Maggie erupts with showdown between bar and museumWritten by Becky Johnson
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.