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The ball is already rolling on repairs to the rides at the once-popular Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, but a summer opening could hinge on the park passing muster with state inspectors.

New owner Alaska Presley, a businesswoman and longtime Maggie resident, will meet with officials from the N.C. Department of Labor and town officials this week to discuss necessary repairs and improvements planned for the shuttered amusement park.

The Department of Labor and the previous owners had a contentious relationship as multiple devices failed multiple inspections on multiple occasions. Lack of communication by the former owner with state inspectors was part of the problem — one Presley intends to avoid now that she is at the helm.

The Department of Labor will be able to give Presley a better idea of what needs to be accomplished before she can open the park.

Ghost Town fell into bankruptcy about four years ago and ultimately ended up on the courthouse steps in mid-February this year. That is where Presley, a nearly lifelong Ghost Town supporter, purchased the park. She hopes to restore it to its former glory as well as add new attractions with modern appeal.

Presley said she hopes to open a portion of Ghost Town by the middle of summer. However, renovations and improvements will take at least three years, she said.

Presley would not name which rides she wants to fix up prior to her summer goals, saying she did not want to make any promises she couldn’t keep.

“I’m taking my time because I want it to be done properly,” she said.

Presley said she did not know which rides will need work, nor how much.

“At the time they closed, the rides were OK,” she said. “They look OK, but I just don’t want to take a chance on them.”

Instead, she will depend on ride inspectors with the Department of Labor to help point her in a positive direction.

The preliminary meeting this week is just about “goodwill and to be sure that I am on the right track and that I’m not doing anything that doesn’t need to be done,” Presley said.

For the Department of Labor, the appointment is a chance to get off on the right foot with Ghost Town’s new owner.

“(It’s) an opportunity to proactively assess the equipment,” said Tom Chambers, chief of the Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau at the Department of Labor.

Chambers is unsure exactly what to expect when he inspects the park, but said the rides were most definitely subject to wear and tear related to the weather, which could include corrosion to both the appearance and integrity of the equipment.

“A lot of time has lapsed between the last time we looked at this equipment and now,” he said.

The park has been closed since 2009. Its high-elevation mountaintop setting makes the rides and equipment particularly vulnerable to weathering.

The department inspects between 6,000 and 7,000 rides each year. Every ride in the state must undergo rigorous testing and be re-certified every season.

“We find problems with every device that we see,” Chambers said.

Not only does the department inspect rides, but it can also provide names of quality contractors who could complete specific tasks.

“We want her to be successful,” Chambers said.

Presley has already hired a company to trim the trees and tame the other plant life that has grown up in and around the park while it was stalled in bankruptcy and foreclosure.

“They got the (Wild West) town cleaned,” Presley said. “It’s just perfected.”

Within the next couple weeks, she also hopes to put out bids for plumbing repairs. The former owner did not shut off water to the park, resulting in burst pipes during the winter’s harsh freeze-thaw cycle.


A way up the mountain

Because Ghost Town is perched atop a steep mountain with no public road access, the only ways for visitors to access the park is by riding up in a chairlift or a cablecar known as the “incline railway.” Neither have been in working order, and both are key to the success or failure of Ghost Town.

Without them, visitors have to be shuttled up the mountain from a park-and-ride lot in school buses.

Presley is hunting for a contractor to begin repairing the incline railway, which transports visitors up the mountain to Ghost Town. 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.

And, what about the lift — the only other way to ascend the mountain slope?

To the best of her knowledge, “the lift is fine. It just needs to go through all the testing,” Presley said.

A couple town leaders attended an informal, private meeting with Presley last week to let her know that the town is behind her.

“We certainly will help anyway we can,” said Audrey Hager, the town’s festival director, during a phone interview. “We can’t speak to monetary or advertising.”

The town has already pitched in by helping facilitate the initial meeting between Presley and Department of Labor officials, who are required to inspect the park before it reopens.

“They have a lot of insight on what they (Ghost Town’s previous owners) did wrong in the past,” Hager said.

The roller coaster in particular had its ups and downs. After the amusement park filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, the owners still tried to open it for the season, hoping to earn some money to help pay off its debt. However, on the opening weekend, neither the roller coaster nor the drop tower were running after failing to meet state standards.

Later that year, the roller coaster opened for a single day before it broke down once again.

Complaints from business owners and customers have Maggie Valley leaders asking if its police presence in the small tourist-oriented town is a bit overbearing.

Cruising along Soco Road — the single stripe along which Maggie Valley businesses have sprouted up — drivers are likely to see police cars camped out along the side of the road or in a parking lot.

While some find this fact comforting, other Maggie leaders and business owners argue that an overwhelming police presence in the valley deters possible consumers who fear that the cops are simply waiting to bust someone.

“There is a perception that it intimidates customers,” said Mayor Ron DeSimone during a meeting of Maggie leaders this month.

It is not just a perception; people are intimidated, chimed in Alderman Mike Matthews. Board members agreed, however, that cops mustn’t turn a blind eye and should enforce the law.

“Nobody is asking you to turn the cheek by any means,” Matthews said.

Although no one wants a lawbreaker to get away, some think that people shy away from Maggie Valley because they are afraid of being pulled over even if they are not speeding or driving drunk.

“They’ll be texting each other “Don’t go to Maggie. Don’t go to Maggie,’” Matthews said.

Chief Scott Sutton said he had not heard the same concerns. Visitors to the valley like to see cops out and about, patrolling the town, Sutton said.

“It don’t bother most people,” he said.

In fact, Sutton said, the police department will receive calls from a restaurant or a bar, asking the cops to show up around closing time to make sure the peace was kept.

“I can’t discourage my officers from doing their duties,” he said.

As far as drunken driving goes, DWI rates in Maggie are low, Sutton said. Most offenders are locals, he said. Others haven’t been out on the town in Maggie but are coming back from a show at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in Cherokee.

Alderwoman Saralyn Price, the former town police chief, said that the officers are not picking on particular businesses but rather parking in a favorite spot or in the most convenient place.

“You are going to pull over in the easiest place,” Price said.

The aldermen and mayor made it clear that they, too, do not want the police to start shirking their responsibility, but DeSimone suggested that the town use some unmarked cop cars, which would allow police officers to continue to monitor the valley conspicuously.

“Nobody is complaining that you are pulling over people who are drunk or speeding,” DeSimone said. “We don’t want you to be less effective.”

The mayor also proposed fiddling with the police department’s patrol schedule, ensuring that a couple of cops are watching Soco Road while others make the rounds through residential areas — a circuit that takes 3 hours and 20 minutes to complete.

The aldermen said they brought the concern to Sutton after hearing complaints from business owners — but one alderman stated that the talk might not have not taken place if Maggie Valley businesses were not experiencing hardship as a result of the recession.

“If this was five years ago … then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Matthews said.

Like the town leaders, business owners had mixed feelings about the fuzz in Maggie Valley.

Steve Hurley, owner of Hurley’s Creekside Dining & Rhum Bar, said he has not heard any patrons protest about the number of patrol cars along Soco Road.  

“It’s never affected me,” Hurley said. “I like having the cops around. I want them to be getting the drunk drivers.”

In regards to officers parking their vehicles near his business, Hurley replied that they have to park somewhere.

In contrast, a co-owner of Stingray’s said it is a chronic problem.

“Here is the feedback we hear: we don’t want to come to Maggie Valley because all the law does is sit around and wait on us,” said Nathan Hughes, Stingray’s owner. “That kills business. People get intimidated by that.”

The police need to find a happy medium, in which they continue to keep people safe but avoid scaring off potential customers, Hughes said.

Maggie has historically had an active bar scene. It was one of the first and only towns where liquor drinks were legal at bars. For nearly two decades, it was one of the only WNC towns west of Asheville where mixed drinks were sold, and revelers would bring their partying to Maggie as a result, setting a precedent of an active after-hours police presence.

Maggie Valley’s town board has decided not to play favorites when it comes to the growing number of motorcycle rallies revving up to claim a piece of the two-wheeled action at the town festival grounds.

Maggie Valley will be home to at least five motorcycle rallies this year — a crowded field that led two longtime rally organizer to seek a reprieve. Too many motorcycle rallies, particularly in close proximity to each other, hurt their ability to draw patrons. There simply aren’t enough bikers to support all the rallies, prompting organizers to ask the town for exclusive windows when no other rallies will be held.

But, the town board last week unanimously denied the request from Thunder in the Smokies for a four-week window of protection around its two annual motorcycle rallies put on by Handlebar Corral Productions.

“This is a complicated issue and having this protection window in here is not as cut and dry as some people would like to think it is,” said Mayor Ron DeSimone. “My opinion is that for 2012 we should not handle this issue on the fly.”

The town board agreed at its most recent meeting to maintain the status quo and revisit the issue of protection windows for events in 2013.

“We are trying to do what’s best for Maggie,” said Alderman Phil Aldridge. “We need a year to think about it; we need six months.”

In December, Chris Anthony, a promoter with the company, sent a letter to town leaders, asking “that there be a minimum of four consecutive weeks before and after of no other motorcycle related events.” For the past nine years, Handlebar Corral Production has put on Thunder in the Smokies at the festival grounds twice a year — one in the fall and in the spring.

It came after a similar request by Rally in the Valley, put on by the Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association. Rally in the Valley gave Maggie leaders an ultimatum: either bar any other motorcycle festivals during the fall or the event would be no more. The town denied that request as well, and the Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers made good on their threat by pulling its event from Maggie Valley’s calendar.

Rather than tackle the problem this year when most plans have already been set, the town decided it would consider such requests for events in 2013.

The town eliminated most of the fees associated with using the festival grounds in the hopes that the prospect of a cheap-to-use venue would attract more events. And, for this reason, Alderman Saralyn Price said the town should not be beholden to each promoter’s requests.

“We are giving it away,” Price said. “We should not be letting people tell us how to run the festival grounds.”

Beginning with next year’s events, each request will be weighed on a case-by-case basis though the town does hope to pen a more formal application process for promoters who want to use the festival grounds.

“We are trying to rewrite the rules while the game is going on,” DeSimone said. He added that the town already tries to separate similar events to ensure that it gets the most out of each. If the town decided to schedule two motorcycle rallies on consecutive weekends, for instance, it would be unlikely to realize a large profit from either event.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie, said that the valley is not the only place running into these conundrums. While vacationing in Myrtle Beach, O’Keefe said she heard a news story state that town officials there considered cancelling all its rallies because of on-going problems with promoters.

“Everybody thinks all of this only happens in Maggie Valley,” she said.


More motorcycles

On the heels of its decision about Thunder in the Smokies, Maggie’s town board approved yet another motorcycle rally coming to town. Event organizer Charlie Cobble originally planned on doing a car show in May but told the town he wanted to rebrand it as the Maggie Valley Spring Bike Fest after research showed that a car event would not fair well.

“We did not do a lot of the leg work that we should have done,” Cobble admitted. “We did not want to spend the money and not bring the people.”

According to his research, only 15 percent of people surveyed said they would attend a car show. Cobble said he did not want to back out of his commitment to host an event and did not want to hold an unsuccessful one either. So, in the interest of making money for both himself and the town, Cobble requested the change.

Cobble said he has already spent about $7,400 and begun lining up vendors, sponsors and bands. And, luckily for Cobble, the town denied the Thunder in the Smokies request for exclusivity, which would have prevented him from hosting another motorcycle rally in May.

That same night, the Maggie Valley aldermen also added three additional events to its festival grounds calendar and lined up another event for 2013.

Pity the poor visitors trying to find their ways to Cherokee if the N.C. Department of Transportation heeds requests of local leaders in Haywood and Jackson counties when it comes to directional signs.

First, Jackson County wanted a “This way Cherokee” sign added in Haywood County that would bring visitors past their own doorstep en route to Cherokee rather than through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19.

More recently, in what smacks of tongue-in-cheek retaliation — though Maggie Valley officials might be perfectly serious, given that small town’s current economic woes — Haywood County sent an official request that the DOT install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would helpfully inform travelers from the Atlanta area they can actually reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

Amusing, perhaps, but here’s the time-travel differences for motorists: Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes fewer than 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Possible? Yes. Circuitous? Definitely.

“That’s crazy,” said John Marsh of Decatur, Ga., after listening to a CliffsNotes version of the now three-month old sign squabble. Marsh was in Dillsboro this past weekend with a friend on one of his frequent visits to this area.

“That probably seems funny to everybody to talk about, but it isn’t if you don’t know this area and how to get around. It’s confusing,” he said.

Theresa Brady, visiting the area for the first time from her home in northern Virginia, said she relies on GPS information and highway directional signs to guide her travels.

Brady was at the Huddle House in Dillsboro with friends. They’d stopped to eat on their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I don’t know what all that’s about, but it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Signs should tell you the safest and fastest” route.

Her traveling companion, Jane Langley, agreed, saying she’d found navigating Western North Carolina difficult enough without the potential added burden of directional sign games.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Langley said.


Dillsboro reacts  

Shop owners in Dillsboro seem sympathetic toward Maggie Valley’s economic struggle to survive following the latest round of death convulsions by the theme park Ghost Town in the Sky. Dillsboro experienced something similar when Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 2008 moved its headquarters to Bryson City and cut train routes to the small town.

Interestingly or ironically or both, railroad owner Al Harper was heavily invested in the most recent failed attempt to revive Ghost Town. One could even say Harper broke the hearts of two small WNC towns.

Be that as it may, however, the Dillsboro shop owners didn’t particularly care for the potential confusion visitors to the region would experience if the DOT pandered to Haywood County and Maggie Valley’s for an alternative sign leading Cherokee travelers the long-way around.

“The whole thing sounds pretty silly,” said Travis Berning, a potter and co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in Dillsboro. “That’s kind of a long way around to go through Haywood — (the sign) needs to show the most direct route.”

That, however, is exactly the contention of Maggie Valley leaders when it comes to Jackson County’s request for a second sign on their turf. In Haywood, the route to Cherokee through Maggie is shorter than the one through Jackson County, prompting Maggie to rebuke Jackson’s sign request there.

But, Renae Spears, a Bryson City resident who has the Kitchen Shop on the main drag in Dillsboro, pointed out that the road to Cherokee through Maggie is curvy and narrow.

“Obviously, from Dillsboro to Cherokee it is four lanes, which is the quickest and safest way to get there,” Spears said. “And if I direct anyone to Cherokee, that’s exactly the way I send them.”

And while she was on the subject of which way to Cherokee, Spears added that when headed west from Asheville she prefers to use four-lane highway if going to the reservation. Not, she said, U.S. 19’s mainly two-lane route via Maggie Valley to Cherokee.

“It’s not as safe or direct,” Spears said in explanation.  

This raging sign dispute started simply enough, when Jackson County governmental and tourism leader were reviewing state data and discovered the county’s visitation numbers were below par when compared with neighboring communities. That led to a flurry of activity intended to pump up those visitation stats.

Not surprisingly, Jackson County decided it needed a cut of the 3.5 million visitors who make their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino each year. The tribe supports Jackson County’s request.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said last week he was astounded that what seemed such a simple request had snowballed into a multi-town, multi-county, even regional dispute.

“I had no idea it would cause such a stir,” Wooten said.

Wooten added he’d recently told Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown that if he had known about the ensuing uproar to come, he’d never have written to Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway asking for the town’s backing on a new directional sign. Wooten did not say, however, that the county would have backed one iota away from making the request directly to DOT.

Longtime Maggie Valley resident Alaska Presley has seen it all when it comes to Ghost Town in the Sky’s ups and downs.

Presley, now 88, and her late husband Hugh met R.B. Coburn, founder of Ghost Town, more than 50 years ago when he walked into a hotel that the couple owned in Maggie Valley and told them about his plans. It was the beginning of Presley’s connection to and love for the amusement park, which has spanned nearly two-thirds of her life.

Now, Presley is putting her own personal wealth on the line to rescue the shuttered theme park, and hopefully bring back the missing lynchpin in the Maggie tourism trade.

SEE ALSO: Resurrecting a ghost town

Presley knows first hand how important Ghost Town was historically in driving tourist traffic in Maggie. Presley, along with her family, has owned and sold a number of Maggie businesses throughout the years, including Mountain Valley Lodge, Holiday Motel and a trout fishing operation.

Ghost Town enjoyed decades of prosperity after R.B. Colburn conceived of the idea more than half a century ago. As a result, the town of Maggie Valley grew up around it, a string of mom-and-pop motels, diners and shops catering to the 150,000 tourists that once streamed into Maggie to visit the park.

However, the park began a long and steady decline in the 1990s. It began to show its age around the edges and was not well-maintained. The attractions grew dated, yet Coburn failed to add new amenities to cater to the changing tastes of modern tourists.

Ghost Town’s eventual closure in 2002 dealt a major blow to Maggie Valley’s economy, which continued to decline.

When a group of investors appeared and reopened the park four years later, they were seen as saviors. Business owners and leaders were willingly to help in anyway that they could as long as it meant that Ghost Town, once a economic boon for the town, would return for good. Businesses provided supplies on credit, from electricians and plumbers making repairs to hard goods purchased from oil companies to building supply stores — all under the assumption Ghost Town was a good cause.  Meanwhile, Maggie residents, including Presley, loaned money to the new owners in exchange for shares in the company.

However, the park fell into debt and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. The park opened and closed several times as the owners struggled to get out of debt. But in the end, the park left a trail of $2.5 million in unpaid debt to small businesses and hundreds of thousands lost by helpful investors.

BB&T — which was owed $10 million by the new owners for the park’s purchase and later renovations  — filed for foreclosure. Eighteen months later, the foreclosure was finalized, and Alaska Presley placed her bid to buy Ghost Town.

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.

SEE ALSO: Has Maggie found its heroine?

“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.


Clock ticking

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.

Maggie Valley was thrust back into controversy over its noise ordinance last week, an ongoing debate that has pitted residents against bars hosting live bands outdoors.

Only four months after the previous town board made changes to the noise ordinance, the current town board decided once again to revise the law — causing concern for some residents.

“You’re changing something that you don’t even know if you’ve fixed yet,” said resident Cheryl Lambert. Lambert said she thought the issue had already been settled in September.

The former Board of Aldermen altered the noise ordinance last fall after complaints from some town residents and lodging owners.

Mayor Ron DeSimone said the old board left disputes regarding the ordinance unsettled — namely the cut-off time for music and a separate criteria for acoustic music.

“Even on the board there was no complete agreement on the times, on not addressing acoustic music,” DeSimone said.

Last September, the town board strengthened the noise ordinance by imposing an earlier cut-off time for music on weekdays and lowering the maximum decibel level.

Last week, the board strengthened it one notch more by imposing earlier cut-off times for amplified outdoor music on Friday and Saturday nights, plus an even earlier cut-off on weekdays.

However, an exception was made for acoustic music, which will enjoy a later cut-off time since it isn’t amplified and thus not as loud.

“We have encouraged acoustic music versus amplified music,” DeSimone said.

Residents and hotel owners complaining of noise spilling over from nearby bars claim the ordinance still doesn’t go far enough, however.

The noise ordinance does not apply to the fairgrounds, which negotiates such details with event organizers on a case-by-case basis.


‘Prisoners in our own home’

During the meeting, several residents and business owners spoke up about how music emanating from Maggie Valley restaurants and bars negatively impacts them.

“It’s louder than most of you think,” said resident Rosanne Cavender. “It’s very stressful.”

Her father Ray Kuutti, who is a musician, backed Cavender’s comments.

“I was outside painting, and this stuff started going on, and I couldn’t stay out there,” he said. Kuutti added that he does not mind the outdoor acoustic music, which generates less noise.

Alderman Mike Matthews argued that people chose to live in the tourist town and must therefore tolerate some additional noise.

“We are not going back to the old noise ordinance at all (but) I am not willing to shut everything down at 6 o’clock,” Matthews said.

Lambert said she would like to move if she could but when her house was put up for sale, it stayed on the market for two years without being purchased. The reason, she said, is because of the noise.

“We are prisoners in our own home,” said Lambert, who lives near the Maggie Valley Inn. “We can’t watch TV; we can’t turn on the radio; we can’t go outside.”

Some Maggie Valley hotels and inns have lost business because the noise emitted from nearby restaurants disturbs their guests.

“There needs to be a level of respect and decorum,” said Carol Burrell, who runs the Creekside Lodge near the Tiki House Seafood and Oyster Bar. “If I can hear music in my business and it’s coming from inside a business, how loud is it?”

Last year, the Maggie Valley Police Department responded to 37 noise complaints.

In a complaint against Hurley’s, Jonathan Creek Inn owner Jeff Smith said he refused to lose any more money because noise from the restaurant disturbs his clients.

In several instances, the Maggie Valley police responded to a complaint and asked the offender to keep it down. However, an officer was forced to return later when the noise once again became a problem.

“Once or twice I heard them turn it down, but it never stayed down,” Kuutti said.

Several individuals also stated that businesses would quiet down before a police officer could measure the noise level to avoid getting in trouble. Officers are required to measure the sound level for 20 seconds while standing no more than 10 feet away from the property line, a procedure that gives bands enough warning to turn down their sound


Reining it in

Original ordinance

Cut-off time: 11 p.m. Mon-Sat

Decibel level: 75 on weekends, 65 on weekdays

Changes made last September:

Cut-off time: 11 p.m. on weekends, 10 p.m. on weekdays

Decibel level: 70 on weekends, 65 on weekdays

Changes made last week:

Cut-off time: 10 p.m. on weekends, 9 p.m. on weekdays*

Decibel level: 70 on weekends, 65 on weekdays

* An exception is made for acoustic music, which can be played until 10:30 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.


Noise complaints by the numbers

• Tiki House Seafood and Oyster Bar: 6 (all during August)

• Salty Dog’s Seafood and Grill: 4

• Hurley’s Creekside Dining and Rhum Bar: 4 (all during July)

• Barking Dogs: 4

• Maggie Valley Inn: 2

• Stingrays: 1

• Maggie Valley Festival Grounds: 1

• Other homes and rentals: 15

The road less traveled

The question ‘which way to Cherokee?’ continues bedeviling the state transportation department, which has been caught in a tug-of-war between Jackson County and Maggie Valley over who deserves a sign pointing the “right” way to Cherokee.

Maggie Valley currently holds title to the sole directional sign pointing motorists to Cherokee via U.S. 19 and over Soco Gap — and would like to keep it that way.

“We are all for helping promote Jackson County, but not at the expense of Maggie Valley,” said Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is “leaning toward” posting a sign indicating that there are in fact two routes to Cherokee — one through Maggie and one that continues on past Sylva.

But by posting another sign, the department of transportation would “take away from one and give to another,” said Alderman Mike Matthews. “There has not been enough information to say you should go this way versus this way.”

Jackson County officials, meanwhile, have lobbied for the second sign, pointing out that the four-lane highway going past Sylva is actually safer and more user friendly than the route through Maggie. The tribe has expressed a desire for a second sign.

“They feel like the two-lane road over Soco is hazardous,” said Reuben Moore, a DOT official who works in the regional office in Sylva.

But DeSimone questioned Jackson’s true motive.

“Obviously, Jackson County did not bring this up because they were concerned for public welfare,” DeSimone said.

Maggie Valley could win out, however, as the DOT has yet to find a place to put the new sign and has not settled on concise wording.


Safety and travel time

Moore updated the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on the status of the sign issue at a town meeting last week.

If the DOT decides to allow a new sign, it would be placed by May before the beginning of the tourist season.

But, posting a new sign faces several obstacles, including where to place it.

“It takes about a mile of signage to properly sign an exit,” Moore said. But the roadside leading up to the Maggie exit is already cluttered with signage.

DOT has not settled on the appearance of the sign. It cannot simply put two dueling arrows on a sign pointing this way or that way to Cherokee.

“That is strictly against policy,” Moore said.

The DOT has discussed making a sign with the words Cherokee spanning the top half of the sign and the mileage for both routes below it: U.S. 74 at 37 miles and U.S. 19 at 24 miles.

Although the route through Maggie is shorter distance-wise, a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken.

“We found that the travel time was very nearly the same,” Moore said.

Initially, Moore wanted the sign to specify that the travel time was about the same no matter which route is taken, but DOT vetoed the idea because traffic or accidents could delay travel along one of the roads.

The department only test-drove the routes three times during the late fall and winter. The times do not account for increased traffic during the summer and early fall months when tourists flood the area. Get stuck behind a slow moving Winnebago, and the trip through Soco Gap could be a grueling one.

The review of both routes showed that the crash rate on U.S. 19 is 10 percent higher.

Alderman Mike Matthews said that the two roads are incomparable when it comes to wrecks because U.S. 19 runs through a town where cars are often slowing down or speeding up and pulling in or out of parking lots. The U.S. 441 route, however, is a four-lane divided highway.

“I don’t even see how that could be compared,” Matthews said.

Maggie Valley officials said they want “overwhelming, definitive information” showing that the road through Jackson County is safer.

Does DOT consider U.S. 19 to be safe, Matthews asked?

“Absolutely,” Moore responded.

Aldermen Saralyn Price asked Moore pointblank which road would he take if it was snowing and he was in Lake Junaluska.

“I wouldn’t be out,” Moore said.

The Board of Aldermen argued that the DOT has not provided any information that would validate a decision to post a new directional sign.

“I have not heard anything definite about (U.S. 441) being safer,” DeSimone said.


Capturing tourism dollars

Maggie Valley and Jackson County each hope to attract a portion of the 3.5 million people who visit the casino in Cherokee each year.

The idea that Maggie Valley will lose business should an alternative route be posted “presupposes that people are going to do what the signs tell them to do,” Moore said.

Jackson County commissioners haven’t been shy about their desires to funnel tourism traffic through that county. Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten and the five county commissioners expressed surprise last week that their request for a sign had triggered uproars in Maggie Valley.

As they hammered out possible designs for a new welcome sign at the county line, Commissioner Doug Cody joked that they should add to Jackson County’s fantasy sign: “This is the best route to Cherokee.”

A decision will be made based on safety and the speed of traffic, assured Moore, not based on which route is more scenic or needs more business.

According to Jackson County Travel and Tourism, visitors have said that they prefer to take U.S. 441 to Cherokee. But, Moore said he can’t confirm whether that is true.

The coordinators of the annual Rally in the Valley motorcycle event have strapped Maggie Valley leaders a seemingly impossible ultimatum that could leave the town in straits no matter what they decide.

Rally in the Valley coordinators asked the town to bar any other motorcycle festivals from coming to town the week before or after its September rally in hopes of ensuring a bigger draw for its own event. If the town didn’t comply, Rally in the Valley would be no more.

The town dutifully responded by asking Maggie’s other big motorcycle event of the fall, Thunder in the Smokies, traditionally held the weekend before Rally in the Valley, to move dates.

But, Rally in the Valley then upped its demand. If Maggie wants to keep the Rally in the Valley, it can be the only motorcycle festival held there during the entire fall.

“The Town of Maggie Valley has always welcomed The Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association and their customers to Maggie Valley,” said Sandy Owens, a spokeswoman for the association that puts on Rally in the Valley, in an email. “We are hoping that we can come to an agreement with the town that will allow us to move forward with future successful fall rallies.”

Owens declined to comment further.

And with that, the town found itself between a rock and a hard place: it will lose Rally in the Valley if town officials do not meet the terms, but it will lose Thunder in the Smokies if it does.

The town has a long standing agreement with the company that hosts Thunder in the Smokies, which puts on a May rally in addition to its one in September.

Handlebar Corral Production has run Thunder in the Smokies in Maggie for nine years, and has said it will stop holding both its fall and spring event if the town sides with Rally in the Valley.

Chris Anthony, owner of Handlebar Corral Production, said it would be “practical” to pull out of both commitments — its fall and spring Thunder in the Smokies events.

However, should Rally in the Valley leave Maggie, Thunder in the Smokies has indicated that it would like the rally’s spot on the third weekend in September.


Fat lady yet to sing

Negotiations between Maggie Valley and the Carolina Harley-Davidson Dealers Association will not concluded “anytime soon,” said Mayor Ron DeSimone.

DeSimone said that the town has done its best to convince the Harley-Davidson Association to continue hosting its annual Rally in the Valley motorcycle event in Maggie. The town has offered to keep the 2012 event schedule status quo while proposing that the 2013 schedule could be negotiated.

“Balls in their court,” said DeSimone, who spoke at a public meeting on the issue last Wednesday.

The association is expected to make a decision in the next month, and it’s unclear whether it will choose to stop holding the motorcycle rally in Maggie if it doesn’t get exclusive booking or it will continue as it has for 12 years.

There is still a chance that the association will move forward with the event again this coming year, DeSimone said.

“It’s not a done deal yet,” he said.

Discussions at a recent public meeting lasted no more than 20 minutes and focused mostly on whether dates could be retroactively changed should the association pull its event from Maggie’s roster.

However, one resident spoke up about his concern about losing any motorcycle events.

“I want to impress upon you how much money the motorcycles bring to this battle,” said Maggie resident James Carver, who owns Maggie Valley Restaurant. “Save those motorcycles.”

Maggie Valley boosts four motorcycling events each year: Rally in the Valley in the fall, RoadRUNNER Touring Weekend in the summer and Thunder in the Smokies’ fall and spring events.

Each event brings a crowd into the valley — people who will spend their money at Maggie’s shops and sleep in its hotels. And, like many Western North Carolina towns, much of Maggie Valley’s income is based around tourism.

By hosting large-scale events at its fairgrounds, Maggie aims to attract more visitors and money to the town. The loss of one event such as Rally in the Valley would further wound Maggie’s already hurting economy.

“It (Rally in the Valley) brings a lot of business to the town,” said Audrey Hager, Maggie’s festival director. “Also, it’s a big fundraiser for the chamber so that hurts as well.”

The town is still trying to figure out how much impact each event has on the local economy.

The Harley-Davidson Association, which runs Rally in the Valley, has complained that attendance and revenues are down, Hager said. The association has lost “substantial money” during the last few years, she said.

“They cannot sustain the losses they’ve had the last three years,” Hager said.

Without competition from other motorcycle events, the rally would likely see a rise in attendees and profits.

As for Thunder in the Smokies, Anthony admitted that the money generated from running such an event is not always great but said a big factor in attendance is the weather.

“If the weather is good, our crowd is good,” Anthony said. “When I say good, not great.”

Anthony said he did not know how much the events impacted Maggie.

“We don’t really know what the total is that we’re bringing to Maggie Valley,” Anthony said.

Neither event organizer has disclosed their attendance numbers to the town. The numbers would help quantify each event’s impact on Maggie.

Counties and towns in the region are sparring over a highway sign that points the way to Cherokee, each hoping to capture a share of the 3.5 million annual visitors en route to the tribe’s casino by bringing that traffic past their own doorstep.

There are two routes to Cherokee — something any tourist could figure out using the Internet or an in-car GPS unit. However, only one route has a highway directional sign pointing the way to Cherokee, namely the route through Maggie Valley.

Jackson County officials are urging the North Carolina Department of Transportation to post a second highway sign letting travelers know they don’t have to get off the highway and head through Maggie but can continue on past Waynesville and Sylva to reach Cherokee as well.

Jackson sees itself as the big winner from such a sign but has appealed to Waynesville to join it in its request.

“We thought Waynesville might also be the beneficiary of that (sign),” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

Currently, Cherokee-bound tourists coming off Interstate 40 are funneled toward Maggie on U.S. 19 just before they get to Waynesville.

Waynesville leaders discussed the issue at their town board meeting last week but postponed a decision until next year.

Neither Town Manager Lee Galloway nor Mayor Gavin Brown had spoken with officials in Maggie Valley about their take on the matter. However, at least one board member is against siding with Jackson County over Maggie Valley.

“I don’t feel like we should go against our own,” said board member Gary Caldwell.

As for Maggie Valley, officials said they had not heard about or had only heard tell of the possible signage.

Tim Barth, Maggie Valley’s town manager, said he was not aware that Jackson County had reached out to Waynesville looking for support. However, he said he would oppose such a sign.

“We would prefer that they come through Maggie Valley,” Barth said.

If the sign was erected, Maggie Valley would likely see fewer people driving down its main drag – which could further harm tourist businesses that are already struggling.

“Obviously, less people would be coming through the town then, and we depend on people coming through the town,” Barth said.

People traveling to Cherokee sometimes stop at restaurants or stores along the way, which is the main reason why Jackson County wants the sign — to cash in on some of those travelers’ checks.

“Our whole goal was to increase traffic (to the county),” Wooten said.


Which way?

For leaders in Cherokee and within the Eastern Band, having two routes to the reservation is about keeping customers happy.

“It’s important for our customers to have a choice,” said Robert Jumper, the tribe’s travel and tourism manager. “We want people to be able to come, in their most comfortable way, to Cherokee.”

If visitors are not happy with a particular route, they might not come back, said Jumper, who expressed support for the sign. He added that the additional route, which runs past Waynesville, would benefit both Haywood and Jackson counties.

When people call the Cherokee visitor center, they are directed through Maggie Valley or Jackson County based on their driving preferences.

Although vehicles traverse fewer road miles on the route through Maggie Valley, the low speed limits and a windy, two-lane road makes the scenic drive longer than expected, including a rather lengthy dead zone for cell phone users.

“The most direct route, of course, is through Maggie,” said Teresa Smith, head of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, it’s a straight shot (to Cherokee), and a majority of our businesses are on this main thoroughfare.”

However, the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway through Jackson County is generally the quickest route, a divided-highway with a faster flow of traffic, but drivers miss out on the views when going over Soco Gap in Maggie.

Jackson County has applied for a similar sign in the past, but nothing happened.

While the DOT has indicated that it would be possible to place a second sign near the existing one at Exit 103 on the by-pass, it is still unknown whether it will actually happen, Wooten said.

Hoping to sway the transportation department, the county has applied to others for support. Representatives from Cherokee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have signed their names to letters that indicate their support for the new sign.

“We feel that giving the motoring public an additional option of four-lane travel will provide better flow of traffic and enhance safety on both routes to Cherokee,” reads the letter signed by Jumper; Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band; Jason Lambert, the tribe’s executive director of economic development; and Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

The letter also states that the route through Jackson County provides drivers with a “direct, unimpeded” road to Cherokee.

A similar letter written by Jack Debnam, Chairman of the Jackson County commission, states that the expressway route offers an alternative that is easy for any type of vehicle to travel, during any type of weather.

Smith admitted that ice and snow have made the trip over Soco Gap hazardous on occasion but said that the road is nowhere near impassable.

“Vehicles have traveled it for years,” Smith said. “It’s not like it’s impossible. It’s not like it’s dangerous.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, declined to comment on the topic until she could meet with other members of the tourism board.

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