Tears gathered in Alaska Presley’s eyes as she moved one step closer to attaining a Maggie Valley icon that has remained close to her heart but out of her possession for more than 50 years.
Surrounded by supporters, former Ghost Town employees and her lawyer, Presley, a longtime Maggie Valley resident, listened as a foreclosure attorney dryly recited the property boundaries of Ghost Town in the Sky, a once-popular amusement park in Maggie Valley. Presley was one of about 20 people who attended the public auction of Ghost Town on Feb. 10 outside the Haywood County Courthouse.
She is the only person who bid on the property at auction, offered $2.5 million for the property and its equipment. Competing buyers can file an upset bid for 10 days. Presley is now counting down the days until Feb. 20 to see if anyone places a counterbid.
Presley, 88, hopes to leave a functioning and profitable Ghost Town as her legacy to Maggie Valley.
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“Maggie Valley has some of the best people in the world,” she said. “And without Ghost Town, they have been having a very, very hard time.”
When the amusement park finally went up for sale, Presley just had to buy it. She said that a forever closed and abandoned Ghost Town is her “greatest fear.”
“Maggie Valley needs it,” Presley said. “I’m most interested in getting it going for the prosperity of Haywood County.”
However, Maggie residents are no longer quick to pin their hopes on the reopening of an amusement park that has been a continual cause for disappointment during the past decade.
Driven by her heart
Acquiring Ghost Town has been a long process and restoring the amusement park to its original glory will be a struggle all its own, which is why Presley began renovating it months before the foreclosure was finalized.
“This is the third time I’ve tried to help bring it back,” she said.
The to-do list is phenomenal. The rides and mock Old West town are decades old and in continual need of repair and upkeep, let alone the neglect they’ve seen since the park shut down three years ago.
Presley has already started touching up the buildings, which are quick to show their wear given the beating they take from the elements on the high-elevation mountain top.
Although she has made a few strides, there is still a lot of work to do and not much time to complete it before June, when she hopes to open at least a portion of the park.
“It has taken so long (to foreclose),” Presley said. “It’s kind of up in the air how much I can get done before the season.”
But, she does have a plan. Presley’s top priority is getting the chair lift and the incline railway working again. Tourists can only reach the mountaintop amusement park by the riding one of the two contraptions up the steep slope — but they have been in a seemingly perpetual state of malfunction in recent years.
Visitors would park in a large lot at the bottom of the mountain and ride either the lift or railway up to the park’s entrance. Neither are currently operational.
She has already purchased the parts needed to repair the incline railway, but it will still be about five months before it’s fixed, she said.
She must also assess the condition of the rides, particularly the roller coaster and drop tower.
“What’s good I’ll keep; what’s good I’ll refurbish,” she said, adding that she has yet to have anyone evaluate them, and some may not be repairable.
In the past, rides did not receive the proper care and maintenance. They looked rundown and often broke down. When Ghost Town briefly reopened five years ago, the kiddy rides and Wild West Town were up and running, but the roller coaster and drop tower — which attracted a more adult crowd — failed to pass state inspections. Although the previous owners attempted to repair the coaster, it only opened temporarily before it was once again deemed a safety hazard.
Next to the rides and cosmetic improvements, one of the biggest projects associated with the renovation is a overhauling of its water system. The previous owners did not shut off the water to Ghost Town after it closed, subjecting the full pipes to the mountain freeze-and-thaw cycle. The already aging system is now likely in desperate need of repair.
“That will be one of the worst things to do,” Presley said.
If she can overcome those hurdles and open Ghost Town for part of the tourist season, Presley can start earning revenue and hopefully move the park toward self-sustainability.
Bittersweet turn of events
People are cautiously optimistic about Presley’s endeavor.
“Only an Alaska Presley could ever get Ghost Town to run again,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said. “She is a very sharp lady; she sees value there. (But) In today’s market, in today’s world, I don’t see any value there.”
While people disagree about what, if anything, the amusement park is worth, Presley’s long history with Ghost Town and her wherewithal seem undisputable.
“If anybody can do it, she can do it,” said Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I think she will definitely do the very best she can to get it up and running.”
Although the park has been closed for more than a year, the chamber still receives phone calls everyday asking if and when Ghost Town will reopen — an encouraging sign that if it is rebuilt, people will come.
“It encourages families to come here,” Smith said. “It would just be something else for people to do.”
But, the economy is still struggling, and gas prices continue to bounce up and down. Both are problems that have affected Ghost Town’s visitation numbers in the past and could influence its bottom line in the future as well.
“I think this go around those same worries are going to be there,” Smith said.
Town Alderman Phil Aldridge, who attended Friday’s event, said that residents are weary of anyone championing Ghost Town’s potential success after so many years of disappointments. Maggie Valley residents and business owners have had their hopes dashed before when investors promised to revive Ghost Town and bringing prosperity back to the valley.
But still, Aldridge leans toward the hopeful point of view.
Ghost Town was the “heartbeat” of Maggie Valley, he said. “It certainly can be again.”
When the amusement park profited, so did the town and county. In its heyday, 400,000 people visited Ghost Town each year, and families would pack into restaurants and motels along Maggie Valley’s main strip. Since the beginning of the recession and the park’s first closure in 2002, however, business in the valley has drastically declined.
If Presley can’t open the park this season, it would cause “more damage,” she said. An open park means money to help cover upkeep and the employee payroll. It could also eventually mean more improvements — something already weighing on Presley’s mind.
“It needs to have some high-tech stuff,” she said, throwing out the idea of adding a zip line.
And, while some little boys still play cowboys and Indians, the Wild West theme has lost some of its luster now that the golden years of John Wayne and “Bonanza” are over.
“The western theme is passé now, and it needs the help,” Presley said. “The gun fights are good, but they are not enough.”
Although Presley was unable to provide more specifics regarding improvements, she estimated that the entire project will cost in excess of $11 million. And, she said she is not planning to take out any loans, adding that Ghost Town has had enough debt problems.
“Poor management and bad debts has plagued it for years,” Presley said. “A friend thought there was demons on that mountain; it has had such bad luck.”
So, for now, she will foot the bill herself.
“I have enough — to get started anyway,” Presley said. “I believe in paying as you go.”
Presley said she did not know how many employees she will need to reopen and operate the amusement park, but she has already hired Robert Bradley, a former gunfighter in the Wild West Town, to help with renovations and an armed guard to keep hoodlums off the property.
“It’s been vandalized pretty bad, but I got guards up there now, and I’ve got cameras all over the mountain,” Presley said.
Like Presley, Bradley has been around since Ghost Town beginnings.
“I started fallin’ off the roof in 1962,” he said, adding that Presley made him promise not to fall anymore now that he has passed 65.
Bradley, who has known Presley for most of his 67 years, is happy to help and anxious to get back to work as director of entertainment — his previously held title.
“I could probably put a show on next week,” Bradley said.
“Give us two hours,” chimed in Tim Gardner, a.k.a. Marshall Red Dawg.
While Ghost Town has been shut down, Bradley and some of the old band of entertainers from the Wild West Town have traveled around the U.S. doing shows. People are still interested in seeing their performances, he said.
What is Ghost Town worth?
During Friday’s foreclosure proceeding, Presley bid $2.5 million for Ghost Town. But, that is not what she will actually pay for the property.
The actual price tag is only $1.5 million, thanks to an interesting and non-traditional financing arrangement Presley struck to bail Ghost Town out of foreclosure.
When Ghost Town’s previous owners went bankrupt, BB&T was their biggest creditor — holding $10.5 million in debt.
BB&T chased Ghost Town into bankruptcy and to the doorstep of foreclosure. But for the past 18 months, it hasn’t pulled the trigger on foreclosure — likely because it knew that the beleaguered park would fetch nowhere near what the bank was owed. The idea that anyone would pay anything close to $10 million for the dilapidated and broken down amusement park is inconceivable.
“Who is going to pay $10 million for Ghost Town? Well, nobody is,” said Waynesville Mayor and lawyer Gavin Brown.
Instead of going forward with the foreclosure, BB&T sold its note to Presley for $1.5 million — a far cry less than the $10.5 million the bank is owed.
“What they (did) is just cut their losses and run,” Brown said.
When Presley purchased the note, she all but ensured that Ghost Town would be hers. Presley now owns BB&T’s entire $10.5 million note against Ghost Town — even though she only paid $1.5 million for control of the note. Someone would have to bid more than $10.5 million before they could top what she has in it.
The foreclosure is a mere formality, as was the $2.5 million Presley bid for the park. In essence, her $2.5 million bid will come back to her since she is the primary note holder.
So, not counting the court fees and related costs, how much did Presley pay for Ghost Town?
The simple answer is $1.5 million — the amount BB&T sold its note for, Presley said.
Other possible investors have until Feb. 20 to place an upset bid. However, John Doe cannot simply walk off the street and offer a few cents more than Presley’s current bid for Ghost Town. Upset bids must be at least 5 percent higher and bidders must put down a percentage of their bid up front.
As for the millions owed to private investors and small businesses by Ghost Town’s former owners? They won’t be seeing a dime.