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Wednesday, 23 August 2006 00:00

$5 million upgrade planned prior to May 2007 opening

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As the new owners of Ghost Town in the Sky pondered whether the dated mountaintop amusement park was a good business venture, one of their first questions was how many visitors they could feasibly expect to attract.

Their own estimates put the figure at 150,000 the first year of reopening. A consultant hired for a second opinion came up with an even bigger number. Now they are revising upwards yet again.

“I really think we will blow that out of the water based on what I saw today and the buzz in the air,” said Hank Woodburn, president of the Adventure Landing, one of the park’s buyers.

Nearly everyone was shocked by the huge numbers that turned out for an open house celebrating Ghost Town’s sale — more than 750 had to be turned away. Upon word of the sale, the Maggie Valley Lodging Association immediately launched a unified campaign to tell every guest that comes through their doors to return next year when Ghost Town reopens. Hotel owners valley-wide have arranged lettering on their signs to announce Ghost Town’s return.

Within five years of reopening, the new owners predict 300,000 visitors a year will roll through the park.

“This is going to be our little Disney,” said Steve Nichols, also an owner with Adventure Landing.

Ghost Town is credited with defining the tourism industry in the Maggie Valley area for 40 years until its closure three years ago. It’s founder, R.B. Coburn, who ran the park most of its 40 years, received several, long standing ovations from the crowd during a string of speeches at the celebration this week. Unable to make needed repairs to keep the park going, the elderly Coburn put the park up for sale three years ago.

The buyers include Adventure Landing, which operates nine amusement centers featuring laser tag, go-carts and miniature golf, and American Heritage Railways, which operates the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad.

The $5.18 million price tag forked over for Ghost Town is only half of what its new owners plan to pump into the park before it reopens next spring. The buyers said this week they plan to spend around $5 million to get the park up and running. The investors, by their own estimation, have quite a challenge ahead of them.

“There are times I woke up and thought ‘Are you crazy,’” said Woodburn. “But I am real confident in what we can do. It will work.”

To get this far, the buyers already spent $262,000 — on ride assessments, tourism analyses, economic studies, engineer surveys and other tasks under the massive chore of due diligence. The risk that another buyer could waltz in and upset the sale was constant.

“We took a leap of faith,” said Woodburn.

While the owners will be adding their own flare and new elements to the park, Nichols said they don’t plan on reinventing the wheel. They will keep the Ghost Town name, the Old West theme and most of the existing rides.

After all, Ghost Town’s reputation — witnessed by the number of tourists who still flock to Maggie Valley to visit the park unaware that it is closed — is one of the best things going for it.

“It makes it much easier that it has that reputation,” Nichols said.

The buyers got a $6.75 million low-interest federal loan through a rural development program. At the top of their to-do list is replacing the broken chairlift that carries visitors to the mountain top park and retrofitting rides, including the roller coaster.

“The bulk of the rides aren’t as far gone as people think,” said Larry Moyers with American Amusement Rides based in Knoxville. Moyers was hired as a ride consultant by the new owners to tell them which rides could be repaired and for how much.

“Several of the rides are in superior shape,” Moyers said. “Some of the equipment is older, but it was maintained well.”

Most visitors at the open house were shocked at how well kept the buildings in the Old West town appeared. Coburn employed several workers to keep the site maintained since he was trying to sell it and needed to keep it presentable.

A real estate development could be in the future for part of the mountaintop. Ghost Town in the Sky sits on more than 250 acres, leaving plenty of room for a real estate development without impacting the operation of the amusement park, Woodburn said.

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