfighter at Ghost Town who goes by Preacher said the theme park is a labor of love for many employees.

“There is a great number of us up there who aren’t on the clock,” Preacher said of the push to get the park ready for opening day.

Many local people have invested personal money in Ghost Town. Among them are Austin Pendley of Maggie Mountaineer Crafts, Brenda O’Keefe of Joey’s Pancake House, and Alaska Pressley, according to Shiver.

Verlin Edwards, a speaker in the “no” camp, said the investors should pony up the money themselves.

“I know they can dig a little deeper and come up with their $200,000,” Edwards said.

Shiver has said previously, however, that the investors are tapped out. They have already poured their savings and assets into the park to get it this far.

In the first two weeks after filing bankruptcy, Shiver paid $23,000 to a company he owns, Global Management Services, according to bankruptcy filings. That’s in addition to a salary of $1,600 that went straight to Shiver.

Ghost Town has to file quarterly financial reports with the bankruptcy court. The first quarter filing only contained financial transactions for a two-week period from when the company filed for bankruptcy in mid-March to the end of that month.

 

Going through the process

The town held two public hearings on the Ghost Town loan, although not by design. The town initially announced it would hold a public hearing on Thursday, May 14. The town had to run a legal notice in the newspaper at least two weeks before a public hearing, per state law.

There was a glitch in the notice being printed in The Mountaineer, forcing the town to push back the date of the “official” public hearing until Monday, May 18. Since May 14 had already been widely circulated among town residents as the date of the hearing, however, the town kept it on the calendar as well — thus the two public hearings.

The first public hearing drew a crowd of about 75, while the second public hearing drew a slightly smaller crowd.

 

Why the need for a loan?

Ghost Town filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-March. It has a mortgage of $9.5 million and outstanding bills of $2.5 million. Many locals are among the 200 companies owed money, including electricians, building supply stores, marketing outlets and suppliers of T-shirts and souvenirs.

The iconic park is deeply engrained in the collective memory of Haywood County, both as an economic driver since its debut in the 1960s and a family past-time holding fond memories through the generations.

But when new owners bought the aging park in 2007 from its long-time owner and founder, they inherited a crumbling and jerry-rigged infrastructure. It required far more of a capital investment than they bargained for. Coupled with the economic downturn and credit crunch, the park was forced into bankruptcy, according to Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver.

 

Maggie flush with extra cash?

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver argued that town has the money readily available for a loan, pointing to its substantial fund balance. Shiver said the town has plenty to spare without affecting residents’ property tax rate.

The fund balance, equivalent to the town’s savings account, is 51 percent of its general budget. Maggie Valley’s fund balance is actually below the state average of 64 percent for towns of its size.

“I am not saying our fund balance is in bad shape, but it is not where the average town is at,” Town Manager Tim Barth said. “Over time, I think we need to work toward getting our fund balance up so we are much closer to the average.”

Shiver said Maggie has far more than the 8 percent fund balance required of local governments by the state. But Barth explained that the 8 percent minimum fund balance is geared toward larger governments.

“If you have a $100 million budget, 8 percent of that is $8 million,” Barth said. But for Maggie, with a general budget of $2.5 million, reserves of 8 percent would be a mere $200,000.

The fund balance is the town’s fall back for emergencies, should a storm wreak havoc, a road collapse or sewer line explode. Any government needs a certain amount of cash on hand to cover such contingencies. The smaller the town, the larger those savings will appear as a percentage of its overall budget.

The state average for towns with a population between 500 and 1,000 is a fund balance of 86 percent, and 112 percent for towns under 500.

“There’s a reason that it is that way,” Barth said. “The Local Government Commission would not wait until we got to 8 percent until they sent letter and made phone calls and said, ‘What are you doing?’”

Ghost Town owes Maggie Valley $30,000 in back property taxes.

A team of state inspectors will arrive at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park on Monday, May 18, in hopes of getting the rides and chairlift certified for the anticipated opening day of May 22.

Ghost Town barely made the cut-off for requesting an inspection in time to open, and will leave the state inspectors pushed to get it done time.

“To be honest it is going to be a really tough week for us,” said Jonathan Brooks, chief of the N.C. Elevator & Amusement Device Bureau.

Brooks will dedicate a team of five or six inspectors to Ghost Town for the week. The chairlift will be most time consuming, with inspectors physically assessing all 105 chairs, the structural integrity of the support towers and the mechanical functions that run the chair lift. They will also witness the evacuation procedure. The 10 rides on top of the mountain will take less time.

“Barring that we don’t have any unforeseen issues, I feel fairly comfortable with our guys on those rides for a week, the chances are pretty good,” Brooks said of getting the inspections done in time.

Ghost Town has also requested a ride inspection of the roller coaster, which has been out of operation while being rebuilt. The coaster inspection is far more involved.

“It will be a tough, tough haul to get the coaster done. I professionally don’t see it happening by opening day,” Brooks said. It could be done by the following weekend, however, if all goes well and nothing needs fixing or altering.

Some steps in the chairlift and coaster inspection have already been checked off. The chairlift cable has already been certified, as well as aspects of the roller coaster car, including the lap restraint system. The train car is still at the manufacturers in Tennessee, where testing was being conducted, but should arrive at the park by week’s end, Brooks said. Some portions of the track inspection have been completed by a private ride engineer and is supposed to be in the mail to Brooks.

Maggie Valley aldermen will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 14, on whether to loan Ghost Town $200,000. The amusement park is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Ghost Town in the Sky owners paid themselves nearly $25,000 over two weeks in March despite the company being in bankruptcy.

The Maggie Valley amusement park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-March with the aim of reorganizing, opening the park and gradually paying off debts. Ghost Town has a $2.5 million trail of unpaid bills owed to more than 200 companies. Dozens of local businesses are among those owed money. The company also owes around $9.5 million in mortgages.

As part of the bankruptcy process, Ghost Town is required to file a detailed picture of their finances with the bankruptcy court every quarter, showing all revenue and expenses. The filing for the first quarter of this year only contained two weeks, from when Ghost Town filed bankruptcy in mid-March to the end of that same month.

The filings show nearly $25,000 was paid to Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver and a company that Shiver is president of, Global Management Services. Shiver personally got $1,657 as a salary, while $23,000 was paid to his company. Shiver’s company is billed as a professional services company and dates to Shiver’s former life in the Miami area.

While Ghost Town had launched a campaign to sell advance tickets to the theme park, sales netted only $1,659 for the reporting period, according to the filing.

So far a hunt for a cash infusion to help the park get on its feet has not been successful. Ghost Town has been unable to get traditional bank loans, or strike a deal with last-resort lenders. Appeals to the county economic development and tourism entities have not been fruitful either.

Ghost Town has asked the town of Maggie Valley to provide a loan of $200,000. Town leaders are holding a public hearing on the issue at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 14. The town began accepting written comments on the issue via email last week to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shiver has rented out the Maggie Valley pavilion from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 12, for a public event presumably intended to rally support for the amusement park’s request. He is also going door to door soliciting public support.Shiver did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver threatened to sue Maggie Valley Alderman Colin Edwards during a town meeting this week.

Edwards attempted to speak out against Shiver’s request for a $200,000 loan from the town. But Shiver objected and refused to let Edwards finish speaking.

“I raise my objections,” Shiver said, cutting Edwards off. “Gentlemen, lady, I mean no disrespect but there are serious issues of conflict we have raised through our attorneys. I think in the next few weeks you will see some legal action.”

Edwards is part owner of Caroline-A-Contracting company, which built a retaining wall at Ghost Town. Edwards’ company filed a lien against Ghost Town after it failed to pay its full bill. Ghost Town in turn contested the claim, saying the retaining wall cracked. Edwards said the crack is due to a leaking water line in the hillside. Shiver claims it’s due to faulty work.

Shiver asked the town to bar Edwards from voting on the loan and from participating in any discussion on Ghost Town. However, while Edwards and Shiver may not get along, Edwards does not meet the litmus test for a financial conflict of interest that would bar him from voting. The only reason Edwards could be legally barred from voting is if he stands to gain financially from his vote, which he doesn’t, according to state statutes and Town Attorney Chuck Dickson.

Shiver claims that Edwards cannot render an impartial vote on anything pertaining to Ghost Town, however, and if he does so, Ghost Town will be denied its right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Edwards said he intends to vote, however, and will vote “no” to the loan.

“They are just bullying, and I don’t bully real good at all,” Edwards said. “I am an elected official for Maggie Valley. I will vote and they can charge me if they want.”

Before Shiver cut Edwards off at the meeting, Edwards questioned the validity of Shiver’s claims that the park’s roller coaster was on track to pass inspections and open for the season. Edwards said he called the state’s chief amusement ride inspector before the meeting and learned that Ghost Town has not yet requested an official inspection.

Shiver said he would “not tolerate nor allow phone calls” by Edwards to the state amusement ride division. Shiver suggested Edwards was trying to sabotage Ghost Town by calling the state.

The Smoky Mountain News had called the same state ride inspector earlier in the day and was given the same information as Edwards — that Ghost Town has not yet made a formal request for ride inspections, for either the chairlift or the roller coaster. The information is public record and can be requested by anyone.

That said, there have been lots of verbal communication, emails and progress updates on the rides, according to Jonathan Brooks, Elevator & Amusement Device Bureau Chief with the state.

“I know they are working very diligently to put something together for us to come up and start inspecting. I know they are making headway,” Brooks said. There is still a big checklist for the roller coaster before it’s ready, however, Brooks said.

Officials at Ghost Town in the Sky continued to pressure Maggie Valley leaders this week to pony up a $200,000 loan to help the beleaguered theme park get up and running.

In a special meeting Monday (April 27), Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said the loan could make or break whether Ghost Town reopens this summer.

“We are in a tedious and precarious time. We wouldn’t be here unless we were at the end of our rope,” Shiver said. “My whole livelihood is at stake and my whole future is at stake.”

Town aldermen expressed reservations about putting taxpayer money on the line. While hotel, restaurant and gift shop owners in Maggie are lobbying for the loan, aldermen said they also have to consider the average residents not engaged in the tourism business.

“We are looking out for the entire valley — all the taxpayers. Your side is one-sided, our side is broad,” Alderman Mark DeMeola told Shiver. “We have a lot of responsibility. We have more to answer to than just the business community.”

Shiver argued that if the town’s tourist economy goes under, the whole town will suffer. DeMeola said he recognized that, which is why the town was willing to entertain his pleas in the first place.

“You have an undertaking in your hands that a community is teetering on,” DeMeola said. “You deserve our utmost respect and the respect of the entire valley.”

DeMeola suggested holding a vote to gauge public sentiment since it is their money on the line.

“If the voters say ‘Yeah,’ I say ‘Man, go ahead and do it,’” DeMeola said.

Shiver questioned the wisdom of a town-wide vote, however. Voters are not an accurate reflection of the town’s taxpayers, he said. Many of the hotel and restaurant owners pay taxes but don’t technically live in the town limits and therefore couldn’t vote, Shiver said.

Alderwoman Saralyn Price suggested holding a public hearing instead so everyone could weigh in, whether they are a voter, town taxpayer or none of the above.

“I represent the people and I want to see what they think,” Price said.

Town Manager Tim Barth said a public hearing was in order anyway if town leaders intend to consider the loan request. State statutes require the town to hold a public hearing before granting an economic development loan to a private enterprise. The earliest one could be held is in two weeks.

Shiver said the park could use the money much sooner, as they need money to get open by May 22.

Alderman Phil Aldridge said the “eleventh hour” request has given town leaders little time for due diligence.

“Everything I’ve ever done in life, I have pros and cons and I write them down,” Aldridge said.

The town’s attorney, Chuck Dickson, recommended getting detailed financial statements and a business plan from Shiver before moving forward.

“If I were lending money to someone I would want to act like a bank and want as much financial information as possible, extremely detailed, every single thing I could find out about the ability of the borrower to repay,” Dickson said.

DeMeola agreed.

“It may not be a service to you speed-wise to do this, but we need ample time for the town to have everything detailed,” DeMeola told Shiver.

Shiver said a business plan for pulling through bankruptcy is in the works and could be shared with the board. Shiver said Ghost Town’s owners and investors have pumped millions in personal assets into the park already.

“I don’t have any more money to put up,” Shiver said.

Shiver couldn’t say whether the park would pull through bankruptcy even if it did land a loan from the town.

“I am not speculating,” Shiver said in an interview following the meeting.

Shiver said the park is moving toward opening day. Ghost Town in the Sky held a job fair over the weekend, attracting hundreds looking for seasonal work. Shiver said tickets are selling online and advertising is under way.

 

Where they stand

Mayor Roger McElroy was the only alderman to say he wholeheartedly supports the loan, pledging he would vote for it.

“There are too many motels and business people that really can’t make it without Ghost Town,” said McElroy. “When Ghost Town was down before we couldn’t buy new sheets or new towels. We had to scrimp by.”

The same goes for other tourism-dependent businesses, McElroy said.

Ghost Town was closed from 2002 through 2006. The park’s original owner — who ran the park for 40 years — shut it down, partly due to old age and partly due to crumbling infrastructure and failing rides that required a major capital investment to restore. The park sat dormant five seasons until the current owners came along and reopened it in 2007.

Meanwhile, Alderman Colin Edwards was the only one to say he was wholeheartedly against the loan.

“I want Ghost Town to succeed, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t want to lose $200,000 of the taxpayers’ money and have to go up on property taxes,” Edwards said in an interview after the meeting. “I want some security they will pay this back and they cannot give us that security.”

The loan is equivalent to 6 cents on the town property tax rate for one year (see info box).

Price, DeMeola and Aldridge were neutral in their comments, postponing judgment until hearing from the public.

If the town did agree to a loan, strings would be attached, they said. Town aldermen want to ensure the money would only be spent on operations, like making payroll for hourly workers, DeMeola said. Shiver countered that some workers are salaried, pointing to his human resources director who happened to be sitting in the audience.

 

Getting paid back

Ghost Town was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March after being unable to keep up with payments on its $9.5 million in mortgage on the property. Bankruptcy filings revealed another $2.5 million in unpaid bills to small companies, from souvenir purveyors to contractors to ride engineers.

Town leaders wanted to know how they would be paid back should the park go under.

Shiver said the town would be in line behind a $9.5 million mortgage on the property, but in front of everyone else owed money. Ultimately, however, the bankruptcy judge would decide where Maggie ranks in line. There are a few debts in addition to the mortgage that would most likely rank ahead of Maggie, such as back property and sales taxes and bankruptcy attorney fees. Other lenders being courted to put up money are also being promised they will be first in line behind the $9.5 million mortgage.

“I am out every day trying to get additional financing,” Shiver said.

Shiver said the assets of the land, rides and buildings are worth well over $9.5 million, but if the park was liquidated through the bankruptcy process there’s no guarantee it would fetch enough to pay everyone back. Edwards said all they have is Shiver’s word.

“They ain’t got no payment plan to pay us back. We’ve not seen nothing in writing,” Edwards said.

 

Want to weigh in?

Maggie Valley leaders will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 14, on whether to give Ghost Town in the Sky a loan of $200,000.

Those who want to submit comments but don’t want to speak at the hearing can submit them in written format at any time. Email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with “Ghost Town” in the subject line, or mail to Vickie Best, 3987 Soco Road, Maggie Valley, NC 28751.

Among Ghost Town’s debts is $136,000 in back sales taxes owed to the state of North Carolina. It was previously reported that Ghost Town failed to remit sales tax to the state collected as part of ticket sales. Ghost Town nor the N.C. Department of Revenue would elaborate on the source of the back sales tax.

However, it was learned in bankruptcy court last week that the sales tax owed is actually from the purchase of large piece of equipment by Ghost Town. Ghost Town is at odds with the state over whether it actually owes the tax, and thus is why it hasn’t paid up. Ghost Town claims the tax should be paid by the company it bought the equipment from, not by Ghost Town.

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