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Wild West success could be a long shot

Growing up in Gastonia during the 1960s, Mike Withers would pile into an old Ford sedan with his parents and siblings for the long drive to the now-shuttered Maggie Valley mountaintop amusement park called Ghost Town.

Over generations, Ghost Town left an indelible cultural mark and an enduring economic impact on the Valley, the county, the state and the region.

The park faltered in recent years, but a planned reopening this fall has given hope to thousands that the cherished childhood memories created there in the past half-century could be revisited; certainly, Mike Withers would have been first in line to return to the top of Buck Mountain, were his ashes not already scattered atop it

Likewise, local elected officials, economic developers and entrepreneurs relish the thought of all the associated tourism activity that comes with a revitalized Ghost Town.

In many ways, it’s all still a tremendous gamble — a smallish, small-market park with dated and decaying attractions and a history of substantial infrastructure challenges being resurrected in a town that has learned to grow without it and where some residents are leery about lingering safety concerns. 

 

‘Demons on that mountain’

It’s not surprising that an amusement park deigned to capitalize on “wild west” nostalgia has generated so much nostalgia of its own. 

“It was just a really special time for all of us. It was something families could do together,” said Libby Withers Wilder, Mike Withers’ sister. “Mom would pack a picnic lunch and we’d stop somewhere on the side of a mountain and have a picnic.”

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Libby Withers Wilder (center) scattered her brother Mike’s ashes at Ghost Town in July, 2016. A billboard (below) still shows a previous incarnation of Ghost Town in the Sky. Cory Vaillancourt photos

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Like many in the Southeast, Wilder and her family still hold fond memories of time spent at Ghost Town, which opened in 1962 after Virginia native R.B. Coburn blew off the top of a mountain and installed a small 100-acre theme park that would go on to become big business. 

Hundreds of thousands of visitors jammed Maggie Valley each year for the opportunity to ride a ski resort-style chairlift up a 1,400-foot incline to the small main street lined with colorfully named storefronts and costume-clad performers. 

“It was just so much fun with the old Western people out walking the streets,” said Wilder. “They had that gun fight, and I had to hide behind my daddy because I was afraid of the gunfire.”

Those guns have been quiet for some time now. After a steady decline during the 1990s, the park closed upon the retirement of Coburn in 2002. A group of investors reopened Ghost Town in 2007 but filed for bankruptcy in 2009. 

Local businesswoman Alaska Presley purchased the park out of foreclosure for $1.5 million in 2011, and quickly found major cosmetic and mechanical issues with the chairlift, the rides and the water system that she estimated would cost $11 million to fix. 

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Alaska Presley (center) prepares to purchase Ghost Town in 2012. File photo

“Poor management and bad debts has plagued it for years,” Presley told The Smoky Mountain News in February 2012. “A friend thought there was demons on that mountain, it has had such bad luck.”

The park sputtered along for another four years, until in June 2016, after more than 15 years of fits and starts and fixes and fiascos, it failed to reopen. 

Just one month later, Mike Withers made his final trip up to Ghost Town. 

“He had been sick for probably the last 20 years of his life,” said Wilder, who on July 9, 2016 sprinkled Mike’s earthly remains near Ghost Town’s church and, ironically, in its faux cemetery. “He would joke about it — he didn’t want a memorial, he didn’t want an obituary posted, he didn’t want a gravesite. He said ‘If you can take me to the mountains, and you can take me to Ghost Town, that would be fine.’” 

Months after that, the property went up for sale at $5.95 million, and about a year after that, it was learned that yet another group of investors had big plans that would again attempt to reinvigorate a park so beloved that people are still dying to get into it. 

 

‘The savior of the town’

Globally, the amusement park industry is a multi-billion dollar a year effort that coasted through the Great Recession nearly unscathed, according to annual reports issued by the Themed Entertainment Association, an amusement industry group that monitors worldwide trends. 

The top five parks in North America, all Disney properties, experienced attendance growth from 2007 to 2017 of between 10 and 24 percent. Most of those parks saw attendance remain flat or drop ever so slightly during 2007 and/or 2008, but between the five — Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California — more than 74 million people walked through the turnstiles in 2017 alone. 

From that world comes Valerie Oberle, the public face of a small group of Ghost Town investors that also includes her husband, Spencer. 

Oberle declined to be interviewed for this story, but a website for her business consulting agency, The Oberle Group, says she spent 27 years with Disney, holding leadership roles in guest relations, human resources, operations and resort management on her way to becoming Disney’s first female executive. 

Her husband Spencer holds similar Disney credentials over a 32-year career that ended in 2004 when he joined The Oberle Group, whose clients include the City of Mount Airy, the High Point Police Department, the North Carolina Association of CPAs and, further afield, the Florida Department of Insurance, the Florida Department of Revenue, and of course Disney. 

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Parcel maps show Alaska Presley’s substantial Ghost Town holdings. Haywood GIS photo

Maggie Valley isn’t Disney, as testified to by the string of vacant mom-and-pop motels for sale along Soco Road that have languished during Ghost Town’s absence. 

In recent years, however, public sentiment came around to the realization that Maggie Valley could no longer wish upon a star for its economic development dreams to come true.

“The good thing is, we have really learned how to survive without Ghost Town, so that was good at making our economy more robust and healthier,” said Dave Angel, owner of Elevated Mountain Distilling Company in Maggie Valley. 

Although Angel serves as the chairman of the board of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, it’s his distillery at the center of that resurgence; the only one of its kind in the area, it’s become a year-round global attraction in what was once a disused dinner theater in a highly seasonal tourist town. 

“Even over the last two years, we have grown year-over-year in Maggie Valley,” he said, rattling off new restaurants, new gift shops and proposed hotel developments that will compliment existing attractions like the Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum, Cataloochee Ski Area and Cataloochee Ranch. “That just brings more people, and gives people more things to do, more reasons to stay in Maggie. So instead of coming up, going to that one shop they came for or that one attraction they came for and leaving, now they’re starting to spend more time saying ‘What else can I do while I’m here?’”

Maggie Valley Alderman and Mayor Pro Tem Dr. Janet Banks said that the most important thing she’s seen in the five years she’s been on the board is a willingness among the business community to move in another direction.

“We cannot look at one particular business as the savior of the town,” said Banks. “And as a result, we have new businesses coming into town. We were able to get Elevated Mountain, we were attractive enough and had a place for Cavalry Road Baptist Church to come. I just passed a new business driving into Maggie Valley that I didn’t even know existed.”

That’s not to say that a flourishing Ghost Town wouldn’t be welcomed, according to Banks.

“I’m very encouraged,” she said. “I’m happy that people are interested in developing the property. I am on a board that wants to encourage new businesses coming to town, and I am very hopeful that whoever develops this property will be a success.”

Lynn Collins has been the executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority for a decade. The TDA is the entity responsible for administering tax revenue from the county’s room occupancy tax, and Collins knows the industry — and its ever-growing revenue numbers — as good or better than anyone else in the county. 

“I definitely think it has the potential to increase our overnight stays here in the county, not only through people who haven’t been visiting in recent years coming back, but also increased stays when people get here and find out about [Ghost Town] and decide to stay longer to take advantage of it,” Collins said. “So I think we will see maybe some new markets coming in, and others maybe staying longer.”

The Town of Maggie Valley government itself wouldn’t likely derive much of a direct benefit from the park’s operations, as the park’s property taxes are paid regardless of operations and sales tax revenues are mostly redistributed to other counties. It does, however, stand to benefit greatly from the ancillary economic and social activity associated with the park’s operations. 

“I would like to see Ghost Town attract families with young children,” Banks said. “There isn’t that much to do in Maggie Valley for families with young children. We are doing a great job of attracting retirees, and second homeowners, but for our town to grow in the future we have to attract the entire demographic.”

In an era of well-funded large-market year-round megaresorts with gleaming new attractions draped in state-of-the-art audiovisual presentations of licensed, contemporary characters — from Bugs Bunny to Batman — the prospect of cowboys and can-can girls attracting young children seems dubious. Former Ghost Town owner Presley herself called the western theme “passé” in 2012.

“The gun fights are good,” she told SMN at the time, “but they are not enough.”

Still, both Angel and Banks believe that Ghost Town’s brand still has enough momentum in the market to succeed.

“I know that nostalgia is a big draw for a lot of people, for a generation who may have grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, to share some of what we were interested in,” said Banks. 

“It’s nostalgia,” Angel said. “On a daily basis people come into our business and they’ll say, ‘Well you know when I was a kid …’ and they’ll go back 40 years ago, 50 years ago, and tell you about the gunfight, about the can-can girls, just the memories of riding up the chairlift. For a lot of people, it just brings back good fun memories.” 

Those memories for some include popular television actors like Burt Reynolds, who made guest appearances as a gunslinger at Ghost Town in the late 1960s or early 1970s. 

“He left ghost town to make the movie Deliverance,” Angel said, adding that Reynolds took Haywood County resident and fellow Ghost Town performer Herbert “Cowboy” Coward with him to play the role of the villain that had audiences squealing in theaters across the country in 1973.

“It’s got a rich tradition and history that goes with it,” said Angel of the park. “I’m optimistic that the folks that want to move it forward will honor that past and also find the path forward.”

 

Signs of life

The path forward begins with the path upwards, according to Valerie Oberle, who gave a short speech to a group of people gathered at a breakfast sponsored by the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce July 3.

“The sky lift — we have done all kinds of testing. We’ve had two groups of engineers including the original electrical engineer that built the sky lift,” Oberle told the group. “They pushed the power button, and it ran. It was really exciting.”

That’s a big step. No rides are currently certified to operate at Ghost Town, according to Mary Katherine Revels, a public information officer with the N.C. Department of Labor. The last inspections at Ghost Town took place almost four years ago, in 2014. The chairlift was inspected by NCDOL’s Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau, on June 17, 2014, and was not certified to operate. 

Three rides were also inspected on that same day. All three failed. 

The chairlift was re-inspected weeks later on July 3, 2014, and was certified to operate, but that certification would have been good only for one year. Additionally, rides that have not been in operation for two years or more require additional testing.

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Mountaintop amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky has been closed since 2015, but that could soon change. A Shot Above of WNC photo

“We have tested the chairs. They passed,” Oberle said. “They’re now being painted so they’ll all be fresh and clean. The grips on the top have been tested up in New York and they have passed, so they’ve are being crated and are on their way back. The cable has been tested, and passed.”

The Department of Labor says that other than representatives of its Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau travelling to Ghost Town July 10 “to witness preliminary testing on the chairlift,” no other inspections have taken place or are scheduled. 

“In order for NCDOL to conduct an inspection, the owner of the amusement ride must request an inspection, or an advance location notice,” said Revels by email. “Currently, there are no requests for inspections at Ghost Town.”

Oberle said that engineers had already tested the bases of the 17 towers, and had also performed core drilling tests and assured her that everything would be fine. 

“Once that occurs we are going to be able to let the community know about our preview opening,” she said. “We hope to be able to do that this fall. We were hoping maybe Labor Day but it’s probably going to be more like the beginning or mid-October. There’s so many things that you can imagine that we have to sequence — water and sewer and electric, big, big things.”

Another issue that needs to be sequenced, according to Oberle, is the transfer of the property itself, which as of press time July 10 still hadn’t happened, according to the Haywood County GIS system.

“We have a series of contracts that have occurred, that we closed on. It’s not that easy, like just go buy the property and there you go. Because of the nature of Alaska [Presley]’s holdings and the nature of our investors, there’s been a series of closings that have occurred and we have one more milestone closing with a big investor,” she said. “But we have the money to keep doing what we’re doing.”

What they’re doing is renovating the A-frame welcome center building at the bottom of the chairlift and planning for a buffet restaurant the top, in what’s called Heritage Landing. The haunted house will be no more, but aside from that, there was little mention of any other specific demolitions or, for that matter, near-term additions. 

“We will be doing a lot of construction and Ghost Town, it’s going to look very much the same,” she said. “[Visitors] are going to be pleased with the nostalgia that we’re really protecting, because it’s such a cool town.”

The can-can girls will be back, as will the beloved gunfights that so scared a young Libby Wilder 50-some years ago — albeit with a different twist that bows to the current political climate as well as the discerning tastes of today’s tablet-toting toddlers. 

“We’re going to do a gunfight, but it won’t be like it was, because we couldn’t do that nowadays. That’s just not appropriate, with all the gun violence that’s going on everywhere,” she said. “So instead of getting shot, and blood, and the gravedigger comes and drags you away and the kids are all traumatized, you get shot, no blood, you spin around, the guy spins around, falls on the ground, acts like he’s dead and then he jumps up and starts to breakdance.”

Some of the park won’t be open during the scheduled preview period Oberle mentioned. However, her operation will be in business long before that; on August 11, as a part of the annual Explore Maggie Valley event, she’ll be selling what she calls legacy souvenirs.

“We’ve got hundreds of T-shirts and 2.2 bajillion postcards, at least,” she laughed. “Mugs and glasses and other souvenirs that don’t make any sense whatsoever but we’re going to be selling them.”

Oberle added that she’d engaged the same marketing agency that was recently re-signed by Haywood TDA, Crawford Strategies, to craft a marketing strategy for this year’s short season, which will likely last until Thanksgiving, as well as next year’s full season beginning in April. 

 

The Pilgrimage

Not everyone, however, is looking forward to the traffic around the park’s entrance on Fie Top Road; a small bridge off Soco Road leads to Ghost Town’s parking lot, creating a dangerous bottleneck that some neighbors say could be a deadly safety issue. 

“Our concern for Ghost Town opening is we think it’s great if it works out,” said Fie Top homeowner Linda Lennon Leeke. “But we’ve been down this road before.”

When Ghost Town first opened, Leeke explained, Fie Top road was little more than a cow path. In subsequent years, it grew to become a vacation community, and has since seen more and more permanent residency. 

A lot of those residents are elderly, according to Leeke, and share her apprehension.

“What concerns us is what they going to do about the traffic entering Fie Top if emergency services needs to come up.” she said. “They’ve not looked at it, they’ve not addressed it. I met the lady who is part of the buyers group, I mentioned it to her and she looked at me like I had three heads.”

Leeke gained some unfortunate firsthand experience in the middle of the night on July 7, when her mother suffered a stroke and later passed away; Leeke commended the ambulance crew that showed up for their promptness and professionalism, but said they were concerned about how it may have turned out had it happened early one busy summer day. 

“Every second counts,” she said. “Would those seconds have made a difference for her? I don’t know. If they get to the bottom of this hill and they are waiting in a line of cars to get out, what’s their plan?”

Leeke was careful to note that Fie Top residents are hopeful for the success of Ghost Town, but think the bottleneck needs to be addressed before visitors like Libby Withers Wider begin their pilgrimages back to the cherished park. 

“When I find out when the grand opening is, we’ve all been talking about this as a family since we read that someone had purchased it, we’re planning to be there on the opening day and bring some of our grandkids with us, so we can walk them through and show them,” Wilder. “Even though Mike’s not here, I know he’s here. He’s always with us and just to be able to feel his presence and be able to walk around and enjoy what God’s given us, even to go up there and stand on the side of that mountain and see over the side and how beautiful it is, I’m just really looking forward to it.”

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