“Two years ago Maggie Valley was a town that was kind of down — the board of aldermen weren’t able to agree on various issues. There was a 2-to-2 split so the board was not able to perform its primary function,” said Alderwoman Janet Banks, who is seeking re-election. “People of Maggie Valley were upset — the meetings were loud and disrespectful and made for a lot of front page news in a negative way.”
It was that dysfunction that made Banks run in 2013 to fill an unexpired term on the board that had been left vacant for a year because the board couldn’t agree on an appointment. Now she is running for a complete four-year term to see some of the board’s projects through to fruition.
“I set out with two main goals — to work with a full board and to provide a positive atmosphere to interact with each other in a respectful manner,” she said. “Everyone on the board has worked hard to do that. We’ve come together to make some tough decisions.”
Alderman Phillip Wight is the other incumbent seeking a second four-year term on the board. Wight ran alongside the late Mayor Ron DeSimone four years ago with the promise of being a fiscally responsible voice of the people.
“I’m the only alderman who’s tried to give back to the taxpayers by reducing fees and cutting taxes — that’s what I’m running on again,” he said.
Even though Wight and DeSimone ran together in 2013, it didn’t take long before he and the mayor went their separate ways. They didn’t see eye to eye on many important issues facing the town, including budget spending, increasing the county’s occupancy tax and annexation disputes.
Even with the disagreements on the board, Wight said he was able to deliver on his promises to pay off debt and cut taxes without reducing services to residents and businesses. He led the effort to cut the town’s taxes by 3 percent in 2013, and the town has been able to maintain that tax rate for two more years. Wight said cutting impact fees and reducing water/sewer tap fees for businesses also helped the town gain business growth.
“We’ve had some positive growth and it has not been at the expense of the taxpayers — that’s what I ran on,” he said. “Transparency has also gotten better — the more open and transparent your government is, the more trust people have in the government.”
Nikki McCauley, owner of Salty Dogs Seafood and Grill, has lived and worked in the valley for 10 years. She said she used to be more active in town politics years ago but all the bickering on the board deterred her from getting involved.
“I got really frustrated listening to them argue and not getting anywhere,” she said. “But they seem to be doing OK now.”
Billy Case, a real estate broker with Beverly Hanks, has been active in Maggie Valley politics for many years as a town planning board member. This is his third time running for a seat on the board.
“I think the town has improved in the last two years — I don’t hear the bickering I heard and don’t see it highlighted in the newspapers as much and people aren’t coming to the meetings for the entertainment,” he said. “But I’ve failed to see any concrete changes.”
Bring on the business
Now that the board is able to function and get along with each other and the town meetings are no longer attracting the same kind of crowds, candidates feel like the real work can begin. While they all have the same goal of economic growth for the tourist town, they have different ideas of how to take it to the next level.
If elected, McCauley said her goals are to help the town follow through with its goals to improve the town’s economy. She wants to see more businesses opening and wants Maggie to go back to a more family-friendly atmosphere. She said a better marketing plan was needed to put the town back on the map.
“When I was growing up everybody knew where Maggie Valley was and envied you for being here and now people in Asheville don’t even know where Maggie Valley is,” she said.
Case said one of his goals if elected is to create an economic development director position to recruit and retain businesses. He said the position would function similarly to the Downtown Waynesville Association.
“We have a really good town manager and a town planner, but we need someone day-to-day out there trying to fill and improve those empty buildings with businesses that will complement Maggie Valley,” he said.
For more than 30 years, Maggie Valley businesses relied on Ghost Town in the Sky — a mountaintop amusement park — to bring tourists to the valley, but now people are realizing they can’t lean on one entity to support the economy.
“We’ve got to stop hitching our wagon to Ghost Town,” Case said. “Maggie Valley is the gateway to the Smokies and people will come to see the mountains regardless of what kind of manmade tourism attractions we have.”
He said the town could also benefit from having a convention center to hold large groups of visitors and also from having more activities for children.
“The waterpark in Cherokee is always full,” he said. “We need more family space places like that.”
Case said the town can have an active role in making the town appealing for new businesses, but it isn’t the town’s responsibility to help fund private business improvements. He is not in favor of reducing tap fees and eliminating impact fees for businesses.
“A lot of people think the town owes it to businesses to be successful but that’s not how capitalism works,” he said. “Taxpayers can’t foot the bill for private individuals.”
Banks said the board has been working toward making Maggie Valley more attractive for tourists and businesses by increasing parks and greenways spaces, enforcing ordinances regulating junk cars, signs, overgrown brush and other unsightly views along the U.S. 19 corridor.
The town is also in the process of putting together a comprehensive plan to develop a town center area in Maggie Valley. With input from community members, a consulting firm will present several options and different projects the board can work on for the next 5 to 10 years to create a town center. Maggie Valley doesn’t have a downtown or Main Street like Waynesville or Canton, so the board has to think of creative ways to create a downtown feel for visitors.
“We want to create an area that will lead to people stopping and more pedestrian traffic. We want the kind of atmosphere where people want to get out and look around,” Banks said. “We just have to figure out how to do that. Funding can come through grants, some from the town’s general fund money and other budget savings.”
Wight said tourism dollars in Maggie Valley are on the rise, but he would like to see Maggie Valley promoted as its own destination. Right now, he said the Tourism Development Authority spends the occupancy tax revenue to market Haywood County as a whole more than the individual towns.
“Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Canton — everyone has their own identity and advertising as a whole doesn’t work as well,” he said. “Seems like the TDA just wants to make their job easier.”
Finding the money
Small town budgeting has become more of a struggle since the recession, and Maggie Valley is no exception. Revenues have dropped and expenses continue to increase.
Case said the current board has done a good job of building up its reserve funds. The fund contains about $3 million, which is a year’s worth of operating expenses.
Case said a healthy reserve fund is important to have in case of emergency, including natural disasters.
“You just don’t know what will happen in emergency situations, and the people expect the town and government to respond,” he said.
Case said the town had been successful at minimizing taxes and staying within a reasonable budget while maintaining services. He wants to see the town continue to pay off debt, including debt on the police station.
McCauley said she hears many complaints about the police department budget being too high or taxes being too high and wants to be informed about the reasoning behind the budget before deciding whether anything can be cut. She favors spending money as long as it benefits Maggie Valley as a whole by bringing in more businesses and creating local jobs.
“Everyone is struggling to pay their bills and they’re living day-to-day, and I want to see them back on their feet,” she said. “I want my son to be able to come back here and raise a family.”
Wight said it was his goal to continue to pay down the town’s debt and for the town not to enter into any more future debt. During his first term, he said the board was successful at paying off $300,000 worth of debt on the town hall and festival grounds, but his only regret was that the savings was not specifically earmarked to pay down other debt — it simply went back into the general fund.
Wight did not vote in favor of the town budget for 2015-16 because it included a new tax for residents — a $5 per vehicle charge.
“I wasn’t in favor of that because it hurts the taxpayers of Maggie Valley,” he said. “Just like the business privilege tax, I think it’s unfair.”
Banks said that $5 vehicle fee was needed to help the town fill a small revenue hole in the budget.
“Due to the increased number of roads the town’s taking in, we had a huge hole in the budget for road repair and maintenance,” she said. “We had three options — take money from the general fund, which is not a good idea; we could increase property tax; or we could do a vehicle assessment, which the state law allows us to do when we need a small amount of revenue.”
Banks said the fee would raise about $10,000 a year to put toward road maintenance, pothole repairs and snow plowing in the winter. With a loss in revenue from the state and a 25 percent increase in health insurance costs, Banks said balancing a budget becomes a daunting task when residents expect a high level of service.
“There’s no fat left in the budget. People will like to say it can be cut, but realistically since the recession of 2008, municipalities don’t have any fat,” Banks said. “It doesn’t mean the budget can’t be cut, but you’d have to lay people off and cut services.”
What they bring to the table
Wight hopes his record speaks for itself — he’s stood by his promises even when it meant he was a lone voice on the board. He’s supported lowering taxes, reducing financial burdens on businesses by temporarily eliminating impact fees and has worked for transparency on the board.
“My personal goals were accomplished and I hope people respect that,” Wight said. “I feel like I have their best interest at heart and I try to represent the taxpayers. I hope I’ve proven that and I hope I’ve earned their vote.”
If Maggie Valley does see positive growth in the near future, Wight said it should benefit the taxpayers and not put more of a financial burden on them. His opinion may not always be the opinion of the entire board, but Wight said he still feels like he has some influence just by voicing a different viewpoint.
He has consistently voted against increasing the county’s occupancy tax collected from hotels and motels from 4 percent to 6 percent because he doesn’t think Maggie Valley would get its fair share of the additional revenue. Since Maggie Valley hotels collect more than 55 percent of the revenue, Wight feels like a majority of the revenue should return to Maggie instead of being distributed to all the municipalities.
“I understand the importance of partnering with municipalities, but my first and foremost priority is Maggie Valley,” he said.
McCauley doesn’t claim to have all the answers on how to get Maggie Valley back to what it was 10 years ago when she moved there, but she promises to have an open mind and an open ear.
“I want to get involved so I know more about what’s going on,” she said. “If elected, I’d be there to address any problems and would have an open door so people can come talk to me about anything.”
McCauley said she would bring a fresh perspective to town government as a business owner and a taxpaying resident. She said she is prepared to work well with whoever is elected on the board and as mayor.
“I can see things from both sides. I can listen to everyone’s point of view and get along with them even if it’s something I strongly disagree with and let them know. I’m going to vote where my heart tells me,” she said. “I want to see more of the community working together. It’s hard to be business- and resident-friendly but it all needs to go together.”
Case’s ultimate goal is to promote the valley as a tourism destination to improve the economy. He wants to do that by improving safety and slowing down traffic along the U.S. 19 corridor, marketing the festival grounds and other assets and supporting the town center plan.
If the wrong individuals are elected, Case said, the town could very quickly revert back to the same cronyism and bickering that has happened in the past. He doesn’t want that to happen.
“I think I stand out from other candidates because I’m not an incumbent,” he said. “I’m a native, so I know the problems that exist, and I serve on the planning board so I know the ordinances and regulations that need to be enforced.”
Banks said voters decided in the 2013 election that they wanted change, and change is what they got. She said this election will come down to whether voters want the current board to continue down the path it’s on or elect new people who may change the direction.
“You have two different sets of people running for office — people who are experienced and know about municipal government versus people who’ve had no experience in municipal government and haven’t made any effort in the last two years to familiarize themselves with government,” Banks said. “I’m happy people want to step up and serve, but it would have been nice to see them the last two years.”
• Age: 70
• Profession: Retired nursing school professor
• Political experience: Two years as Maggie Valley alderman, worked for various candidate campaigns over the years.
• Why are you running? “I want to continue the path former Mayor Ron DeSimone set out for us to make Maggie Valley economically viable for the next 10 to 15 years.”
• Age: 61
• Profession: Real estate broker
• Political experience: Maggie Valley planning board for six years, chairman for a year
• Why are you running? “I’m running to continue to promote Maggie Valley as a great place to live and own a business.”
• Age: 49
• Profession: Restaurant owner for 10 years, worked for the Kennedy Space Center for 21 years in Florida.
• Political experience: Serving as secretary for Space Center union.
• Why are you running? “I want to see Maggie Valley become successful again — I want to see Maggie Valley move forward and flourish.”
• Age: 47
• Profession: Co-owner of Clarkton Motel and owner of a heating and cooling business
• Political experience: Four years as a Maggie Valley alderman
• Why are you running? “I am running to represent the taxpayers of Maggie Valley, make smart fiscal decisions, decrease spending and ensure a debt-free future.”
*Editor’s note: Kirsten Warstler filed to run for alderman but has since moved outside Maggie Valley and is no longer qualified to run for office. Her name will still appear on the ballot.