WNC Travel Guide

fr maggiewoesAfter a week of paid suspension, Maggie Valley’s town manager and festival director are gone.

fr maggieThe Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen voted unanimously last week to suspend Town Manager Tim Barth and Festival Director Audrey Hagar for a week with pay after questions arose about dubious decisions made by both leading up to a country music concert at the town’s festival grounds in August.

fr maggiewoesMaggie Valley residents and leaders are questioning how and why town taxpayers ended up footing the bill for a Country music concert at the festival grounds last month — and whether the town will end up holding the bag for some $7,000 after the concert finished in the red. 

Maggie Valley’s will no longer employ a festival director effective Sept. 5 — a decision that comes as no surprise to town leaders or the festival director herself.

“I had a sneaking suspicion with the new direction,” said Festival Director Audrey Hager, referencing the town board’s multiple assertions that it wants out of the festival business. “I kind of knew it was coming because it’s a totally different strategy than the previous board.”

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.

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 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.”

The hunt for a festival director for Maggie Valley is officially over.

Beating out 22 other applicants, Audrey Hager took over the position in mid-December.

With Hager at the helm of the town’s struggling festival grounds, Maggie Valley is hoping to break its cycle of fleeting festival directors, who failed to bring lasting success to the venue.

Taxpayers subsidized roughly half of the festival grounds’ $1 million cost, aiming to reap a windfall from tourism business brought in by events held there.

When the last festival director, who lasted a mere three months, was fired in May, the town decided to hold off on filling the position to see if events still materialized.

The laissez-faire attitude garnered criticism from many business owners who rely on special events to bring tourists and customers to their doors.

Town Manager Tim Barth said the process wasn’t unnecessarily delayed since the town wanted to be careful with its next pick.

“We wanted to get somebody on as quickly as we could,” said Barth, who hopes Hager will line up events for those weekends that are still freed up for next summer.

Hager said while she’s heard a lot of negativity about the festival grounds, she wants to play a positive role in Maggie Valley. Hager had nothing critical to say about her predecessor.

“I’m not here to sling mud,” said Hager. “All I can say is he’s he, and I’m me ... maybe it wasn’t the right fit, but now they have the right fit.”

Hager hopes to not only line up events for some of the gaps in next summer’s festival season but to also pursue a long-term strategy.

“Trying to fill in holes for the calendar for this year [and] trying to plant seeds and develop events for 2010, 2011, 2012,” said Hager.

Hager’s extensive experience in lining up entertainment will certainly assist the endeavor.

She has helped promote nearly every kind of event, including celebrity golf, 6,000-seat concerts, fishing tournaments, hunting events, car giveaways, sock hops, old car shows, billiard tournaments, live boxing, tough man contests, mixed martial arts, and downhill skiing events in Tahoe.

“I’ve probably done 300 events a year,” said Hager, who has collaborated with musicians like the Doobie Brothers, Rick Springfield and Alice Cooper.

Her most recent position was entertainment manager at Harrah’s in southern Indiana.

Hager said she plans to use the connections she already has to line up events in Maggie Valley

Last week, Hager made contact with a friend who organizes such mega events as Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits festival, who got her in touch with the organizer for MerleFest in Wilkesboro.

Hager said it’s relationships like that that will give her an in with the promoter crowd in the Southeast.

In the near future, Hager would like to organize a fam, or familiarity tour, to bring corporate meeting planners and other promoters to Maggie to see the venue.

Hager will also help the town get its promotional DVD together, making sure it’s properly geared to a promoter audience.

Changing focus

Hager said her priority is to bring business to the town through the festival grounds but to do that, she must first lay a foundation by getting the word out to promoters.

She would like to get Maggie Valley featured in trade magazines dedicated to promoting festivals and special events, as well as on the Web.

In the future, Hager would like to pursue a signature event for Maggie Valley, similar to Folkmoot in Waynesville, Bel Chere in Asheville, and Merlefest in Wilkesboro.

“We could work with Asheville so we’re not competing directly with Asheville, work with Waynesville so it’s not the same time as Folkmoot,” said Hager. “We don’t want to compete with those. We want to support their events, and we want them to support ours as well.”

But unlike previous festival directors, Hager’s priority is not to spend all day brainstorming ideas for events.

“The sky’s the limit on the type of events,” said Hager. “We can have all the ideas for events in the world, but if we don’t have somebody to pay to bring the event to Maggie Valley, then we don’t have an event.”

Instead, Hager said her chief strategy is getting the word out to promoters about Maggie Valley, which she considers Western North Carolina’s best-kept secret.

When Hager’s husband transferred to Harrah’s in Cherokee three years ago, Hager made frequent trips to the area. At that point, she didn’t even realize Maggie Valley was separate from Waynesville.

Hager said she would like to do a better job of letting people know about Maggie Valley, which she said is central, beautiful, and has a lot to offer.

“When I think of this area, I don’t think Maggie Valley. I think Asheville, I think Blue Ridge Parkway,” said Hager. “I think where we missed the boat is letting people know about this location.”

According to Hager, Maggie Valley’s target tourist is an active babyboomer, who enjoys the outdoors and riding motorcycles on the area’s curvy roads.

Part of the process in attracting such a clientele is working closely with business owners. At first, Hagar hoped to go door to door to meet local entrepreneurs, but the town is planning to organize a meet-and-greet with the business community in January.

“I think we can all work together,” said Hager, who would also like to cooperate with venues at Eaglenest, Harrah’s, and the Biltmore Estate.

“I don’t know if they’ll partner with us, but I can certainly try,” said Hager.

Hager was born in New Hampshire, spent 20 years in Lake Tahoe, Calif. and most recently came from southern Illinois, near Louisville.

The town of Maggie Valley fired its part-time festival director after he failed to produce results a few months into the job.

The town hoped their new hire, Bill Cody, would lure more festivals to the town-owned festival grounds as a way to bolster Maggie’s tourism economy.

“We anticipated that the position would continue for a while, but it just wasn’t working out,” said Town Manager Tim Barth, who made the decision to terminate Cody two weeks ago.

Events are on tap at the venue on only about half the weekends during this year’s peak tourist season from May to October. The town brought Cody on in February in hopes of ramping up the schedule.

“It was something that we wanted to try to help get more tourism into Maggie,” said Alderman Colin Edwards of the position. “That’s why we hired Bill Cody. We talked about it for months off and on before it ever happened.”

But while Cody pitched several ideas and said he tried to recruit different events, he didn’t attract a single festival in his three and a half months on the job.

“He mentioned some possibilities, but he didn’t have any specific events that he was able to point to,” Barth said.

Among Cody’s ideas were a bluegrass festival, a Popcorn Sutton Day, and a storytelling festival.

Cody told the town’s Parks, Recreation, and Festival Advisory Committee that he wanted to add two to three new events to the Festival Grounds by 2010. He wasn’t in favor of one-day events, arguing that they didn’t encourage visitors to stay overnight and support local restaurants and motels. Cody also wanted to develop a DVD promotional packet to distribute to promoters, but never started the project.

Edwards doesn’t believe Cody necessarily failed to do his job, but rather, that he was put into a tight spot due to the difficulty of recruiting festivals in the current economy.

“I feel like it was a no-win situation,” Edwards said. “Everybody wanted results right now, and it takes a while to get new festivals.”

The cost of renting the Festival Grounds presented somewhat of an obstacle in marketing them. Renting the Grounds costs $1,500 for three days, including a $1,000 deposit, and additional fees of $250 per day for stage, water and electric.

Cody tried to lure one event sponsor back who cancelled a mini-truck show scheduled for May. The sponsor said he felt the extra fees were, “ridiculous.”

Cody told the Parks, Recreation and Festival Advisory Committee that it posed slight problem telling promoters that the rental fee is $1,500, then continuing to tack on charges.

Maggie Valley will likely hire a new festival director. Cody’s salary, equivalent to about $750 per week, was paid by tourism revenue, namely a 1 percent tax on overnight lodging earmarked for tourism initiatives in Maggie.

“I think that the town is going to continue the position, but I think that we’re going to sit down and talk about it probably after we have a chance to get through the budget,” said Barth.

The town is currently finalizing its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Edwards said he thinks the town’s first attempt at hiring the position was a learning experience.

“I think it’s a position that the town could benefit from having,” Edwards said. “We’re just going to have to rethink everything and I believe we need to set goals for a festival director.”

This isn’t the first time the Festival Grounds has had a person to promote it paid with money from the room tax. The Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce had a festival coordinator until recently. With the Chamber cutting back on the number of events it puts on, such as the BBQ Festival and the Trout Festival, there was no longer a point in having the position, said Jena Sowers, manager of the Maggie Valley Visitors Center.

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