The days of building as you like in Maggie Valley may be numbered, with design standards in the works to guide the town’s commercial district toward a mountain theme.
Maggie Valley’s planning board has released a draft version of standards that would shape the town’s look for generations to come.
If all goes according to plan, the standards will improve the community’s appearance and preserve the natural environment, all while boosting tourism and the local economy.
They would apply only to the commercial district, which includes practically every property that touches U.S. 19, the main drag through town, excluding single-family homes and duplexes.
If the standards are adopted, any new construction or major renovation to existing businesses would have to gain town approval before moving forward. Less major renovations, like a new roof or an exterior paint job, would have to comply only with the standards associated with that particular job.
As the guidelines stand, Maggie Valley would encourage steep pitched roofs, subdued, earthy colors and use of natural materials like wood and stone.
It would also strongly discourage buildings with blank walls, stucco or vinyl siding, and visibly flat roofs. Business owners who plan on slapping Day-Glow or fluorescent-colored paint on their building exteriors would have to rethink their plans.
In addition to guiding construction, the standards would require more greenery along public streets and in parking lots to soften up the big block of U.S. 19 that cuts through much of Maggie Valley. The guidelines even go so far as to recommend using regionally grown plants.
Maggie Valley’s new seven-person appearance commission would examine each project individually to accommodate for special circumstances, rather than dictate the same exact look for every building. The town board, however, would make the final decision on every proposed project.
Not a done deal
Planning Director Nathan Clark said now is the perfect time to shake up the status quo in Maggie Valley. Because construction is pretty much at a standstill, the guidelines would not interfere as much with works in progress. Once the economy rebounds, builders would already have an established template for their new projects.
Other than that, Clark sees the need to update the town’s appearance, eventually exchanging the 1950s-style look of some businesses for something more native to the mountains.
In coming up with the design standards, the planning board looked at trends around town. The mountain theme seemed to dominate most recent projects, including at the Smoky Falls Motel, the new police department, and the new ABC store.
Clark said the new theme might bring tourists crawling back to a town that seemed to never change, while planning board member Tom Benoit said visitors driving by for the first time might recognize it as the quintessential mountain town they’d like to check out.
“You’ve seen the same old Maggie Valley for so many years,” said Clark. “Some people appreciate that, but the numbers are showing people are getting tired of that as well.”
Clark said that the standards are by no means a done deal. The planning board is still focusing on getting public feedback and trying to produce the best standards possible. Ultimately, whether or not to enact the standards will rest with the town board of aldermen.
Business owners react
Some business owners are thrilled about the standards, while others see no need to implement them.
At the latest planning board meeting, Michael Seifert, owner of the Alamo Motel in Maggie Valley, said he’s worried about placing constraints on businesspeople who’ve just come in to town.
“There needs to be more flexibility,” said Seifert.
For Allen Alsbrooks, owner of the Hearth and Home Inn, the standards were like a “slap in the face.”
“This tells me that what we have is definitely not good enough,” said Alsbrooks, adding that installing the mountain-themed look on his business would not pay for itself.
Some motel owners argued it would be unfair to impose these guidelines on a business forced to renovate due to a fire, for example.
Clark’s reply was the town could address those issues as they arise since each project would be looked at individually, adding that the town would remain realistic in its expectations.
“The town would not expect every building to have rock since it is so expensive,” said Clark.
There would also be no date by which all buildings in the commercial district had to conform to the theme, Clark said.
Most members of the Haywood County Hotel and Motel Association, representing 48 tourism-related businesses, approve of the standards, according to Executive Director Marion Hamel.
“Anything that could make us more attractive to tourists is something we really need to do because that’s our only industry,” said Hamel. “I think we’ve got an awful lot to offer. We just need to have a little more eye appeal.”
Hamel acknowledges that these are tough economic times, but she pointed out that the changes wouldn’t be occurring overnight. And business owners would have to make changes to their building exteriors sooner or later anyway, Hamel said.
“I think it would only add to their business volume, rather than just be a drain,” said Hamel.
There is one thing Hamel would like to change about the design standards though.
“I would like to see the town be a little stronger in saying any new construction needs to conform to standards,” said Hamel.
Ron Rosendahl took the time to count every single sign greeting the main road that dissects the town of Maggie Valley. He found 400 signs squeezed into less than five miles of Soco Road.
According to Rosendahl, only 26 of the hundreds were real estate signs.
The unofficial count was inspired by town’s crackdown on oversized real estate signs earlier this summer.
Rosendahl, a real estate agent in Maggie, argues that real estate signs — which comprise about 6 percent of all signage on Soco Road — aren’t the real problem.
Signs advertising motels, shops and other businesses far outnumber real estate signs and do more to degrade the town’s appearance, according to Rosendahl.
“Some businesses had as much as nine signs out front.” Rosendahl.
“The signage throughout the limits of Maggie Valley is pretty much over the top,” said Ben Glover, another real estate agent in town.
Nathan Clark, Maggie’s planning director, calls it an apples and oranges comparison, arguing that real estate signs are differentiated from other types of signs in the town’s ordinance.
Clark has encountered massive real estate banners — sometimes as big as 72 square feet, about nine times the size of what’s allowed — along with two or more “for sale” signs on a single piece of property. Clark came across multiple “for sale” signs crowded onto the tiniest of properties to grab drivers’ attention.
Maggie Valley officials worry too many real estate signs will signify a dying town to passersby. Allowing bigger signs on abandoned buildings would likely set off a negative impression.
“Larger signs will make the town look like it is for sale,” said Alderman Phil Aldridge at a planning board meeting in early September.
Glover agreed he didn’t “want people driving through town to think Maggie Valley is dying.”
With excesses in real estate signs growing increasingly common, Clark sent out a friendly reminder to real estate agents earlier this summer about the sign ordinance.
Most complied, but Rosendahl and Glover at Prudential 1st Choice Realtors decided to seek change.
The current ordinance only allows 8-square-feet signs for properties that are fewer than 3 acres or have less than 500 feet of road frontage. Only larger properties are allowed to sport 16-square-foot real estate signs.
Rosendahl argues that the town should allow all commercial real estate signs to measure up to 16-square-feet, what he considers standard for that type of property.
At the very least, real estate signs need to be larger so that they can compete with the hundreds of other types of signs, Rosendahl argues.
“That’s why we need bigger signs, so at least we can get a fair shake,” said Rosendahl.
Meanwhile, Bob Knoedler, a planning board member, questioned how effective real estate signs actually are at selling commercial property. Knoedler said most entrepreneurs set out on an intentional search for available commercial property, rather than driving along looking for empty buildings or lots on the side of the road.
Rosendahl said, however, the signs are effective, and they would be even more effective if they were larger.
Real estate signs are more visible in residential districts since people drive at slower speeds. But when drivers are racing past at 35 to 55 miles per hour on Soco Road, they are less likely to see an 8-square-foot sign, Rosendahl said.
“You only have one chance for people to see your sign,” said Rosendahl. “Why not get the sign out there? Why not get it sold?”
Meanwhile, Glover worries that the planning board doesn’t realize that real estate agents make an important contribution to the community. They recruit new businesses, bringing jobs and tax revenues into Maggie Valley.
“We’re not trying to add to the problem of having too many signs,” said Glover. “In fact, we’d love to have our signs disappear.”
While they might be up for a month or two years, Glover points out that real estate signs are temporary. As a member of the Haywood Tourism Development Authority board, Glover said he’s not in favor of anything that will drive people away or damage the town economically.
“I just want everyone to have a little bit of an open mind,” said Glover, adding he is perfectly willing to compromise with the board.
If 16-square-feet is excessive, Glover said 12- or 10-square-feet may not be. Either way, Glover said it’s time to objectively revisit the issue and hear something other than “Nope, nope, nope. We got too many signs.”
Rosendahl said he was amazed by some of the comments that planning board members made to him.
“They don’t want to make any change. They’d rather say ‘no’ to everything,” said Rosendahl. “It was a little discouraging to me.”
But Clark said the planning board has been open-minded and devoted two meetings to discussing the issue. The board is planning on making slight changes to the sign ordinance, such as allowing a second sign if it advertises an open house. But Clark doesn’t foresee a vote by the planning board to adopt Rosendahl’s suggestion taking place any time soon.
“They just thought at the end of the day what is currently on the books is the most equitable,” said Clark. “It’s not like they went in and completely stonewalled the situation. It’s not like we woke up one morning and said ‘You know what, real estate signs suck. Let’s get rid of all of them.’”
Retired horticulturist Clayton Davis envisions a new Maggie Valley.
Instead of a tiring five-mile stretch of asphalt along Soco Road, it features a beautiful line of islands brimming with colorful flowers, trees, shrubs and decorative rocks.
Like the tulips at the Biltmore Estate and cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., Davis imagines that Maggie Valley, too, will be renowned for its stunning blooms.
“They’d look just as good here as they do over there,” said Davis. “People drive thousands of miles to see the cherry trees in Washington. Well, they’ll go here, too.”
The only difference is that Davis hopes the flower show in Maggie will last all year long.
Davis has grown 300 species of plants in Western North Carolina year-round and is convinced that Maggie Valley could feature a new bloom every month. An array of eye-catching flowering plants could be featured in islands found in the middle or alongside Soco Road, breaking up the sea of asphalt in Maggie.
“If we work together, we could make it the prettiest town in the United States,” Davis said.
Davis was originally struck with inspiration after visiting a charming small town in South Carolina a few years ago. “Every house had 20 to 30 azaleas planted,” he said. “It just knocked your eyes out.”
Davis touted his idea as a relatively inexpensive avenue to beautifying Maggie Valley, and town leaders were won over. They voted at a special meeting last week to donate $3,000 to get the project started.
Alderman Phil Aldridge said he found Davis’s vision refreshing. Instead of speeding past Maggie Valley, drivers might literally stop and smell the roses.
“It’s not inventing the wheel,” said Aldridge. “It’s simple and easy. There’s so much to gain from it.”
Davis has already worked out a three-year plan with a list of potential plants, from daffodils to knockout roses to crepe myrtles and dogwood trees. At a meeting with the town last week, Davis said at the heart of his plan would be “rocks, roses and rhododendrons.”
He suggests planting the knockout rose, an old-fashioned shrub with the bloodline of native roses. Though they don’t look as attractive up close as other types, the knockout rose is self-cleaning and requires little work. All of the 20-plus plants Davis has chosen are low-maintenance and strongly resistant to disease and insects.
Depending on how extensive Maggie’s rhododendron display gets, the town could one day advertise itself as the rhododendron capital of the country.
In his five-page proposal, Davis writes that decorative rocks are a safe investment in landscaping and retain their magnificence throughout the seasons.
Islands will range in size, but those that serve as a centerpiece may be up to 100 feet long.
Davis has been in contact with Richard Queen at the N.C. Department of Transportation, which is well-experienced with its own highway beautification project. According to Davis, Queen says he is receptive to helping move the project forward in Maggie.
Davis knows of no nearby municipalities undertaking similar projects. He said Maggie Valley could publicize its unique initiative on its website and on letterheads.
“It’s an ace that you can have that no other town has got, that continual splash of color through the whole year,” said Davis.
Though the project will be entirely voluntary, the town will need widespread cooperation of business owners and residents to realize its horticultural vision.
Davis’s report suggests that business owners be asked to contribute financially to the project, give permission to plant on their property and take care of the islands if they are given maintenance training.
Business owners who decide to take part may convince their neighbors to do the same once the flowers start blooming.
“Beauty makes ugly uglier,” Davis said.
Maggie would first focus on “showy” plants and some annuals in its first year; add more expensive trees and shrubs and shift to perennials in the second year; and fine-tune the project and create a long-term vision during the third.
Davis, who has offered to donate his services, and the Parks, Recreation and Festival Board or another town committee will likely head the project.
Grants may be available, and residents and business owners might be asked to chip in by purchasing a rock or specific tree in memory of a loved one.
Davis hopes to use as many volunteers as possible and assemble a crew for the initial planting in November. Preliminary estimates show expenses would stack up to $21,000 by September 2011. Included are 5,000 bulbs of tulips and 5,000 bulbs of daffodils to be planted in late fall.
Rocks — which would weigh between 500 and 2,000 pounds — would cost a total of $4,275, according to Davis.
Town leaders hope to hold a public meeting in the late fall or early winter to get stakeholders educated and involved in the initiative.
At last week’s meeting, Alderman Scott Pauley was especially impressed with Davis’s extensive research and enthusiastic presentation. He said it wasn’t often that he came across someone with such notable passion.
“Hopefully, we can go forward with this,” said Pauley.
Stabilization of the landslide below Ghost Town in Maggie Valley will begin in two weeks, finally bringing comfort to downslope residents who have lived below the looming threat of another slide for half a year.
The slide last February scoured nearly a mile-long path down the mountainside with a wall of debris 30-feet high and 90-feet wide in places. Only three homes were damaged, but several others suffered destruction to their yards.
The slide initially forced an evacuation of a couple of dozen homes for fear more of the mountainside might collapse. To date, all but one homeowner, whose home suffered the most damage, has returned.
The $1.37 million job will take five months and was awarded this week to Phillips and Jordan, a construction company that specializes in major earth moving. The same company did the rockslide cleanup and stabilization on Interstate 40 last winter.
In addition to recontouring and shoring up the mountainside, the job includes road repairs and returning a dislocated creek to its original course down the mountain.
Al Hill, a seasonal resident with a second home below the slide, said he is pleased stabilization work will be done before the worst of winter. The freeze-thaw cycle can exacerbate erosion and act as a trigger for more landslides.
Engineers and slide specialists who have inspected the site cautioned that the slope remains unstable and another slide is still not out of the question. In fact, a slide could be triggered in the process of stabilizing the slope if the contractor isn’t careful.
As a result, a geotechnical engineer will work on-site each day with the Phillips and Jordan crew.
“It is extraordinarily sensitive,” said Randy Hintz, project manager with McGill Associates, an engineering and planning firm in Asheville overseeing the contract.
The geotech engineer will dictate the final outcome, but not necessarily the approach.
“There is a fine line in telling the contractor how to do his job,” Hintz said. “We tell them how the slope needs to be, and they figure out how to make that happen.”
If things start to look dicey, it might be necessary to send an alert to homeowners to leave the area, Hintz said. The engineer will not always be able to predict how the unstable slope will respond to a particular strategy when the contractors begin moving dirt.
Landslide experts and engineers believe the slide was triggered by a collapsed retaining wall on Ghost Town’s property. Ghost Town had struggled to shore up the unstable and nearly vertical slope on and off over the years.
When the mountaintop was leveled off to make way for the amusement park in the 1960s, loose dirt was pushed over the side of the mountain without being properly compacted. It must now be peeled back to reveal the original contour and compacted as it is put back. Portions of the slope, especially at the top, will be permanently recontoured at a gentler grade that mirrors the original mountainside, Hintz said.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver originally objected to the stabilization plan and demanded an alternative design, but he did not get the engineering specifications done in time to go out to bid. Shiver said he is simply pleased work is getting underway.
“I am extremely happy,” Shiver said after the contract was awarded.
The total project, including engineering, will cost $1.47 million. Federal and state taxpayers will foot most of the bill. Maggie Valley taxpayers will contribute $25,000, and Ghost Town has pledged to contribute $25,000 as well.
Ghost Town has been in bankruptcy the past 18 months. Time is running out for the amusement park, which is being threatened with both foreclosure and liquidation. But Shiver remains hopeful a loan will come through allowing the park’s principal owner to regain title.
Meanwhile, Ray and Cookie Dye are tired of looking at a mud-filled pond that was buried when the slide moved across their yard. They want the pond dug out and their landscaping repaired, but it’s not clear who is accountable.
“We can’t prove it is [Ghost Town’s] fault,” Cookie Dye said.
Town Manager Tim Barth said town crews would try to dig out their pond for them.
From buttered trout fillets to a trout race, all things trout will be celebrated during the 21st annual Great Smoky Mountain Trout Festival from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 1, at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds.
The festival grounds will be filled with vendors selling arts, crafts and other wares, as well as festival food booths. Performing on stage will be the Hominy Valley Boys and the Caribbean Cowboys band.
Other happenings at the festival include:
• An environmental education tent featuring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Haywood Waterways Association, N.C. Wildlife Commission and numerous other environmental agencies and nonprofits.
• Talks by Rob Gudger, a biologist who raises wolves, and by Jim Casada, an expert fly-fisherman and renowned outdoor writer.
• Casting demonstrations and fly-tying demonstrations by the Waynesville Fly Shop.
• Casting contest for ages 16 and up.
• Project Healing Waters, dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled servicemen and veterans through fly-fishing, will have a booth.
• Kids activities and games, like making your own kite.
• Bean bag toss contest for teams of two at 10 a.m.
Two free youth fishing clinics will be held in conjunction with at the Great Smoky Mountain Trout Festival in Maggie Valley May 1.
The CATCH clinics Ñ Caring For Aquatics Through Conservation Habits Ñ are designed to teach young people how, when, and where to fish as well as aquatic ecology, water safety, fishing ethics and respect for the outdoors. Kids will wade in the stream to collect and identify aquatic bugs and test water quality, plus try their hand at fishing..
Program is for ages 6 to 15. Equipment is provided. Kids who have never fished or explored a stream are particularly encouraged to participate. The clinics are sponsored by the HCC Natural Resources Department, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Haywood Waterways Association and the town of Maggie.
The morning clinic will be from 9 a.m. until noon and requires registration. An afternoon clinic will be from 1 to 4 p.m. and will be first-come first-served.
To register, call 828.926.0866, ext. 117.
Ghost Town in the Sky is staring down the barrel of foreclosure.
BB&T has filed for foreclosure against the amusement park, which owes BB&T $9.5 million dating back to 2007. Of that amount, $6.5 million was to purchase of the 288-acre mountaintop property in Maggie Valley and the rest was for improvements.
A foreclosure hearing is scheduled for Sept. 20, which will set the wheels in motion for Ghost Town to be auctioned off to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps. If Ghost Town is unable to stall it, and if BB&T really goes through with it, Ghost Town could be auctioned off before the end of October. Once the ball is rolling, however, BB&T can set a later date or delay it at will.
Ghost Town has been running from BB&T for almost two years. It filed for bankruptcy in early 2009 primarily to shelter itself from BB&T’s demands to pay up. Bankruptcy was the only way to keep BB&T at bay, according to court testimony early in the bankruptcy process.
Ghost Town also owes $2.5 million to more than 200 small businesses left hanging after providing services or products to Ghost Town, from local electricians and plumbing supply stores to advertising firms and souvenir vendors. These are last in line, however, and it is unlikely the property would bring in enough for them to see any of the money they are owed.
Companies cannot hide from their debts in bankruptcy court forever and must eventually emerge from bankruptcy with a plan to pay off what they owe or face liquidation. After 18 months in bankruptcy, Ghost Town has not produced a viable reorganization plan, according to the bankruptcy administrator.
BB&T got permission from the bankruptcy judge in May to begin foreclosure proceedings. But BB&T was dissuaded from pulling the trigger by the promise of a payoff by one of the park’s primary owners, Al Harper, who also owns the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Harper staved off the foreclosure for four months with an offer to buy the park out of bankruptcy for $7 million. It was less than what BB&T was owed, but the bank was willing to take it.
Harper said upfront the deal was contingent on financing, and so far that hasn’t come through. The looming foreclosure now brings additional pressure to bear on Harper to produce the money to consummate the deal or lose the amusement park.
BB&T has other outlets to recoup the full cost of what it loaned Ghost Town. Several early investors put up personal guarantees to back the BB&T loan. The loan was also partially backed by a federal rural development loan, placing taxpayers on the hook for a potion of it. BB&T could go after either if a sale of the amusement park on the courthouse steps or to Harper directly failed to bring in the full amount it’s owed.
More than 100 artists and crafters from all over the Southeast, including Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia and Alabama will gather for the Labor Day Craft Show in Maggie Valley.
Artists will demonstrate and sell their original handicrafts works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4, and Sunday, Sept. 5, at the Maggie Valley Fairgrounds. Admission to the event is free.
This annual event will feature piped music throughout the day. Tasty festival foods will be prepared by local groups, while The Java Hut will make its appearance selling specialty coffee-drinks hot & iced, smoothies and other crowd-pleasers.
Fireworks will be displayed at the fairgrounds on Sunday, Sept. 6, starting at dark thirty. This part of the weekend event is sponsored by the Town of Maggie Valley.
The committee is still accepting applications from crafters and vendors from all states in the Southeast.
The clock is ticking for stabilization work on a landslide in Maggie Valley to get underway or a federal grant to pay for the work will be lost.
A $1.3 million grant to recontour the precarious mountainside near Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park was secured months ago from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. But developing engineering plans, securing environmental permits and navigating the various state and federal agencies overseeing pieces of the work has taken months. The Emergency Watershed program has now granted a third — and final — extension for the stabilization work and set a deadline of Oct. 16.
“We need to be under construction by then,” said Town Manager Tim Barth. “They indicated this would be the last extension.”
The town is ready to go out to bid on the stabilization work, but Ghost Town does not like the design and instead has suggested an alternate plan. Engineering for the alternate plan is not yet finished, however.
Barth said the town cannot wait beyond Aug. 22 to go out to bid, or it will jeopardize getting construction underway by mid-October and in turn jeopardize the grant.
Without the grant, there is no source of money Barth knows of to stabilize the mountain. The town can’t afford the work, and the county has said it won’t put up money to fix a landslide on private property for fear of setting a bad precedent. Ghost Town, meanwhile, has been in bankruptcy for a year and a half and its ability to pay for the work is unclear.
The engineering firm, Bunnell-Lammons, has been waiting on some basic schematics from Ghost Town for several weeks in order to draw up a detailed engineering design for the alternate design. It will take two months for the project to be bid out, have a contractor selected, and for work to get underway.
“That’s why we are saying Ghost Town needs to really get it to them quickly,” Barth said.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said that there is “no problem” meeting the deadline to go out to bid. Ghost Town is delivering schematics on the alternate plan to the engineering firm this week. Shiver blames the town for plowing ahead with a plan that was “unacceptable” to Ghost Town.
“They composed the plan without any input from any property owners,” Shiver said. “If Mr. Barth would have engaged Ghost Town in the repair planning, we would already be under construction. I am frustrated that we are even put in this position by the city.”
The emergency federal grant requires support of the property owner. But Shiver said he would not agree to the first plan that was developed.
“Absolutely not,” Shiver said. Shiver said he told town officials so at the beginning of the process.
“He wasted two months worth of time. Why I have no idea why,” Shiver said. “The [engineering firm] was directed to come up with the plan absent any input from us.”
If the issue of dueling plans isn’t solved, it is unclear whether the town can compel Ghost Town to agree to the stabilization work. A state statute does allow towns to intervene if there is a threat to public safety.
“A city shall have authority to summarily remove, abate, or remedy everything in the city limits, or within one mile thereof, that is dangerous or prejudicial to the public health or public safety,” according to G.S. 160A-193.
The slide qualifies as a threat to public safety for the dozens of people living below the mountainside who would be in the path of another slide, according to N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten, who has assessed the destabilized mountainside.
“In my professional judgment, unstable slopes remain in the vicinity of the slope failure, and these unstable slopes present an imminent threat to public safety,” Wooten wrote in a letter to the Town of Maggie Valley following the slide.
Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said the statute is most commonly used to force property owners to clean up junk cars, keep their lawns mowed or seal off old swimming pools.
But, “It is a fairly broadly written statute,” said Hibbard. Typically, the town would get a court order giving it permission to take charge of the public safety threat.
If the statute was used, the work could be billed to the property owner, in this case, Ghost Town. Although Ghost Town is in bankruptcy, the work carried out under the statute would have priority status, carrying the same weight as back property taxes, and would be the first thing to get paid off if the amusement park is either sold or liquidated.
Shiver said there are flaws in the original plan proffered by the town. For a start, it was unclear if there was enough grant money to cover the cost of the stabilization.
“There were too many variables in that plan. It had an open-ended checkbook,” Shiver said.
In addition, the original plan would claim a small flat area tucked into the side of the mountain that Shiver says is critical to the amusement park’s future plans. As the only level spot on an otherwise extremely steep slope, it’s one of the few places Ghost Town could add attractions in the future.
No one is more intimate with the highs and lows of amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky than the people of Maggie Valley.
In its heyday, the mountaintop theme park routinely drew 400,000 visitors a year to the small town. Families on vacation could be counted on to pack into Maggie’s motels and restaurants each summer.
Throughout the years, the park’s Western theme and rides grew outdated. The amusement park fell into disrepair and ultimately succumbed to bankruptcy.
The recession struck the town hard, as did natural disaster. A massive rockslide on Interstate 40 routed traffic away from Maggie all winter long. On top of that, a major mudslide that originated from Ghost Town took out a road to the park earlier this year.
The slide, which remains destabilized, has dampened any hopes of the amusement park reopening this summer.
Business owners in the valley have felt the painful economic impact of Ghost Town’s closure. Vacancy signs linger over the town’s commercial corridor, while vacant buildings for sale have become an all too common sight.
“That park needs to be open,” said Phillip Wight, owner of the Clarketon Motel. “Weekly business has dropped off tremendously.”
“There’s still people coming into the valley just to go to Ghost Town,” said Teresa Smith, manager at Maggie Valley Inn. “Once they know it’s closed, they leave.”
Mayor Roger McElroy estimates that most motels are experiencing a steep 30 to 40 percent drop in business since Ghost Town shut down operations.
Maggie’s town government hasn’t taken the major economic blow sitting down.
It purchased land to create its own festival grounds, a rare move for municipalities anywhere. A full-time festival director now works round the clock talking to promoters who might hold events there.
Maggie’s leaders have also charged a newly-formed economic development commission to study ways to bring prosperity to the valley.
Meanwhile, the planning board is crafting a set of controversial design standards to spruce up the town’s outmoded appearance that harkens back to the ‘60s. Another option being explored is a 1 percent restaurant tax to be used on tourism promotion and projects within town limits.
Town leaders as well are setting their hopes on a $6 million sports complex planned for Jonathan Creek one day. Tournaments there hold the promise of bringing thousands of new visitors each year.
Not forgetting Ghost Town, however, the town has taken the lead in obtaining funding to clean up the mudslide below the amusement park.
Not every resident supports every direction the town has taken. Many have their own ideas on how best to proceed — with or without Ghost Town.
“The biggest summer tourism market that is underfunded is motorcycles,” said Wight. “It’s not about the [motorcycle] rallies, it’s about keeping traffic flow.”
The already popular Wheels Thru Time museum, which houses rare vintage motorcycles, recently earned its own brown highway sign, which will likely draw more curious visitors to town.
Lynda Bennett, member of the Maggie Valley’s economic development commission, would like to see tax incentives for remodeling old businesses rather than have the town set design guidelines.
“People don’t want to go in and plow under businesses, even though they’re dated,” said Bennett, who is also a Realtor. “Their building has value.”
Bennett very much likes the idea of small businesses opening up “micro-offices” in some of Maggie’s many vacant motel rooms. A computer repair business could start up next to an insurance salesman, for example.
Bennett sees a dire need for fresh ideas.
“We’re trying to change the shape of our box a little bit,” said Bennett. “If we don’t get outside of where we’ve been thinking, then Maggie could continue on the same path it’s been going on.”
Wight, too, understands the gravity of the situation.
“Without a Ghost Town, we’re somewhat doomed,” said Wight. “Ghost Town made this town.”
In Mayor McElroy’s view, Maggie Valley needs to focus on the basics.
“I think we need to get back to some of the things that put Maggie Valley on the map to start with, which is the beauty of the mountains,” said McElroy.
Bennett can rattle off the benefits of visiting and living in Maggie Valley: close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the cool mountain temperature and incredible views. Maggie Valley also caters to those with a more adventurous state of mind, Bennett said.
“We have a little more challenging winters; we don’t have a grocery store,” said Bennett. “It’s not like we’re convenience oriented. We have other things to offer.”
Whether it’s mountain biking, ziplining, kayaking or skiing, emphasizing nature is key to revitalizing Maggie’s tourist economy in Bennett’s opinion.
Another key might be the festival grounds, which cost the town almost $500,000. A 1 percent lodging tax devoted to Maggie Valley helped bring electric lighting and other improvements to the festival grounds.
“We’re looking at everything and any way to use that facility to the fullest,” said McElroy. “Because we have a large investment in it.”
The town hired a festival director to help promote the venue after much prodding from some business owners.
Audrey Hagar, who recently went full-time as festival director, has created a promotional DVD to sell the venue to potential clients. She’s exhausted many of her connections from previous jobs to find appropriate events for the venue, which can fit up to 40,000 people.
“I’ve planted a lot of seeds, and now I’m watering,” said Hagar.
One new event Hagar recently helped bring is a vintage Volkswagen show. The town will soon vote on whethe attendees can camp overnight at the festival grounds.
Hagar is also looking at bringing back the popular Maggie Valley Moonlight Race, which once garnered ESPN coverage.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” said Hagar, pointing out few other festival grounds are run by a single municipality.
Town Manager Tim Barth said while it’s a difficult time for everybody in Maggie Valley, he urged them not to give up.
“It’s important to continue to try and find what’ll work,” said Barth.
For decades Maggie Valley and Dillsboro were two of the mountain’s most iconic tourist towns. Sadly, both relied heavily — too heavily — on a single cash-cow. When Ghost Town shut down in Maggie and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad pulled out of Dillsboro, both lost tens of thousands of visitors once delivered to their doorsteps. Both towns are now struggling to find new identities.