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Maggie Valley took a leap of faith this year with its inaugural Red, White and Boom festival. It was a four-day, July 4th spectacular the town hoped would raise its profile with tourists and tempt locals to venture into Maggie.

Although the take was not quite what was expected and some town reactions are mixed, Festival Director Audrey Hager said she was pleased with the overall outcome of the event.

“In our opinion, it was a big success. We actually were not concerned so much about the money, it was the investment by the town of Maggie Valley in the community,” Hager said of the festival, which featured 14 amusement rides, musical acts and food vendors.

The town spent just over $89,000 and took in about $47,000, leaving town tax payers to subsidize nearly half of the cost. Hager, however, said that the money was a worthwhile investment, bringing people to the town and laying the foundation for making Maggie Valley an annual Independence Day destination.

“With first year events, you build them,” said Hager. “Our whole goal is to build this for the community and make this a signature event so that people think, ‘On Fourth of July, we go to Maggie.’”

Part of the lower revenue, said Hager, was because of a rained-out Monday, and another portion she ascribed to the economy.

“We did not make our projected numbers on the unlimited wrist bands,” she said. The wrist bands gave patrons unlimited access to the fair rides. “With the economy the way it is, this is a really soft market from a pricing standpoint.”

And after losing $13,000 on the Americana Roots and Beer festival earlier this year, Hager decided to adjust the prices for the July event, hoping to entice more families working with limited budgets.

Hager said she’s had some good feedback from the business community, praising the festival for bringing them more tourist business and drawing locals who would have otherwise ventured elsewhere in search of July Fourth festivities.

“Oh, it was fabulous, it was wonderful,” said Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House and long-time fixture in the Maggie Valley business community. “The whole area was filled and my customers were thrilled. I’ve talked to a lot of the local hoteliers and they were packed.”

Not everyone in town, however, was as glowing about the event’s outcome.

“We had a booth down there at the festival and we definitely didn’t do what we thought we would do,” said Erin Mahoney, owner of J. Arthur’s Restaurant on Soco Road in Maggie Valley. “It was a four-day festival and we had a good maybe three hours that we were very busy and the rest of the time it was just dead.”

It was the first time they had fielded a booth at any festival, and Mahoney’s guess is that the event was just too long. There weren’t quite enough people to fill four full days.

Alderman Phil Aldridge, who has been openly skeptical of the money spent on the festivals, is still undecided on his stance on the event’s outcome.

“I’ve still got reservations about it, whether or not it put any heads in beds,” said Aldridge. “Every Fourth of July has always filled this valley up. I don’t think the carnival had anything to do with it.”

Hager said she’s planning a workshop where the community can offer their opinions about the festival — what they liked, what they hated and how to make it better next year.

But, she said, they drew in festival-goers from outer markets such as Atlanta and Columbia, which she sees as an indication that they did something right, even if it cost some taxpayer dollars.

“The money stays here in Maggie Valley, those tax dollars stayed here in Maggie. We never anticipated making money,” said Hager. “Our whole goal is to ultimately break even. It has a big value for the town if we can grow year over year.”

This week, town leaders will hold workshop to consider a request from the organizer of a WWE wrestling event for $15,000 in town and community donations in order to bring a large wrestling event to the festival grounds in September.

Rarely is there a lull in political turmoil in Maggie Valley, and this summer is no exception.

With election filing only a few days away, Mayor Roger McElroy’s seat will again be up for grabs, as will the spots of Alderman Phil Aldridge and newly appointed Alderwoman Danya Vanhook.

Vanhook’s seat is a logical starting place in a political discussion of the valley — it’s been the most hotly contested and highly controversial over the last few months.

When Colin Edwards resigned the seat earlier this year over a spat with the town’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission Board, another tussle followed over just how to fill the vacant spot. Some in the valley thought it was only fair to appoint the runner up from the last election, who had at least gained some semblance of backing from voters, which in this case was Philip Wight. But Vanhook, a local lawyer and former district court judge who lost that seat in last November’s election, was appointed instead.

Vanhook said she’s going to throw her hat in the ring for the same reason she applied for the appointment.

“I wanted to serve the town, I wanted to continue to be in public service. It’s a way that I can serve and give back and use my legal skills to bring something to the board,” said Vanhook.

Not easily dissuaded, however, Wight may run again himself.

Meanwhile, Alderman Phil Aldridge said he intends to defend his position.

Aldridge has been embattled with other board members of late, voting against the budget and Vanhook’s appointment and publicly questioning many of the board’s other choices.

“I have a lot of passion for the valley, but what I don’t have that some of them do, I don’t have a personal agenda,” said Aldridge. He plans to try for another term because he said he’s still concerned with the town’s direction.

Last but not least is the mayoral spot, a perch long held by Roger McElroy. McElroy has said that he’ll most likely come back for another round this election year.

But he likely face a challenge from Ron DeSimone, a local contractor, has showed interest in the position.

“There’s a lot of things I see that need to be done in Maggie Valley,” said DeSimone. “Our government in Maggie Valley is growing and so are expenses, and I’m for smaller government and smaller expenses.”

DeSimone has run once before, for alderman, and applied in February for the seat that is now Vanhook’s.

Maggie Valley gave the thumbs up to a 2011-12 budget, voting 4-1 to approve the spending plan at a town board meeting last week.

The lone dissenter was Alderman Phil Aldridge, who opposed the budget because of its spending.

“I just think there’s been some excessive spending on the town’s level for the last number of years,” said Aldridge. “I know we’ve been in somewhat of a recession for the last three years, and I’ve seen other local municipalities cutting back on their budget and I just haven’t seen Maggie do that.”

This year, however, the town did face dwindling revenue of $135,000  that they had to make up in departmental trimming.

Town Manager Tim Barth said this was made easier since they saw the deficit coming and began planning for it in the spring.

The revenue dip was a two-fold problem, said Barth. One was lower property values following the county property revaluation. As a whole, property values dropped by 5.5 percent in Maggie, which in turn means less property tax.

The other is blamed on the census. Towns get a cut of state sales tax based on their population. The state estimates each town’s population in the intervening decade between counts. When the actual census came out this year, the state realized it was overestimating Maggie Valley’s population and it shouldn’t get as much sales tax.

Barth and his department heads gathered up around $149,000 in reductions they could make, though some of them were spared after talks with the town’s board.

When negotiations had finalized, the approved budget included some extra funds for the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds to subsidize two of its newer festivals, the Americana Roots and Beer Festival and July’s Red, White and Boom celebration, and an additional $9,000 annually to make Festival Grounds Director Audrey Hager a full-time worker.

Hager said she was appreciative of the recognition, but the raise just makes official the work she’s already been doing. Currently, Hager is only paid for 30 hours a week.

“It really just gets me paid for what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working 50, 60 hours a week anyway,” said Hager. “My plan remains the same: to try to sell to promoters the festival grounds of Maggie Valley.”

Barth said it was a measure aldermen thought was important, especially given the dearth of large attractions in the town this tourist season.

“With Ghost Town not being in business right now, they thought it was more important than ever to try to really market the festival ground and get events that will make a significant positive impact on the valley,” said Barth.

Ghost Town, however, has made a contribution to the town’s coffers — BB&T, the bank that now owns the defunct amusement park, shelled out a chunk of the back taxes owed to Maggie Valley.

That’s part of why Barth and some other aldermen are less concerned about the $54,522 that’s coming out of the fund balance to balance the budget.

Some of the town’s spending this year will go to town employees, who will all see a $1,000 raise. Part of that increase, though, will be offset by the $60,000 the town has saved by changing to Blue Cross Blue Shield for employee health insurance.

Alderwoman Danya Vanhook said that, overall, she was proud of the town for coming out with a balanced budget.

“Nobody’s getting fired or laid off and we’re not increasing taxes. It’s a win-win,” Vanhook told audience members at the public budget hearing.

Copies of the budget are available at the Maggie Valley Town Hall.

When sewage began flooding out of the floor one January Saturday at Waynesville’s Coffee Zone, Coni Bishop knew things were about to get bad.

Bishop was the coffee-and-sandwich shop’s owner. And when she and some staff were working one weekend and started seeing the kitchen’s floor drains bubbling up with befouled water, she figured she would be closed for a little while. What she didn’t expect was five months out of business and a move out of Waynesville.

While the Coffee Zone is no more, Bishop’s business has been reincarnated as the Copper Leaf Café, located at High Country Furniture on the edge of Maggie Valley.

The revived coffee spot opened last Monday, following a long and arduous few months for Bishop and her staff, most of whom she had to let go.

She’s been able to reopen, thanks to an agreement with High Country, which owns the shop and employs Bishop to run it. That, she said, solved her biggest problem in the wake of the sewage backup.

“I was reimbursed for the product I lost — we had to get rid of every single thing that was in the store — and we were also able to recover our equipment that got damaged from the water, but that’s all we ended up with,” said Bishop. “We lost our business investment. There was no way to recoup that.”

So while she wanted to restart the business soon after, without startup capital, it was impossible.

There was always the option of going back into the Coffee Zone building, which sits in the center of a shopping center plaza on Russ Avenue and was once a bank. But even after the professionals came in and scoured everything sanitary, Bishop said she just couldn’t move her shop back in.

For one thing, there was the smell.

“It was just horrible,” said Bishop. That’s partly because the sewage had seeped up through the floor drains and then promptly poured back down onto the building’s ductwork and air conditioning system, which were under the floors. And then it sat for three weeks while the issue of who, exactly, was responsible for sorting out the mess.

Was it the town, which is in charge of sewage systems? The landlord, who is responsible for making sure the building remains in solid, habitable shape?

As it transpires, the answer is option B, the landlord. And, according to Bishop, the property owner hadn’t really kept the building maintained to code.

“One of my frustrations, what was so difficult, is that there‘s no enforcement agency that goes around to property owners and sees if they’re up to code,” said Bishop. “I feel like this could have been prevented, or at least [have been] a lot less invasive to our business.”

And, said Town Manager Lee Galloway, that’s true. But a policing operation like that would be far beyond what the town could reasonably manage.

“They’re supposed to remain up to code, but they don’t have to go back and retrofit their building unless they’re having major work done on their building,” said Galloway. “It would be pretty much impossible for us to have enough inspectors to go out and check that sort of thing.”

And Bishop concedes this point, though it was little consolation when she had standing sewage in her kitchen.

The town couldn’t really do anything because they only own the collection lines at the very edges of the shopping center. The sewer lines are all private and ancient, and apparently most people there are pretty unclear about where they even are or how to shut them off. That was another contributing factor to the woes of Coffee Zone, as it allowed sewage to flow freely until someone could locate the shut-off valve.

These days, said Galloway, most new builds put in sewer lines that they then dedicate to the town, transferring responsibility into municipal hands.

“That’s more common now than it was 40, 50 years ago, and I guess for this very problem, because property changes hands and no one knows where the lines are,” said Galloway.

For Bishop, she’s no longer angry about what happened on Russ Avenue; she’s positive about her new venture and not too concerned about losing the dedicated customer base she’d cultivated at Coffee Zone.

“I think once people find out and they realize it’s not in Maggie Valley, it’s just a little way past Smackers, I think well be OK,” said Bishop. “There’s no drive-through, and that’s a down side, that’s something that we lost. Drive-through really was 40 percent of our business. But so far it’s getting busier each day.”

When the town of Maggie Valley bought a grassy field to serve as a town festival grounds in 2005, the hope was that it would bring new visitors and new life to the town’s flagging tourism industry.

Since then, there have been two festival directors, attempts to make the place profitable, and now, an infusion of extra cash from the town is on the table as a boost to the facility.

The town’s proposed budget allocates $120,000 to the festival grounds. But the budget also calls for another $140,000 to put on two festivals — Red, White and Boom, a July 4 festival, and the Americana Roots and Beer festival next spring. The town hopes the festivals will bring in that much in revenue to cover the costs. But if they don’t, the town will be left to pick up the bill.

The festival ground has budgeted an additional $57,000 from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, a cut of local hotel and motel tax.

For the first few years, the festival grounds languished a bit. The first festival director didn’t rise to the town’s expectations in his few months on the job — the number of events was just too low.

The town’s hopes for the venue were pinned in 2009 on Festival Director Audrey Hager, who came in with an impressive event-planning resume and the intent to turn the place around.

Hager said she’s making strides, boosting the reputation of the festival grounds and making inroads with regional and national festival promoters, who would bring their own festivals and events to the space.

But total success doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s really re-branding, getting the word out, building our reputation before people will come,” said Hager. “The expectation of the community was it wasn’t happening fast enough. But I think if we start building our reputation as a quality festival community, then that can only help attract promoters to this area to host such events.”

Ideally, said Hager, such events would include things like Red, White and Boom, an Independence Day carnival subsidized heavily by the town and outside affairs like Vettes in the Valley, an annual Corvette show that rents the grounds.

The festival grounds certainly don’t pay for themselves as yet; they lost more than $13,000 on their recent American Roots and Beer festival, due in part to colder weather that weekend.

But town officials say that self-sufficiency isn’t necessarily the end goal.

“I don’t think the town ever believed from the beginning that the festival grounds were going to pay for themselves,” said Town Manager Tim Barth. “With where the rates are set and the number of events that we have, there’s just no way it’s going to pay for itself.”

In the tourism gap left by departing Ghost Town and the closure of other venues like Eaglesnest and Carolina Nights, the real job of the festival grounds was to bring money into the valley, not necessarily make money itself.

“We hope to create enough commerce so that our constituents — the motels and the restaurants and whoever — can pay their taxes and we have a good crowd in town, to hopefully fill in the gap until we can get a few more venues back,” said Mayor Roger McElroy.

Though there might be some tension in using taxpayer money to support businesses that way, McElroy believes it’s only fair. Residents get services that businesses, by and large, do not, such as trash pick-up and road clearing.

And as the large attractions continue to dissipate, supporting the festival grounds is an effort by the town to buoy up business owners and boost their revenues with more traffic — even if it means taxpayers footing the bill for tourism interests.

Not everyone thinks that the festival grounds can be turned around, however.

“I have to be optimistic like others, but you can’t put lipstick on a pig, I guess is a good way to put it,” said Alderman Phil Aldridge. “They say give the young lady that’s our director time, but when do you draw the line?”

Local businesses, for the most part, are behind the measure. It at least brings in the promise of better business.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as people think it is,” said Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House and a four-decade resident of Maggie Valley. “I’m not unhappy with the job they’re doing. I’ve been here for 45 years and seen a lot go on in this town, and I’m very happy the town has taken it over.”

Hager said she’s making progress in the connections department, stirring the interest of national promoters. She returned from a conference in Texas with dozens of leads to follow.

And, said Hager, that’s going to continue to be her tactic, which she’s confident will pay larger dividends as the years progress.

“I’m talking to a lot of promoters all the time,” said Hager. “And I’m just going to keep selling the festival grounds.”

A formerly notorious bar will reopen in Maggie Valley despite bombastic protests from the owner of Wheels Through Time Museum, who fears it will attract the same seedy crowd and societal ills as the past establishment.

Dale Walksler commanded a freewheeling four-hour town meeting this week marked by sparring and insults, often evoking gasps and murmurs from the audience. It was far from the typically tame public hearing where a round robin of speakers takes short and civil turns at the microphone.

Instead, the hearing was akin to a television courtroom drama. Speakers could endlessly cross-examine each other with no time limits and little restraint on appropriate subject matter.

At issue was whether the town board would grant a permit to Robert Leatherwood to reopen the old Spring House bar. Walksler made a vigorous appeal to town leaders to deny the permit. He said that under past ownership, bar patrons spilled over onto his museum property, littering his parking lot with used condoms and drug needles. Walksler suspects the same crowds will return.

During his cross examination, the short and spry Walksler hovered inches away from the podium where the comparatively large Leatherwood stood. Leatherwood occasionally leaned into the podium in response to Walksler’s heated antics, bringing the two mere feet apart at times.

“Don’t push me,” Leatherwood told Walksler once.

Walksler routinely cut Leatherwood off if he didn’t like what he was saying, waving his hand to silence Leatherwood while tossing out statements ranging from “I’ve heard enough” or “Yeah, whatever,” or “I’ve made my point.”

One heated exchange followed a complaint by Walksler that riff-raff from the bar took up nightly residence in his parking lot. Both Walksler and his son live on museum property, and say they were often kept up all night by illegal partying that migrated onto their property from next door.

“Do you know where the closest residence is to your establishment?” Walksler asked.

“I have no idea Mr. Walksler. Why don’t you advise me on that,” Leatherwood said.

“We’ll talk later,” Walkser said, wheeling away from the podium.

“Anytime pal,” said Leatherwood.

Leatherwood then offered Walksler a free lifetime membership to the nightclub, and welcomed Walksler to come pass out coupons to his museum to bar patrons.

When aldermen or the town’s attorney tried to rein Walksler in, he wouldn’t hear of it.

“I don’t like to be interrupted,” Walkser barked at Mayor Roger McElroy at one point.

During one of Walksler’s cross-examinations, town attorney Chuck Dickson told him to stick to questioning the witness and save his own viewpoints for his own testimony.

“I think this is the appropriate time,” Walksler said and continued doing what he was doing.

Alderman Danya Vanhook, an ex-judge, ended up being the de facto handler of Walksler when he got out of line. Stepping back into her judge’s shoes, she objected when he delved into hearsay, and made him rephrase what she dubbed “compound questions.” She frequently called Walksler out of order for badgering witnesses.

“No arguing with each other. You have to let him answer the question,” Vanhook told Walksler. She even intervened when he mischaracterized the testimony of other witnesses.

Walksler said he feared the bar would lower the property values of his museum, which has a value of $20 million. Walksler’s museum is indeed world-class. It is internationally renowned for its unrivalled collection of historic bikes and memorabilia. Its iconic status is a fact he reminded the audience of often.

“I am a very successful person who has made an accomplishment in this town that none of you people could even dream of,” Walksler told the room.

Walksler belittled Leatherwood for striving to open such a bar.

“We all have to have goals I guess. I know I did when I was a kid and I pretty much achieved my goal, which is to open the coolest place in the world,” Walksler said.

Walksler often uses his museum as a platform to bash the rest of the town to visiting patrons. Shirley Pinto, who waits tables at Joey’s Pancake House, called him on this during the hearing. She said customers at the restaurant would divulge what Walksler had said about the rest of town while they were visiting the museum.

Jim Davis, a Maggie resident who came to the meeting to see the show, recounted a similar experience in the hallway after the meeting. A year ago, he took an out-of-town guest to the museum and they got an earful from Walksler, who ranted about town politics and criticized its people.

“As a person who just paid a ticket and walked in the door, he laid it all out,” said Davis.

Walksler has threatened to leave town with his museum if the town board granted the bar its permit, and questioned whether the town could afford to sacrifice its last standing tourist attraction with so many others now shuttered.

It won’t be the first time he has threatened to leave. He has vocally announced his intentions to pull out of the town on and off for a few years, but each time decided to stay.

Nonetheless, it is enough to strike fear into the hearts of motel owners who have little else besides motorcycle traffic driving business.

“A lot of people come see his museum,” Gabi Edwards, owner of a Holiday Motel, said in an interview. “It is very important, very important. Everybody comes away impressed not only with the museum but with Dale. I can’t imagine what else are we going to lose.”

Brenda O’Keefe, a longtime Maggie business owner, told Walksler his message would be more effective if he didn’t insult and attack people along the way. For example, when Walkser was questioning traffic flow in the bar’s parking lot, he said the design drawn by a local surveyor looks like it was done by three-year-old.

“I understand my personality flaw,” Walksler responded. “People have said before, ‘Oh Dale is his own worst enemy.’ I am not buying that.”

 

The real issue

While upstaged by the dueling personalities of Walksler and Leatherwood, the real issue was whether town leaders would endorse a bar that might devolve into a public nuisance.

Walksler said the bar has been “drug and alcohol” infested for two decades and called it a “total violation that everything that we as Americans believe in.”  Police responded to calls at the Spring House 300 times over an eight-year period, he said, introducing the police reports as evidence.

Walksler held up photos of the sign still posted on the door of the bar from its last owner.

“No drugs, no pushers, no paraphernalia. No muscle shirts or wife beater shirts worn at any time. No biker gangs or colors to be worn. No knives, no guns, no brass knuckles,” Walksler read. “This is not the clientele we need in this town. This is not the establishment we need in this town.”

Walksler said the town’s reputation will be harmed at a time it can little afford to lose any more tourism business.

“As we know this town has 68 empty businesses between Dellwood and the hill. It’s not the gas and it is not the economy. It is decision making in this city hall that is substandard and has made this the town of broken dreams.”

Leatherwood said he would take measures to ensure the safety of bar patrons and neighbors. The bar will have metal detectors at the entrance, closed-circuit night vision cameras both inside and out, and hire off-duty cops to work the door.

“You are not going to have to fight your way in and fight your way out like it used to be,” Leatherwood said.

The metal detectors and bouncers didn’t appease Walksler. Instead, he took it as proof positive that the joint would cater to the underworld. Leatherwood said it was just a precaution, however.

“When people get drunk sometimes they get rowdy, sometimes they don’t. Men or ladies, they can both get rowdy,” Leatherwood said.

The Spring House changed hands several years ago, sold by longtime owner Ivy Suggs and converted into Big Michael’s, and then Little Rick’s. They lasted only a short time before the new owners lost the bar in a bank foreclosure. The building is now owned by Blue Ridge Savings Bank, which is leasing it to Leatherwood.

Leatherwood will name the bar Stingrays. It will technically be a private club requiring membership. By doing so, Leatherwood avoids a state law that requires establishments serving alcohol to also serve food.

Leatherwood previously had a long-haul trucking company, but it went bankrupt.

If there’s one thing Western North Carolina is rooted in, it’s music. The rolling Appalachians were the birthplace of bluegrass, and the region has long been known as a bastion of folk tradition and talent.

Along with music, another industry has recently been finding its roots in the mountains as well. With a bevy of new craft brewers popping up around the region, WNC is making a name for itself in the beer world, too.

So Maggie Valley is taking the chance to celebrate both, kicking off their festival season with the inaugural Americana Roots and Beer Festival on May 6 that celebrates both the craft brewers and down-home musicians who call the region home.

The muse for the event was the storied Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion in Bristol, Tenn., said Maggie Valley Festival Director Audrey Hager.

The idea of a roots celebration was attractive because, said Hager, it’s a concept that has a multitude of facets that can be explored in years to come.

“Roots can be a lot of different things,” said Hager. “It can be rock, it can be punk, it can be folk, it can be a lot of different things so we can go a lot of different ways.”

The festival itself is designed as a companion to the long-running Maggie Valley Trout Festival that will take place the next day, May 7. Proceeds from the beer and music event will go towards water conservation efforts in the area, which is one of the chief aims of the trout festival.

For the fête’s birth year, Hager said they decided to go with a bluegrass theme, in keeping with the region’s heritage.

As for the craft beer, it just seemed a natural fit for an event showcasing acts that are true to their roots. North Carolina is at the leading edge of the craft brewery movement, which values local, grassroots brewing efforts.

“A lot of people are getting into craft brewing as a hobby, and Asheville is really becoming a craft brewing destination, so the craft beers just seem to go along,” said Hager.

And indeed, with the weighty distinction of Beer City USA being bestowed on neighboring Asheville for two years running, the area is becoming a haven for local brewers of all kinds.

Many will be at the event, offering beer tasting and information in a special beer garden section of the festival grounds. Waynesville’s newest brewmaster, Frog Level Brewery, will be on hand, as will Asheville’s Craggie Brewing and Asheville Brewing Company. Other as-yet unnamed beer-makers from around the region will also be offering tastings of their products.

For those not alcoholically inclined, however, music-only tickets will also be on sale, granting admission to the day’s busy lineup of shows.

The main stage will see performances by Balsam Range, well-loved local bluegrass aficionados, as well as Big House Radio, winners of Asheville’s Last Band Standing competition last year.

The Harris Brothers, an Americana duo from Lenoir, will round out the main shows, but according to Hager there will be much more musical.

The second stage will give up-and-coming talent who find their roots in WNC a place to demonstrate their abilities. New acts will perform for the crowd and a panel of judges, who will both cast their votes for the top new talent. The winners will get $500 in prize money, with the possibility of more, depending on ticket sales.

Other attractions on the afternoon will be a few craft booths as well as food and drinks from area vendors. Alcohol sales will close at 10 p.m., but the music will keep pumping until 11 p.m. To encourage responsible drinking, a shuttle will run continuously from the festival grounds to various locations around Maggie Valley from 4:45 until 11:45 p.m.

Hager said that, in the run-up to the festival, response has been strong and positive from local and regional partners, and she hopes that will translate into enthusiasm from festival-goers.

“ Maggie’s never had anything like this, so we hope the community supports this event” said Hager. “We’re excited about it and I think they’ll find this is something we want to grow into a regional event going forward.”

Ghost Town in the Sky has no hope of pulling itself out of bankruptcy, according to a federal bankruptcy administrator.

The court will decide this week whether to let the amusement park continue to languish in bankruptcy, where it has been stuck for two years now, or simply dismiss the case.

When a company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it buys time from debt collectors while it attempts to get back on its feet. A company is not allowed to remain under bankruptcy protection indefinitely, however.

It must reorganize and present a viable plan for how it plans to pay off debt and continue operating. Or, it is forced into a liquidation, known as Chapter 7, where the assets of the company are sold off by the court and the money used to pay off the debts.

In this case, however, the bankruptcy administrator has recommended simply dismissing the case.

“The debtor has been totally inactive since June 2010 and there appears to be no chance of reorganization,” Linda W. Simpson United States Bankruptcy Administrator, wrote in court filings.

Two bankruptcy court hearings — one on reorganization and one on liquidation — have been on the docket for a year now. Each month, they have been continued.

Ghost Town has failed to file monthly reports as required by the bankruptcy court for the past year, nor has it paid quarterly bankruptcy court fees for the past 12 months. Meanwhile, Ghost Town’s bankruptcy attorney withdrew from the case in February after months of not being paid.

Once a tourism magnet in Maggie Valley, Ghost Town has been in bankruptcy limbo for two years now with debt topping $13 million. The park is also on the brink of foreclosure.

BB&T is owed $10.5 million dating back to the purchase of the park by new owners in 2007 and for subsequent repairs and upgrades.

The bank has initiated foreclosure against Ghost Town, and could auction off the property on the courthouse steps at any point in order to recoup what it is owed.

BB&T has held off on doing so at the urging of Ghost Town principals who want to save the park and have claimed for the past year that a financing deal is just around the corner.

The 288-acre mountain top property won’t fetch enough at auction to pay off all that BB&T is owed, which is likely why BB&T has stopped short of going through with foreclosure.

Meanwhile, the 200 small businesses collectively owed $2.5 million by Ghost Town — including dozens of local businesses left hanging after providing services or products — are out of luck. BB&T is first in line to get paid, and only if there is money left over after its $10.5 million is paid off does anyone else get money.

And that’s precisely why the bankruptcy court is poised to simply dismiss the case rather than go through the hassle of liquidating the company in a formal Chapter 7 proceeding.

“The liquidation value of the property is arguably less than what is owed the bank,” surmised David Gray, Ghost Town’s former bankruptcy attorney.

 

Windfall in back taxes

In the trail of bad debt left by Ghost Town, there is someone who has been paid. Haywood County recently got a $142,000 check to cover three years of back taxes on the 288-acre property. Maggie Valley got one for $110,000.

But it was BB&T — not Ghost Town — that paid the bill.

“We just know that we got it, and we are pleased with that,” said Tim Barth, Maggie Valley town manager, when asked why BB&T would have paid off Ghost Town’s back property taxes.

Whoever buys property at foreclosure inherits the unpaid property taxes. If the bank resumes title to the property, the bank bears the burden of paying the property taxes.

But BB&T hasn’t pulled the trigger on foreclosure yet — so why jump the gun and pay off those taxes before it has to?

BB&T is most likely looking out for number one. Since counties can foreclose on a property owner who has failed to pay their taxes, Haywood County could do an end-run around BB&T and foreclose on Ghost Town itself in order to get the tax money it’s owed.

The only thing keeping the county at bay for now is Ghost Town’s bankruptcy status: bankruptcy halts debt collectors in their tracks. But once Ghost Town gets the boot from bankruptcy court it will lose that protection.

By paying off the taxes, BB&T is buying time. It can continue to sit on the brink of foreclosure — continuing to give Ghost Town’s owners more time to pull off a financing deal — for as long as it wants. It remains first in line should money ever materialize without the threat of being displaced by a foreclosure from the county’s end.

In an interview with WLOS, Ghost Town General Manager and partner Steve Shiver alluded that Ghost Town may open in some capacity this year.

“We would like to have the park open for its 50th anniversary at some level. It may not be full scale. It’s just too early to tell,” Shiver said on television last month.

Following the broadcast, Shiver sent out a mass email to “clarify” the situation.

“Although we have no definitive information about our opening date for the 2011 season if any, we continue to make significant progress and are currently awaiting a decision by a third party regarding the disposition of the property. All indications are for a favorable resolution within the next month,” Shiver wrote in the email.

Maggie Valley is gearing up for its next round of beauty treatments in an ongoing effort to spruce up the town and bring some color to its streets.

The beautification program, led by master horticulturalist and Maggie Valley resident Clayton Davis, is a sweeping plan that intends to bring color to the valley year-round through mass plantings.

The first phase, which entailed planting tulip and daffodil bulbs in the town’s signature red and yellow, got under way last autumn. The bulbs need to be dropped into cold ground, so the town along with residents and businesses collectively planted several thousand bulbs last November.

The next phase of the plantings will include knockout roses, a famously hardy and simple species that blooms throughout the warmer months. Davis said that other plants intended to add color in the winter months, like nandina, will also be on offer.

The town is able to get wholesale discounts on the plants because they’re buying them in bulk, so citizens and businesses who take them up on the offer get their plants at cut-rate prices, as well as the expertise of Davis and the town’s grounds staff.

After discussion at a recent meeting of the beautification committee, participants will also get fertilizer and Nature’s Helper, a special growth aid, to help their plants along.

For its part, the town is funding the planting of its own properties — such as the landscaped area in front of town hall — with $6,000 it’s set aside for the project. Half of that sum was donated as matching funds by Home Trust Bank.

The idea behind the beautification belongs to Davis, who was inspired long ago by a trip to Summerville, S.C., where azaleas bloomed across the city. Davis and city officials hope this initiative will give Maggie Valley a face lift and bring increased tourist visitation.

Order forms for the plants are available at the Maggie Valley Town Hall and all orders are due by April 18. On sale are Gulf Stream nandinas for $11, nandinas for $18 and knock-out roses for $11. The next meeting of the beautification program will start at 10 a.m. on April 18, in the Maggie Valley Town Hall.

After eight years of entertainment, Maggie Valley’s largest venue is closing its doors, falling prey to the poor economy.

800-seat Eaglenest Entertainment was one of the largest in Haywood County and has drawn big-name acts such as Percy Sledge and Pam Tillis, but in the end, they just couldn’t keep pace with a still-sluggish economic environment and consumers’ increasingly discerning tastes in entertainment.

“There’s a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar today,” said owner Grier Lackey. “We have not been able to attract the clientele that we needed to make the place profitable.”

Lackey is putting Eaglenest up for sale with hopes that whoever buys keeps it as an entertainment venue.

“We are going to make every effort we can to try and get someone back in there that will be an asset for Maggie Valley,” said Lackey. “That’s not going to be easy, but we’ll wait for the right opportunity that will be an asset to Maggie Valley.”

For now though, Maggie Valley is missing one of the few major attractions the struggling tourist town had left. Carolina Nights dinner theater is not reopening this season either.

It will “leave a big gap in entertainment options,” said Teresa Smith, president of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The massive center is state-of-the-art and unique in Maggie Valley. In addition to the large two-level auditorium, there’s also an outdoor amphitheater that can hold up to 1,000.

The site opened in 2003, replacing the notorious dance club Thunder Ridge with a family-friendly, alcohol-free venue. The idea, said Lackey, was to bring in entertainment that was geared towards families and tourists, bolstering the entertainment economy in the valley.

And to a certain extent, it worked. The place did draw a number of big names and crowds of music fans clamoring to see them. However, with the tanking economy, the shows Eaglenest has been able to book have steadily dwindled, along with each production’s attendance.

Lackey chalks this up not only to the economy, but to new entertainment venues that have come online in the region, like Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin and a new concert venue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I think that has had a drastic effect on it,” Lackey said. Plus, the region is known for its plethora of free festivals and music events put on to attract tourists.

Really though, said Lackey, it wasn’t just the new competition that was the death knell for the place. It was also a changing tide in what people actually want and are willing to pay for. Expendable income, he said, is shrinking fast, and the money that was once put to seeing acts of all kinds is now spent more carefully.

People only want to see artists they’re really committed to, which makes filling an 800-seat auditorium in a semi-rural community a very difficult proposition indeed.

And to just break even, never mind turning a profit, Lackey said they need to be pulling in at least 60 to 70 percent of their capacity for each show.  That, of course, just hasn’t been happening.

Lackey says he’s not in a huge hurry to sell. The venue was always more of a hobby than a central business investment anyway. He is the president of Taylor Togs, once the nation’s manufacturer of Levi Strauss.

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