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.

Maggie Valley unveils new land-use plan

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

After months of rigorous planning sessions, Maggie Valley town officials are finally ready to reveal to the public a new land-use plan they hope will help the town deal with anticipated growth.

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.

Ushering in a new era in Maggie Valley

A whole lot of residents and business owners are excited — and that’s putting it mildly — about Ghost Town’s May 25 re-opening. It’s probably the most anticipated business event in years in Haywood County, and there’s good reason to believe that the additional tourist traffic will have a positive economic impact on the entire region.

Ghost Town has a deluge of job applicants

When Ghost Town in the Sky recently held auditions to fill its entertainment needs, about 40 potential cowboys competed for 10 available slots.

Ghost Town deal with state should expedite May opening

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

The owner of Ghost Town in the Sky and the North Carolina Department of Labor have signed a unique agreement that aims to ensure that the historic Maggie Valley amusement park opens on time.

TDA has equal parts Maggie Valley, Waynesville

The Haywood County Board of Commissioners have appointed two new members to the Tourism Development Authority board: Deborah Reed, a leader of the Canton merchant’s association FOCUS, and Art O’Neil, owner of Sunset Inn, Sunset Bakery and Sunset Café at Lake Junaluska, and Sunset on Main restaurant in downtown Waynesville.

More questions raised in Maggie land deal

New developments have emerged involving the the purchase of a small piece of land in Maggie Valley by the town for a park.

Alderman Phil Aldridge made $6,500 in commission for acting as the town’s real estate agent in the deal. In general, it is considered a conflict of interest for a public official to profit off a contract with the body they serve. A little-known exception applies to towns with a population under 15,000, which Aldridge was able to utilize.

But Aldridge may have crossed the line when he spoke in favor of buying the land during the town board’s deliberations.

According to state law, a public official using the 15,000 loophole to do business with the body they serve cannot “deliberate or vote on the contract or attempt to influence any other person” involved in the vote or “participate in any way.”

The town board held a special meeting to talk about whether to buy the land last October. According to the minutes from that meeting, Aldridge left the room when the rest of the board discussed whether the town could and should hire him to act as their real estate agent. When Aldridge came back in to the room, he shared his opinion about buying the property.

“Alderman Aldridge stated that he was reluctant to purchase the property at first because he had concerns about the effect it would have on the taxpayers and the improvements to the festival grounds. After further consideration, Alderman Aldridge realized that this could be the last time the Town has the opportunity to purchase land adjacent to Jonathan Creek for a public park,” according to the minutes.

The board had not yet voted, and it is unclear whether those statements qualify Aldridge as participating in the deliberations, which is barred by law.


Making use of the loophole

Some have questioned whether it was appropriate for Aldridge to take advantage of the 15,000 loophole in the first place. The small-town provision is intended for a scenario when an elected official owns the only business in town that provides a needed service, and it would pose a major inconvience for the town to seek that service from outside the area.

Every town west of Asheville could technically utilize the loophole, but most elected or appointed officials don’t. Just recently, Sam McCrary, who serves on the Maggie ABC board, acted as the town’s real estate agent in the purchase of land for a new ABC store. In that scenario, McCrary did not accept commission from the deal.

“No, absolutely not,” McCrary said. McCrary said he did not take commission “because of a conflict of interest from serving on the ABC board.”

In the town board’s eyes, however, Aldridge was a logical choice. The town needed someone who could act quickly since another offer for the property was pending.

“Alderman (Mark) DeMeola felt that Alderman Aldridge could represent the Town if he is removed from all aspects of any action decided. Alderman (Saralyn) Price agreed, adding that it would be difficult to select a realtor from all the realtors within the Maggie Valley area,” the minutes from the meeting read.

The board made a point of noting that Aldridge’s commission would come out of the selling price, and wouldn’t really cost the town anything extra. Wording to that effect was included in the town’s resolution to buy the property.

But it’s not exactly accurate, according to Joann Lyons, a Realtor with Maggie Valley Properties. If Aldridge had left his portion of the commission on the table, it would have reduced the selling price and saved the town money. Lyons said there are several Realtors in Maggie Valley who would have done the transaction for the town pro bono.

“Upon my brokers approval I would have been more than happy to have helped them and not charged the town anything,” Lyons said. “Several of us would have been happy to do that for the town. We pay town taxes so we would have been happy to save the town the money.”


How did the town find out?

Another recent development in the story comes from a would-be buyer of the same property who was preempted by the town with a slightly higher offer. Mike Gaddis, a developer from Maryville, said the sellers had verbally accepted his offer of $125,000. The paperwork had been faxed to the sellers and was expected to be returned within a couple of days, Gaddis said.

In the meantime, the Maggie town board found out the sellers were considering an offer of $125,000. They called a special meeting, hired Aldridge as their real estate agent and told him to make the sellers an offer of $130,000. The town had the property under contract the next day.

“I was very upset,” Gaddis said. “It is kind of bizarre how they knew what I was offering for it. That is supposed to be confidential.”

Tim Barth, the Maggie Valley town manager, said the town’s timing was just a lucky coincidence on their part. Barth said the town learned through casual conversation that the sellers were considering an offer of $125,000 — much less than the initial asking price — and called a special meeting to discuss it.

“We decided if somebody had made an offer of $125,000 and it was seriously being considered that we might be interested,” Barth said. “We didn’t know if there was a sale pending or how close the sale was.” Barth said he can’t remember who told the town about the $125,000 offer on the table.

On another front, Gaddis said his intentions for the property were misunderstood. In a memo to the town board, Barth wrote: “If the town does not buy the property there is no guarantee what might get built on the property. There has been mention of a 27-foot-tall ice cream cone shaped structure being built on the property and that they would sell ice-cream out of it.”

Gaddis said they had the wrong guy.

“I’ve never been in the ice-cream business and don’t want to be in the ice-cream business,” Gaddis said.

Gaddis said he planned to build a professional office on the property and had already had engineers look at it.

Apparently another potential buyer interested in the property several months earlier had broached the idea of an ice-cream stand, but never made a real offer and was unconnected with Gaddis.

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