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Ghost Town’s struggles challenge community

As Ghost Town continues to struggle, many are finally coming to grips with the reality that the Old West theme park may never be the economic engine it once was.

Ghost Town has had ongoing financial problems since it re-opened two years ago. Its premier rides — the roller coaster and the incline railway that takes visitors to the park — have been idle since the park re-opened. These and other tribulations have compromised the visitor experience, a reality that investors will have to deal with as they try to increase admission numbers this year.

The park recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which means it wants to re-organize its debt — $12.5 million, including more than $2.5 million in outstanding bills to everyone from suppliers to ride repair companies. The debtors include many local companies who were excited about Ghost Town’s potential to boost the local economy and who now are left hoping they can get the money owed to them as the company works through bankruptcy proceedings.

Ghost Town investors started the long road to re-opening with widespread support that reached all the way to Washington. Theme park owners secured a government backed low-interest loan with the help of then Congressman Charles Taylor. Economic development and tourism officials all heralded the opening as a shot in the arm for the region. Companies owed money have held past due bills in hopes all would turn around, banking on the long-term benefit of a viable — if dated — theme park.

Now, as the reality of bankruptcy settles in and a May 19 projected opening date looms amid the worst economic crisis since World War II, many are holding their breath. Maggie Valley in particular needs to continue re-positioning itself as a tourist destination separate from Ghost Town. That way its businesses can look toward the future with some optimism, and if Ghost Town does succeed it will be a boost to those businesses but not counted on as the savior.

That really is what it has come to: no one is counting on the park to provide a great boon during this year’s tourist season. Everyone wishes Ghost Town the best, but mounting debts and unfulfilled promises have strained relationships and eroded the all-out community support. Only time will tell what the future holds for this once important component of the region’s tourism industry.

Ghost Town faces huge challenges as it tries to restructure debt, open park

The business partners behind Ghost Town in the Sky are facing significant logistical and financial challenges as they pursue their goal of reopening the Maggie Valley amusement park by summer.

Ghost Town filed for bankruptcy three weeks ago under the auspice of reorganization. Whether the partners can pull that off remains to be seen, however.

“They are trying very hard to reopen but they have a lot of challenges to overcome,” said Mark Clasby, director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission.

The challenges include $12.5 million in debt, not enough cash to make payroll and burned bridges with suppliers. Meanwhile state inspections of their rides have yet to be scheduled.

“It is my understanding that the situation is dire at best,” said Attorney Gavin Brown, the chairman of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission and the mayor of Waynesville. “They simply do not have the cash funds to operate and there is not an entity I am aware of that will assist them.”

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy said he doesn’t know what to tell his tourist-dependent town, which historically relied on the amusement park as its cash cow.

“All I can tell them is I don’t know. We just don’t know what is going on,” McElroy said.

Ghost Town’s owners continue to assert that the amusement park will open in mid-May, and that’s all the town has to go on, said Maggie Valley Alderman Mark DeMeola.

“All I can do, like anyone else, is just hope,” DeMeola said. “It is kind of like blind faith right now. We are at the mercy of what they are telling us. But here we are 30 days away and if you look at it on the surface, it does seem like a tall order.”

Burton Edwards, a contractor in Maggie Valley, said he does not think the current owners of Ghost Town have the capital they need to reopen the park.

“My honest opinion is with the current financial status, it is just a matter of time. There is no way they can do it,” Edwards said. “I want Ghost Town to succeed because I want Maggie Valley to succeed. I don’t think these guys now can pull that off. I hope they can.”

Edwards said the current owners had the best intentions when they bought the park two years ago. After being run by the same owner for most of its 40 years, the park had fallen into disrepair and eventually closed down in 2002. It stayed closed for five years, much to the dismay of the Maggie tourism industry.

The current owners admit they didn’t realize how much money it would take to get up and running when they bought it.

“Where we thought you had to paint the wall, it didn’t have a foundation under the wall,” said Steve Shiver, Ghost Town CEO.

Rides had to be completely rebuilt. Nearly every roof in the mock Old West town leaked. The park was on well water that didn’t meet code, requiring the new owners to run city water lines. Water pipes were clamped with muffler clips. The electrical wiring was jerry rigged. It cost millions more than they anticipated, Shiver said.

“I think they accidentally got in over their heads,” Edwards said. “They didn’t do a proper study and know how bad a shape it was in. Number two, the economy hit hard.”

The new owners rushed to get the park open after buying it. Two years later, the amusement park still isn’t running at full tilt, which has led to disappointed visitors, Edwards said.

“It has to be up and fully running to help Maggie Valley. Otherwise I feel like it is doing Maggie Valley more harm than good,” Edwards said. Edwards currently has a lien against Ghost Town over unpaid work, which Ghost Town is disputing on claims the retaining wall he built failed.

One sign of Ghost Town’s financial troubles is its failure to remit sales tax to the N.C. Department of Revenue. According to bankruptcy filings, the park owes $136,000 in back sales tax, penalties and amusement tax, some dating back to fall of 2006.

Ghost Town was collecting sales tax on everything from ticket prices to souvenirs, but for some reason did not remit it to the state.

“If the business owner takes it and uses it for another purpose, that is illegal,” said Kim Brooks, spokesperson with the N.C. Department of Revenue.

Ghost Town has also failed to pay property taxes. It owes $40,000 in property taxes to Haywood County and $30,000 to the town of Maggie Valley.

The health insurance policy for Ghost Town employees was canceled recently after the company didn’t make the payments. The N.C. Department of Insurance is investigating a complaint that coverage was terminated without employees’ knowledge. Shiver said the partners are working to get the health insurance reinstated retroactively so that employees won’t be left holding the bag for medical care incurred during the time they didn’t have insurance.


Lots to do

To pull off an opening for the summer, employees will have to be hired soon to start sprucing up the park, from pulling weeds to setting up rides. Characters in the theme town, such as gun fighters, must get up to speed on their skits, and ride operators will need refreshers before tourists start showing up. There has been no movement to begin hiring, however.

On another front, Ghost Town needs to find suppliers to stock concession and souvenir stands, fill its fuel tanks, and send caps for the gunfighters’ guns. Given the long list of companies owed money by Ghost Town, most will want to be paid up front, but doing so will be difficult due to a lack of cash on hand.

Shiver said there are plenty of vendors ready and willing to do business with Ghost Town, however.

The park also needs annual inspections of all its rides and chairlift before it can open. As of press time Tuesday, Ghost Town had not yet asked the state for a site visit, according to Jonathan Brooks, bureau chief of the amusement ride division of the N.C. Department of Labor.

Inspections would take several days to complete and would have to include an evacuation drill of the chairlift. Brooks said it would be difficult to pull off by mid-May at this point.

The roller coaster still lacks numerous tests and inspections, which could not possibly be completed by mid-May, according to Brooks. The same goes for the incline railway, which is being rebuilt and is still missing integral parts.


Tourist outlook

Shiver says Ghost Town aims to increase visitation from 130,000 last year to 150,000 this year. Unpaid bills with more than a dozen TV stations, newspapers and billboard companies, however, could make it difficult to place advertisements unless Ghost Town can pay up front.

Other challenges to increased visitation include the recession — which could impact travel and spending of tourists — and an increase in ticket prices.

Another challenge is capturing the imagination of today’s kids with Old West gun fights and fair rides, when laser tag and water parks might be more their speed.

“The theme itself may be dated, and therein may lie the problem,” said Gavin Brown, chairman of the Haywood Economic Development Commission.

Despite the challenges, the park has raised ticket prices by $2 this year, to $31.95 for adults and $19.95 for kids. You get $3 off if purchased now online.

Shiver said he believes there will still be plenty of tourism this summer. In fact, Ghost Town is positioned to capture tourists that opt for close to home trips rather than bigger, expensive vacations, he said. He said the park is opting for low cost marketing, citing a mass marketing email sent out last week.

“Tickets are being sold as we speak,” Shiver said of online sales, but wouldn’t say how many.

The bankruptcy filing says that Ghost Town brought in $5.56 million when it reopened in 2007, but only $4.44 million last year. The 20 percent decline in revenue between 2007 and 2008 could have several explanations. Ghost Town got a natural bump in visitation when it opened in 2007 after being closed for five years. But 2008 was plagued by high gas prices and recession.

Ghost Town allowed hotels in Maggie Valley to buy blocks of tickets at a wholesale price and either resell them to tourists for a mark-up or make them part of a package vacation deal through the hotel. Several hotels were unable to divest themselves of all the tickets they had bought last year, however.


How much would it take?

Prior to filing bankruptcy, Ghost Town partners were seeking a loan of $18 million, Shiver said. It would have allowed them to pay off their bills and get the park open. It would also have provided the major cash needed to get all the rides working and allowed Ghost Town to add new components to the park that would make it more appealing to today’s youth.

Shiver even went to lenders of last resort, chasing expensive money at unfavorable terms, but could not secure a loan. When asked whether Ghost Town was the victim of the financial collapse Shiver said,

“There is no question.”

In recent weeks, Shiver has been seeking public assistance. But the town of Maggie Valley, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Economic Development Commission have all declined.

Shiver said the Ghost Town partners have put significant resources and personal collateral on the line to make the park a go, but would not say how much or the nature of the collateral. They are in the process of injecting more cash into operations, per approval by the bankruptcy court.

“If we didn’t think it would work we would not go out and commit ourselves more. We hope the community supports us in that effort. Everywhere I turn I am getting extreme support,” Shiver said. “It is very damaging to speculate right now.”

Debts mount at theme park

Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley has left a wake of unpaid bills with local companies over the past year, putting some small businesses in a bind during already difficult economic times.

Ghost Town owes around $2.5 million to a wide spectrum of companies: electricians, plumbers, contractors, ride engineers, building supply stores, TV stations and newspapers — more than 220 companies in all. The park’s recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing has left many business owners worried they will never see their money.

Several local businesses say they are disappointed they’ve been left holding the bag on Ghost Town’s debt with no hope of getting paid back any time soon — or ever if the park can’t pull through reorganization and faces foreclosure.

“This was the last thing we needed right now,” said John Mudge, owner of Apple Creek Electric in Waynesville. Apple Creek did extensive work at Ghost Town, revamping nearly all the dated wiring at the park. The company is still owed $4,800, Mudge said.

“I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a small company in a small town, that money they haven’t paid us has ended up coming out of my own pocket,” Mudge said.

Out of his 30 years in the electrical business, this is the worst time he could have been hit with an unpaid bill of this magnitude. As a small business owner, Mudge only makes a modest salary of between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. When Ghost Town fell short on its payment, he still had to cover the salary of the employee who did the work. That led to cash flow problems of his own. Plus, the time he wasted doing work he wasn’t getting paid for could have been spent drumming up real business.

“Partially due to this, it has cost some of our men their jobs,” Mudge said.

Steve Shiver, the president of Ghost Town, said the company was banking on a loan to help pay off the debts. But the recession and credit crunch has made finding a loan short of impossible. Every loan they sought fell through, finally landing the park in bankruptcy.

“I truly feel sorry for all of those who we owe money to,” said Shiver.

Another small business owner on the line is Jackie Shuler at Balsam Equipment Rental.

“It is just killing me,” said Shuler, who’s owed $6,600. “That is a lot of money for a small business like me.”

Shuler has had a steady stream of equipment on loan to Ghost Town: scissors lifts, floor buffers, a demolition hammer, heated pressure washers. Ghost Town would typically let a bill accumulate, then pay it down just enough to keep renting.

“Then it snowballed,” Shuler said.

Burton Edwards, a Maggie Valley contractor who specializes in rock work, says he is still owed $28,000 on a quarter million dollar job. While Ghost Town paid the lion’s share — just enough to cover salaries for his workers, gas for his machinery and materials — there was nothing left over to pay his own salary with.

“I basically did the job for nothing,” Edwards said. “I have three children and that’s hurt my family.”

Suddenly faced with a cash flow problem of his own, he relied on a line of credit to keep going through the winter.

Edwards actually filed a civil suit against Ghost Town last fall demanding payment. Ghost Town managers are disputing the lien, claiming the rock wall he built failed.


A very long line

The small businesses owed money are at the back of a very long line to be paid. Ghost Town owes more $9.5 million to BB&T, which takes precedence before anyone else. While most of that sum stems from the purchase of the property by new owners two years ago, at least $3 million was racked up repairing equipment, upgrading infrastructure and generally renovating the dated amusement park.

Also at the front of the queue is roughly $208,000 in unpaid state sales tax and local property tax.

If the current owners can’t pull out of Chapter 11, the park will be put up for sale, likely to the highest bidder at an auction. It would have to bring nearly $10 million before the small businesses see any of the money they are owed.

“Most of the people who are owed probably won’t get the money if it goes to the courthouse steps,” Edwards said.

Shiver agrees, and says that’s why the people he owes money to need to be supporting him right now.

“The alternative is to close the doors and sell it on the courthouse steps for pennies on the dollar. If we close, we all, including the creditors, lose,” Shiver said. “There two options — get behind it or close the door.”

If the park is liquidated — whether the owners voluntarily throw in the towel or are forced to by the bankruptcy judge — it’s anyone’s guess how much it might sell for in these times. But most likely it would only be enough to cover the big loans from the financial institutions at the front of the line, whose debts are backed by the collateral of the property.

“The small business owner does get caught in the cross fire. They get the short end of the stick,” said attorney Gavin Brown, chairman of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission and Waynesville’s mayor.


An even longer line

While not listed by name on the bankruptcy filing — but caught in the crossfire nonetheless — are several local sales reps for national suppliers and vendors. Take Dick Cabe, a sales rep for apparel companies that provided Ghost Town with everything from T-shirts to ball caps to resell in its gift shops. Cabe’s salary is 100 percent commission based, leaving him holding a great big bag if Ghost Town doesn’t pay for the merchandise it ordered.

“If they don’t get paid I don’t put food on my table,” Cabe said. “Anytime you lose money in this economy it hurts. You never like to lose money.”

Margie Woodward, a sales rep for souvenirs stiffed out of her commission as well, said she is generally very careful about who she sells to on credit.

“Who is going to expect a company like that to file bankruptcy?” said Woodward, who lives in Jackson County.

After seeing the long list of people owed in the bankruptcy filing, Woodward doesn’t hold out much hope for getting paid.

“I have pretty much written it off,” Woodward said.

Ghost Town has similar debts across the country, from $45,000 to a company that makes cap guns in Tennessee to a company owed more than $300,000 for rebuilding the incline railway.

“It’s affected us drastically, extremely,” said Brannon Deal, the owner of Industrial Service Group of Georgia, the company that has been working on the incline railway. “When somebody hits your business for $300,000 and that’s the total amount of money you do in a year, it hit us hard. It’s got us in a financial bind like you can’t imagine.”

Ghost Town is contesting that payment, too, which is the subject of a civil lien filed last fall.


Good faith

Local businesses say they wanted Ghost Town to succeed. Tourist traffic pulled in by the theme park has historically been an economic driver in Maggie Valley.

“Everybody here in Haywood County wanted it to be a go. It would be a fantastic thing,” said Shuler. “The whole community welcomed them with open arms.”

When Shuler is traveling and people ask where she’s from, they typically haven’t heard of Haywood County. But if she says Maggie Valley, it triggers the line people from here know well: “Oh, yeah, Ghost Town!”

“When I was a kid, we had season passes and would go there two and three times a week,” Shuler said. She remembers her uncle being scared to death riding the incline railway up the mountain, and still has pictures of her with the gunfighters.

Cabe, the sales rep for apparel merchandise, lives in Maggie and knows how much it means to the community.

“More than anything I’d love to see them succeed,” Cabe said.

That feeling led several business owners to give Ghost Town the benefit of the doubt as long as they could.

“We continued to work up there under promise of being paid, just because we were sure those guys would come through,” Mudge said. “After a certain point when money wasn’t forthcoming we just quit going.”

Businesses owed money saw Ghost Town start to fall behind on payments last summer, some as early as June, others not until August. When business owners broached the problem with Ghost Town management, they were all told the same thing.

“We’ve been told for months that they were going to pay our bill in a couple weeks. That’s been the story all along,” Mudge said. “Whoever we talk to up there, we get the same story. The bankruptcy came as a surprise in a way, because they kept assuring that wasn’t going to happen.”

At Balsam Rental Equipment, Shuler had a large lift valued at $100,000 on loan to the park that she wasn’t getting payments for.

“They kept saying ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll get it, you’ll get it,’” Shuler said.

But finally, Shuler went up to the park to take back the equipment.

“We had to get the men down off our big lift and tell them ‘Sorry, no pay, no rent,’” Shuler said.

That was in June. Shuler called every two weeks since then. She said she tried to be nice, hoping that would move her bill to the top of the stack. But it seems it didn’t work.

Edwards believes the Ghost Town management had to see the writing on the wall.

“At a certain point they had to know,” Edwards said. “I don’t hire people I can’t pay.”


Julia Merchant contributed to this article.

Ghost Town responds

The following comment was provided by Steve Shiver, Ghost Town CEO and president, in response to questions about the challenges Ghost Town faces in its quest to reopen the park amid Chapter 11 proceedings.

“At this stage of the process there are too many details of our reorganization plan that we continue to formulate. It would be premature and inappropriate to comment on the details of that plan and unfair to those creditors we have involved in this process, without first making it available to them. It is our intent to do everything in our power to open the park for our third season and to maximize the return to our valued creditors as quickly as possible.”

Ghost Town coaster opening faces big hurdles

Ghost Town investors are banking on finally getting the park’s Cliffhanger rollercoaster up and running in order to attract visitors and increase cash flow.

But the park has miles to go before it can open its centerpiece ride. Not only does it lack state inspections, but also funding to get the coaster into compliance. The amusement park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with millions in unpaid bills.

Last week, Ghost Town president and CEO Steve Shiver told The Smoky Mountain News that there was one test left to run on the coaster before it can pass inspection. He made a similar assertion last fall that the roller coaster was close to completion.

However, Jonathan Brooks, bureau chief of amusement inspections with the Department of Labor, told a different story last week.

“That’s an incorrect statement,” Brooks said. “They’ve got multiple tests to do.”

Shiver later said he meant that there was only one big test left to run on the coaster, not including some of the minor inspections that still need to be completed. Syntax aside, one thing is clear — much work still remains to get the coaster up and running.

First and foremost, a major series of tests involving the restraints and seat design of the roller coaster cars must be performed. But Larry Moyers, owner of Rotational Motion which has rehabbed the coaster, says he won’t do it until the park pays down some of its debt to his company.

“Right now, I’m owed enough money that I really need to see some sort of hope that I’m going to get paid,” Moyers said. “For me to invest anymore in it without payment would be foolish.”

According to Moyers, that amounts to about $150,000 for work done between April and August of last year.

“In the past six months, I’ve struggled because of the economy, and being owed that much from one customer is huge,” he said.

Moyers says he needs the funds to pay his engineers who worked on the coaster.

Getting Moyers on board is just one step in opening the coaster. The coaster is designed with lap bars instead of over the shoulder restraints, because Moyers’ engineer determined that with the design of the coaster, a shoulder harness would actually cause riders harm.

But Ghost Town’s owners still have to convince state inspectors to OK the lap bar. Inspectors want to see several destructive and load tests on the lap bar and seat designs before they sign off on the Cliffhanger.

Moyers said that, like himself, state Department of Labor Bureau Chief Jonathan Brooks was skeptical.

“He was in the same place I was when I started this project,” Moyers said. “We had to convince him that over the shoulder harness was not viable and we shouldn’t go that way.”

But Brooks still doesn’t appear to be completely convinced.

“At this point in time, I don’t know that over the shoulder restraints are required or not required,” Brooks told The Smoky Mountain News.

Brooks said that Ghost Town’s owners need to initiate the inspection process immediately if they hope to have the coaster ready by the proposed May 15 opening date. Though Shiver said back in November that the results of more than 400 test runs of the coaster had been sent to the state, Brooks said he hasn’t received them.

“I do not have any testing results or inspections from Ghost Town as we sit here today,” Brooks said last week. He also said no request for inspection had yet been submitted to him.

“This is our busy season trying to get stuff done, and the sooner they can schedule, the better off they would be,” Brooks said.

Communication with Ghost Town during the inspection process has been inconsistent, Moyers and Brooks revealed, in contrast to Shiver’s past statements that the park owners have maintained constant contact with state officials.

Brooks said he hadn’t heard anything out of Ghost Town in months until he corresponded with Moyers and a park maintenance worker in late January or early February.

Moyers said he waited so long to hear from Ghost Town that he went ahead and booked other work.

“We had a meeting in November saying we could make a spring opening if we received payment,” Moyers said. “We gave them a very clear timeline and we didn’t get money or a phone call until Feb. 20. The problem was, I had other work lined up that I was committed to.”

Brooks expressed doubts about Ghost Town’s ability to get its rides up and running by its proposed May 15 opening date if it doesn’t act quickly.

“The closer they get to the May opening date without calling for inspections, the more likely stuff may not make it,” Brooks said. “All total, from start to finish, if we started today, we would be right on top of May 15.”

Shiver admitted that the roller coaster may not be up and running by the proposed opening date.

“It may not be day one that it’s open,” he said. He said the investors will likely have to go back to the bankruptcy court and petition to increase the line of emergency credit in order to perform the necessary tests on the ride.

Doing so would be worthwhile, Moyers said.

“I think it’s important to the future of the park to get the coaster open,” he said. “I think if they try to open it without the coaster, it would be throwing good money after bad.”

Troubled park hopes to get back on feet

The dire state of finances at Maggie Valley Ghost Town in the Sky led the amusement park to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 10.

The filing will allow the partners of Ghost Town LLC to structure a plan to try and pay back creditors, and protect the company from potential lawsuits in the process.

Sluggish ticket sales last season due to surging gas prices, coupled with the high costs of rehabilitating the park’s 48-year-old infrastructure, dealt a serious blow to Ghost Town’s anticipated revenues and debts mounted.

Nearly half a million dollars in liens have been filed against Ghost Town for unpaid services, including construction of the incline railway that takes visitors up the mountain, engineering services, equipment rental, and parts for the Cliffhanger roller coaster. The company owes money to multiple other vendors, according to the bankruptcy filing, and has an estimated debt load of $2.5 million, according to Ghost Town General Manager Steve Shiver.

Shiver said the company tried every avenue to secure a loan, but the current lending environment made it impossible.

“We were on the cusp of making this thing work, and then the credit markets absolutely fell apart,” said Shiver.

The company approached lender after lender, to no avail. The partners poured almost $4 million of their own money into the park, according to Shiver.

They even held state sales tax money garnered from sales of tickets and merchandise, which should have gone straight to state coffers. A document from the state Department of Revenue filed Dec. 19 of last year reveals that Ghost Town owes the state $97,739.82 in back sales taxes.

“They obviously had cash flow issues, and were using the (sales tax) money for cash flow purposes,” said Lee Shelton, a financial expert who resides in Maggie Valley.

In a last-ditch effort, Ghost Town partners were working to secure a high-interest “mezzanine loan,” just before the decision was made to file for bankruptcy, said Shiver.

“The credit markets collapsed and forced us to look at alternative lending,” Shiver said.

Mezzanine loans demand as much as 20 to 30 percent interest.

“Mezzanine financing is usually a lender of last resort, because you can’t raise any more capital and can’t find anyone else to provide conventional lending,” said Shelton.

But at the last minute, the deal fell through, said Shiver.

Bankruptcy “was an action of absolute last resort,” he said.

“We put a lot of money into repairing the park,” Shiver said. “The alternative is to close the doors and sell it for the real estate. It will bring pennies on the dollar in a forced sale.”

For Ghost Town to get back on its feet, two things have to happen — increased visitation and securing a loan to pay off its debts. No one knows for certain if either is going to happen.

Shiver expressed remorse for the situation the park is in.

“I am so, so sorry that we are in this position to owe local vendors and national vendors,” he said. “We don’t like this. I feel for all the small businesses affected by this.”


The Ghost Town lifeline

Small business is the livelihood of Maggie Valley, and Ghost Town’s impact on the many shops, hotels and restaurants in the area is far-reaching.

“We’re all in shock. We’re not happy to hear it,” said Mike Nelson, owner of Abbey Inn in Maggie Valley. “Ghost Town is very, very important.”

Nelson said the park is what defines Maggie Valley, and is still the top attraction – more so than other nearby features, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“They come for Ghost Town,” Nelson said. “That’s what put Maggie’s name on the map.”

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy observed a drop of 30 to 40 percent in local business during the five years Ghost Town was closed. Visitor numbers since the park re-opened don’t rival what they once were, but the 130,000 people the park attracted last year — according to Shiver — is a far cry better than none at all.

“The point is that 50 percent of those people were from out of state, and most likely stayed overnight in the area,” McElroy said.

Ghost Town not only draws tourists, it creates jobs for locals. The park itself has a $2 million payroll and employs around 200 people in peak season, albeit some part-time; the tourists it draws also create 100 to 200 jobs in the hotel, restaurant and shopping industries.

“There are a lot of folks that are not going to have jobs if this park is not successful, and there’s a lot of money that will not filter through the community,” said Shiver.


Key to success

Ghost Town partners plan to open the park May 15 and are banking on drawing 150,000 visitors this season despite the economic recession.

Critical to the park’s success will be its ability to get two of its biggest rides – the incline railway and Cliffhanger Rollercoaster — working.

Along with high gas prices, the failure to get those rides working since Ghost Town re-opened may have contributed to the dip in visitation during the park’s second season.

“The numbers I heard around town were that in 2007, things were up very nicely since Ghost Town was back, even though they had their problems,” Nelson said. “And in 2008, it definitely slumped off, primarily because Ghost Town did not achieve the numbers it needed.”

Indeed, the Maggie Valley Visitors Center saw the number of visitors increase by 40 percent the year the park re-opened. But in the park’s second season after re-opening, a study conducted by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority found no significant increase in the number of children visiting the county.

Getting the Cliffhanger Rollercoaster inspected by the state has been a major obstacle. The company Ghost Town hired to build the roller coaster train had never built one before, and the design lacked the necessary tests, which slowed the process.

Ghost Town now has just one more test to perform before it can open the Cliffhanger, said Shiver, which the partners were not expecting.

“The thrill and excitement of our roller coaster is that it’s got a loop, but no over the shoulder harness,” Shiver said. “The N.C. Department of Labor wanted to see some tests on the restraints, and that’s what we were getting ready to do.”

When The Smoky Mountain News interviewed Shiver in November of last year, he said the park had completed 400 test runs of the new coaster and sent the results of those to state officials. It’s unclear why more tests have been required.

Attempts to secure the necessary money to run the tests, however, were unsuccessful.

The incline railway is another story.

“That’s got some hurdles,” Shiver said. “It’s close as well. We replaced the track, but we’re in discussion with the vendor. We’re actually in court with the vendor.”

The vendor, Industrial Service Group of Georgia, has filed a lien against Ghost Town in the amount of $407,910. Shiver refuses to discuss the case.

The amount of money Ghost Town investors have spent to rehab old park structures and bring them up to safety code has been a big financial drain.

“This group agreed to pay probably more than it was worth,” McElroy said of the park. “They had to do a tremendous amount of work they didn’t anticipate.”

Shelton wonders if the investors opened the park prematurely.

“There wasn’t competition to buy the place, so it wasn’t like you had to be in a rush,” he said. “They could have taken their time and probably could have brought in the state inspectors and said, take a look at this.”

In a press release, Ghost Town officials said they will make opening the rides a priority, and hope that doing so will increase visitor numbers.

“Once The Cliffhanger Rollercoaster...is open, Ghost Town will appeal to a broader audience, including thrill-seekers, teenagers and pre-teens,” the press release stated.

It added: “By completing the Incline Railway, Ghost Town will save a significant amount of money on bus transportation and will attract more school groups who, in the 2007 and 2008 season, had to be bussed to the top of the mountain where the Theme Park is located.”


Outpouring of support

Right now, Ghost Town is, “working with the courts through our attorneys and our creditors to come up with a real plan that will be acceptable and approved by the court,” Shiver said.

The partners continue to search for financing.

“We’re working with several potential sources for post-petition financing, and that’s ongoing,” said Shiver. “They are companies that specialize in this kind of financing, and there are banks involved as well.”

Shiver said the May 15 opening date, while hopeful, is still tentative.

“We are shooting for that, but of course, it all depends on our ability to restructure and finance,” he said.

The community has shown an outpouring of support for the embattled park.

“I’m just humbled by the support and phone calls that I’m getting,” said Shiver. “It’s been overwhelming, and I’m so grateful and thankful to the people of Maggie Valley.”

The community is doing what it can to help. Maggie Valley’s Tourism Development Subcommittee, which gets funding from the county’s room tax, has agreed to give Ghost Town some of its money for advertising. Local leaders have also reached out to state officials.

“We’ve talked to our legislators and hope that we can work with them and express to them how bad it’s going to hurt if Ghost Town fails,” said McElroy. “Hopefully they can come through with some help.”

“We’ve got to get the word out to the judge that we the community want it to stay alive,” said Nelson.

Shiver wants to get the ball rolling, and put Ghost Town back on the path to success.

“There have been many sleepless nights,” he said. “I’m just anxious to get it done for the community, and for our creditors and investors.”

Ghost Town’s economic ripple has hopes high

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It appears that the re-opening of Ghost Town in the Sky on Memorial Day weekend has made the town of Maggie Valley anything but.

A new park opens

“Ghost Town is one of the biggest things that has happened to the western end of North Carolina in many a day. It has proven a giant boost to the economy of a people long hampered by a natural terrain that made farming mostly impractical and by transportation problems that, until lately, didn’t allow much influx of big industry.

Sky-high hopes: Maggie Valley’s theme park destination looks to the future with an eye on the past

After they opened Joey’s Pancake House in 1966, Brenda O’Keefe and her late husband would calculate how much pancake batter they’d need based on the number of cars they saw at local hotels on their way to work.

Brenda and Joey O’Keefe ended up mixing a lot of batter. As they drove U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley, most mornings along the town’s main drag revealed full parking lots and no-vacancy signs. Year after year, families flocked in to visit Ghost Town in the Sky. Business owners here were living the good life, sharing in the economic success of the western theme park’s four-decade reign as one of the Southeast’s top family destinations.

“It was incredible,” O’Keefe said. “I can remember, on great big days, when there were 10,000 people at Ghost Town. And, even on average days, there were about 5,000.”

Thanks to a strong local following and stellar reputation as an eatery, Joey’s Pancake House remained a hopping enterprise. But that’s at odds with what many in Maggie Valley experienced. Business owners watched the balloon deflate as Ghost Town declined, then burst when the theme park closed permanently in 2003.

“The economy dropped 50 to 60 percent, and nothing has brought that back,” O’Keefe said. “That was the impact.”


The interim years

Down the road at Maggie Mountaineer Crafts, visitors can find homemade fudge, hand-painted saws and stuffed black bears. This is a craft and gift shop that has stayed true to its 50-year-old roots, a place serving up slices of whimsical Appalachia to satisfy the cravings of many who visit Maggie Valley.

In a plush office filled with collectible historical items at the back of the store, owner Brad Pendley sorts through Ghost Town memorabilia. His father, Austin Pendley, once served as general manager for the theme park.

Pendley doesn’t underestimate the importance of Ghost Town’s reopening, but he also believes the town made a comeback after the theme park closed.

“Ghost Town won’t make or break Maggie because we’ve already done without it,” he said. “But if Ghost Town does do well, it’s really going to help us out.”

After the theme park closed, the town launched into a rocky metamorphosis, painfully — and sometimes divisively — transforming itself from tourist destination to resort community.

Second-home owners moved in at an ever-greater pace, vacationers took advantage of the many cabins for rent and the well heeled settled in at Maggie Valley Country Club, which undertook costly renovations and added upscale condominiums. It’s now known as the Maggie Valley Club.

“We had to regroup after Ghost Town left,” Pendley said. “Maggie really came back with a renewed spirit, that we could make it without Ghost Town. Now Ghost Town has been hyped up so much that if it doesn’t succeed, it’ll hurt us more than if it had never come.”


Optimism abounds

Pendley and others, however, believe that a successful Ghost Town could fill one big hole marring the fabric of a newly rebuilt Maggie Valley – the theme park can serve as the missing family attraction and get parents, grandparents and kids to visit here again.

“That’s been the biggest complaint,” Pendley said: ‘“What can our children do?’”

Manager Joyce Patel of the 21-room Scottish Inn agreed. During her 15 years at the hotel, located along U.S. 19, she’s seen occupancy remain stable on weekends but decline during the week. That happened because families quit coming to Maggie Valley, she said.

“There’s not much to do around here for the kids,” Patel said. “We’re hoping the parents and kids come back this year.”

Multigenerational travel is the buzz in tourism circles, and the prospect that Maggie Valley could soon enjoy the sight of cars packed with parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, or better yet, grandparents, parents and children, clearly delights Lynn Collins.

Now executive director of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, Collins is no stranger to the economic magic of a successful theme park. She once worked at Ghost Town in marketing and public relations. Collins hopes that the renewal of Ghost Town will help Maggie Valley succeed in becoming a complete, year-round destination.

“We don’t have many gaps,” she said.

As winter sports become more popular in Western North Carolina, Maggie Valley has positioned itself to benefit with the addition of snow tubing and a snowmobile park to its traditional mainstay, Cataloochee Ski Resort.

Nature-based tourism is also important to Maggie Valley’s economic base, Collins said, with hikers and waterfall-lookers now joined by throngs of people eager to see elk, recently reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The chamber leader also pointed to the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds and Wheels Through Time Museum, which has exhibits of motorcycles and motorcycle memorabilia, as underpinning the post-Ghost Town Maggie Valley.

Add Ghost Town to that mix, Collins said, and the once bleak economic future of Maggie Valley suddenly looks bright indeed.


Saving Ghost Town

At least four possible buyers for Ghost Town surfaced in the years after the park closed. Finally, in late 2005, three investors announced they were buying the park and 250 acres.

Al Harper, owner of American Heritage Railways, which operates the Bryson City-headquartered Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, teamed up with Hank Woodburn, owner of nine amusement attractions in four states, and Pete Hairston, an independent venture capitalist. The men formed two corporations to oversee the deal: American Heritage Entertainment and Ghost Town Partners.

Ressurecting the Ghost of Maggie past

Bob Cordier likes a challenge.

So, when the 25-year veteran of the amusement park industry decided he was bored with building houses and was ready to get back into the business, Ghost Town in the Sky seemed a natural fit.

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