“The curbside appeal of the town has suffered over the years,” leveled Craig Madison, a consultant hired to create a business plan for the valley. “It is one of those things that affects every business.”
Maggie’s slumping tourism has been blamed on many things over the past decade — Ghost Town amusement park closing down, entertainment venues shutting, then the recession. But while tourism is coming back elsewhere, it’s not manifesting in Maggie.
“There is recovery, but it is lagging here a bit,” Madison said.
Madison was hired as part of a larger project called Moving Maggie Forward, spearheaded by Maggie’s new Mayor Ron DeSimone. The goal is to bring stakeholders to the table and chart a new course for the town as it battles an identity crisis from its glory days as a tourist kingpin.
The town hired Madison, the former president and CEO of the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, using a $20,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Center. As consultant, he spent more than 100 hours going from business to business talking to people about what they want for Maggie Valley.
Madison compiled the interviews with information from an online survey and group work sessions to craft the preliminary plan for the valley’s future, which he presented to town leaders and business owners last week.
“It provided an incredibly clear direction,” Madison said.
He suggested that the businesses get together and hire a professional design team to create a look for Maggie Valley’s streetscape. He also recommended that the town set up a grant program, matching up to $5,000 for businesses who invest in facade improvements.
A lack of curb appeal can negatively impact a business district. In fact, an estimated 70 percent of first-time sales are based on curbside appeal, said Madison, citing the 7-8-7 rule of business. The rule also states that women make 80 percent of the choices, and 70 percent of retail sales happen after 5 p.m.
But if Maggie business owners can’t draw people in, then the latter two are a moot point.
“People want to invest in a successful town,” Madison said.
Another problem identified by business owners was arguing among town leaders and residents, which creates an unpleasant atmosphere. And don’t think tourists don’t hear about any infighting, Madison said.
“You keep fighting amongst yourselves no one is going to stay with you,” he said. “What gets in the ear of the community gets into the ear of the visitor.”
Although fighting among various groups has been a tradition in town for years, Madison said that business owners have a genuine eagerness to work together.
“People wanted to talk. People wanted to share. There is a desire,” Madison said.
Business owners listed the town’s strengths as its location being in the mountains, the Wheels Thru Time motorcycle museum, the natural beauty of the region, the festival grounds and the access to outdoor recreation. The businesses need to exploit those strengths for their benefit and promote anchor attractions, such as Wheels Thru Time, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park and Cataloochee Ski Area, which draw tourists to Maggie.
“Let promote these anchors as a primary driver of our business,” Madison said.
As for retail commerce, develop a mall mentality, Madison said. Stay open late, cluster similar businesses together, have a sense of place, recruit and bring events and entertainment to create excitement.
Before the meeting concluded last week, Madison recommended that the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce reorganize and refocus its mission — to be a liaison for the business community, rather than a tool for tourists.
“By design, the Chamber has been forced not to be a chamber so much as a visitors center,” Madison said.
He also urged the Chamber to get rid of its paid membership model, which is typical among chambers of commerce, and have the town invest $50,000 a year in its operations. That way, the Chamber could represent all businesses, not just those who paid membership fees.
“Let’s be the first town in the state of North Carolina to have every business a member,” Madison said.
The Chamber of Commerce will help spearhead the action from here. Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she would give people a little time to digest all Madison’s information and recommendations. Then they will hold another meeting.
“We just want to say to the business owners, ‘OK, now you have your plan. How would you like to proceed?’” Smith said.
Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone told business owners that it is now up to them to take the reins.
“Where it goes from here depends on you,” DeSimone said. “If you could get 20 percent of the people to work in one direction together, the plan would have a life of its own. (But) no action will certainly receive a reciprocal result.”