Western North Carolina is a patchwork of small communities, close-knit groups operating independently to make their own town or area thrive. Whether it’s in the Nantahala Gorge, up the plateau in Cashiers or in downtown Canton, there are real people busting their butts each day who hold the well-being of their own “neighborhood” as a sort of higher calling. Personal success is intimately linked to the success of the community.
The latest — and in all likelihood, the final — effort to salvage the Ghost Town theme park that helped transform Maggie Valley into a unique kind of tourist town is a story that stretches across the mountains into several of these small communities. How this story finally unfolds will help define the future for those who call these places home.
Because our communities are small, those with lots of money have lots of power, the “big fish in a small pond” scenario. Al Harper, a successful entrepreneur whose holdings include the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, is one of these folks.
According to a story in this week’s Smoky Mountain News (page 6), Harper is close to securing a loan for $15 million. He plans to use about half the money to pay off a portion of the theme park’s $13 million in debt. A bankruptcy court has decided the rest of the debt will be wiped away, leaving about 200 businesses large and small to write off what in some cases is a substantial debt (in the interest of full disclosure, the theme park owed some money to this newspaper for advertising costs that will never be collected).
That decision also leaves many investors, some local and some from far away, with huge losses. Those running the park since its re-opening in 2006 have cost a lot of people a lot of money.
It’s the little guys in the small towns that make this story interesting. Among those is Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan. He cashed out $200,000 in his 401K to invest in Ghost Town. He’s lost every penny.
“If I was ever going to give up on something, this would have been it. But I refuse to quit, I refuse to lose. I believe too much in it,” said Bryan.
Maggie Valley resident Alaska Pressley also invested substantially in the park.
“Any price is worth it to help this area,” she told a reporter last week.
There is that community spirit, that willingness to risk a life’s work for a community and — if it had worked out — some financial reward.
This Ghost Town tale is now part of the story of Bryson City. In order to get the loan, Harper is putting up his railroad as collateral. That means if the park does indeed go belly up, which many believe it will, a portion of Bryson City’s tourism lifeblood may disappear with it. In its worst year, Harper says the railroad attracts 150,000 customers. That’s a lot of people spending money in a lot of stores and restaurants in Bryson City. Those people disapper, and Bryson is City hurts.
We haven’t had the opportunity to interview business leaders in Bryson City about this new scenario, about how their future is now directly tied to Maggie Valley and Ghost Town. I suspect those who have dedicated their lives to Bryson will be there, willing to step up and fill the void if the need arises.
Tourism is a unique business. It’s not high-speed fiber-optic stuff, it’s not about connectivity or e-commerce. Sure, marketing these properties will rely on some of that. But when it comes down to it, it’s about selling an experience. Harper’s business model at the railroad and, we suspect, at Ghost Town is about creating memories, tugging at the nostalgic fiber that runs through all of us.
I’m certainly no judge of his chances for success, but I will bet on the resiliency of these communities regardless of whether this final gamble pays off.