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Latest Ghost Town suitor eyes May 2006 opening

The owner of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad has teamed up with a venture capitalist and an amusement operator to strike a deal to buy Ghost Town and get it back in operation.

Ghost Town, a mountaintop amusement park in Maggie Valley that once attracted hordes of visitors to Western North Carolina, has been closed for three years to the detriment of the tourism industry. During those three years, at least four candidates have expressed interest in the park and its 250 acres of prime real estate on a plateau above Maggie Valley.

But the founder and owner of Ghost Town, 86-year-old R.B. Coburn, has failed to close a deal with any of the potential buyers. Coburn is allegedly asking $7 million for the park and property.

Al Harper, owner of American Heritage Railways, which operates the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, tried to negotiate a deal with Coburn two years ago, but could not meet Coburn’s price plus make the costly repairs needed to get the park running.

Now, with Harper’s new investment partners, the deal is close to going through, according to David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism advocacy association.

“Al Harper came on the scene the first year Ghost Town was closed. We have been working diligently to continue to try to negotiate with R.B. and stay at the table. Now we have a group of investors that can move the deal forward,” Huskins said.

This deal makes the fourth potential buyer for Ghost Town that the Smoky Mountain News has reported on over the past three years and none have come to fruition. But this time, it’s different, Huskins said.

“We still do not have a deal consummated with Mr. Coburn, but we are confident at the end of the day we will have a deal,” Huskins said. “We think we are going to be able to reach an agreement with Mr. Coburn very shortly. The plan is to have Ghost Town back in operation by May 2006.”

It will take $4 million to get the park open by Memorial Day weekend, Huskins said. A major expense will be repairing the chair lift, which provides tourist access to the park. Multiple breakdowns of the chair lift in 2001 and 2002 left tourists stranded on the mountainside and required rescues with ropes and harnesses. The state revoked Ghost Town’s chairlift permit in 2002. Instead of making repairs to get chairlift working properly, Coburn closed the park and put it up for sale.

Harper’s two partners are Hank Woodburn, owner of Adventure Landing, which has nine amusement attractions in four states, and Peter Hairston, an independent venture capitalist and one of the investors behind Adventure Landing. Adventure Landing attractions range from waterparks and mini-golf to laser tag and go-carts.

Harper, Woodburn and Hairston formed two corporations that will oversee the deal: American Heritage Entertainment and Ghost Town Partners.

“They know attractions and they know tourism,” Huskins said.

Last week, the three attended the International Amusement Park Association conference to meet chairlift operators and vendors, Huskins said.

Of all the buyers who have expressed interest in Ghost Town, this deal would be the most beneficial to the region, Huskins said.

“I think there have been a lot of people interested in Ghost Town predominately from a second home and real estate perspective,” Huskins said. “Our concern was trying to find someone to buy it and operate it as an attraction as opposed to turning it into a development.”

Huskins said while the buyers would keep the 100-acre amusement park an amusement park, the remaining 150 acres adjacent to the park could become another type of development.

The partners plan to keep the name Ghost Town, Huskins said.

“They do plan to keep the Ghost Town brand and the western town theme, but it will be enhanced,” Huskins said, citing Appalachian crafts and music as a likelihood.

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