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Maggie leaders question the wisdom of holding out for tourism

fr maggieMaggie Valley is trying to figure out what exactly it wants to be.

Maggie once reigned supreme in the mountain tourist trade, witnessed by the row of restaurants, bars, hotels and gift shops that line the valley’s main drag.

But a gradual decline in visitors over the past 20 years has left the town looking for a new identity. While some want to reclaim Maggie’s former glory as a tourist kingpin, a few town leaders advocate for diversifying Maggie Valley’s business portfolio beyond tourism — something that proponents say would bring financial stability to the valley.

There has been some movement in that direction. Maggie is now home to a retirement center, for example, and an increasing number of businesses these days cater to the valley’s growing second-home population instead of solely tourists.

But how far to stray from its tourist roots evokes passion on both sides. Putting a face to that debate is Automation Design Technology, a Springboro, Ohio-based robotics manufacturer. The owner of the business, Mick Combs, recently moved to Maggie and wants to bring his business and 10 jobs with him.

More specifically, he wants to buy the building that once housed Carolina Nights, a dinner theater on the main highway through Maggie that has been shut down for two years.

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“I think it would be great. We have a vacant building sitting there right now,” Alderman Mike Matthews said.

Mayor Ron DeSimone agreed that the new business would be a positive addition.

“I think it’s a great thing for the valley,” DeSimone said.

Combs needs the town to rezone the property from its commercial designation, however, and is facing opposition from tourism purists who don’t think light manufacturing business on Maggie’s main tourist strip is a good idea — particularly in the highly-visible location of the old Carolina Nights.

“I would like another tourist attraction there. I think that is what this town is about mainly,” said Karen Hession, president of the Maggie Valley Area Lodging Association. “It sort of opens the door for more industry in a section that has always been a tourist town, and I am afraid it would take away from the tourism.”

Hession added that she would love to see the business come to Maggie, just not in a heavy tourism area.

“I do want people to have jobs,” Hession said.

And, she is not the only one who feels that way.

At a recent meeting of Maggie Valley’s zoning board, board member Marion Hamel was the sole dissenting vote on a measure that would have allowed Automation Design Technology to move into the old Carolina Nights building. Currently, that land is not zoned for any form of industry.

Hamel was not opposed to the business, she said, but allowing it along Soco Road would change the tenor of the town. It would no longer be strictly tourism.

Some think that is a good thing, while others do not.

“Yeah, we are a tourist town, but yeah, we can be other things than that,” Matthews said. “If we would have Carolina Nights or something like that back, then that would be wonderful.” But Matthews doesn’t see that happening.

Since the change in zoning was not approved by a fourth-fifths majority at the zoning board meeting, it did not pass. But, Combs had another option — going through the planning board and the board of aldermen.

Not wanting to waste any time or lose Combs’ business to another town, the planning board held a special meeting last week to talk about allowing a light industry like Combs’ to operate in Maggie Valley’s general business district. 

While the zoning board has the power to rezone particular parcels, the planning board can make more general changes — like allowing new types of uses along entire sections of Soco Road.

Members of the planning board spoke out in favor of allowing high technology firms or light industry in Maggie Valley.

“People say not to put all our eggs in one basket. Here is a perfect opportunity,” said Planning Board Member Allen Alsbrooks.

Opponents of the change were concerned that the business would mean more noise and traffic on Soco Road. However, proponents have said people will not even know the manufacturer is there.

No one “would be a better neighbor or a better fit,” said Billy Case, a planning board member.

Case added that there is plenty of room in the back of the building for any trucks that may need to stop by the building.

Fellow board member Cathy Young said that the possible new business is a great opportunity for Maggie, especially given that the price tag of the Carolina Nights building will not likely attract many purchase offers.

“We can’t stay this little small-minded (town), not looking into the future,” Young said. “How many opportunities do we have for someone to do this?”

The planning board voted unanimously to allow high technology firms in general business districts in Maggie. The matter went before the Board of Alderman Tuesday night, but the town board had not voted on the issue by press time.

Although DeSimone, Matthews and Alderman Phillip Wight all said they support Automation Design Technology moving to Maggie. Alderwoman Saralyn Price did not return multiple calls for comment, but the three aldermen who support have enough of a majority to push it through.

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