Engineers still honing plan to stabilize remnants of Maggie landslide

Once repair work is complete, a precarious Maggie Valley mountainside destabilized by a major mudslide will be returned to its natural state.

The hard part will be getting to that point.

Last Wednesday, anxious residents downslope of the slide along with town leaders gathered to hear the plan of attack. Three engineers from McGill Associates and Bunnell-Lammons presented their preliminary reports, which recommend methods for both stabilizing the slope and restoring a displaced stream to its original path.

The top of the mountain was leveled more than 40 years ago to make way for Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park. Unwanted dirt was pushed over the side of the mountain in the process.

Engineers want to remove that fill soil and re-grade the slope to its natural state, peeling back the layers until they reach the contour of the original mountainside.

For now, it is unclear how exactly contractors will go about their work without setting off another slide, however. Town Manager Tim Barth said he is not sure who would be liable if another slide were to occur.

Without repair, however, a slide of the same or even greater magnitude than the last one could occur, according to Bunnell-Lammon, which is in charge of the slope stabilization part.

The state geologist earlier said up to 16,000 tons of loose material threatens the mountainside. Homes below have been left endangered ever since February’s slide, which left a 3,000 feet wake of destruction down the mountainside.

In engineering terms, a “factor of safety” of 1.0 or less indicates an “impending or active slope failure.” The upper portion of the slope now has a factor of safety of 0.6. Bunnell-Lammons recommends a minimum a factor of safety of 1.3, but preferably 1.5.

While the “how” of the plan is still being formulated, one thing is clear, use of major equipment will be minimal.

“Some of those jobs, it’s shovels and wheelbarrows,” said J.P. Johns, an engineer with McGill.

“This is not going to be a scenario where we get large pieces of equipment up there working around,” said Randy Hintz, project manager with McGill. “This is more likely going to be a situation where we have bobcats (small graders) and mini-excavators up there working.”

Red tape

The primary source of funding for the approximately $1.4 million project will come from a federal grant, while N.C. Department of Transportation will fund much of the rest. Meanwhile, Ghost Town and the Town of Maggie Valley say they will contribute $25,000 each.

All work will be supervised by qualified field specialists, who will be on site to approve even the most minor changes to the official plan. Contractors must be certified by the DOT and demonstrate a minimum of three similar jobs completed successfully.

Barth says he is hopeful it will take no longer than two to three months for the work to be completed once it begins.

McGill is waiting to receive necessary permits before it can hire a contractor to start work. The firm anticipates that a permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources could take up to 30 days.

Even after that, the DOT will require engineers to put the job out to bid for a minimum of 21 days.

That announcement left the crowd stunned at Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s ridiculous,” someone whispered.

“Is there no way to expedite the 51 days you were talking about?” asked Mayor Roger McElroy. “That seems to me like an unreasonable time.”

Hintz responded that since North Carolina has not declared a state of emergency — like the town of Maggie Valley and Haywood County did in February — his firm has little choice but to follow the normal protocol for publicly-funded jobs.

“In order to get the state funds to participate in this project, it must go through all the same channels,” said Hintz, while reassuring residents that the project has moved forward since February. “We’ve accomplished an awful lot at this point.”

Resident Kurt Biedler asked specifically if debris would be removed from his house, one of the five worst damaged by the slide.

“I mean these are things that are very important to me right now: trees, rocks, guardrails, timber,” said Biedler, who has moved to Arden for now.

Hintz said he would have to check with the funding agency before he could answer. “We have been given a very narrow focus on the types of things we can spend this money on,” said Hintz.

As part of the stabilization process, a road on Ghost Town’s property that sits on top of the fill dirt will be dismantled. The road is key to getting from one part of the amusement park to another. It will not be rebuilt by contractors working on the project.

According to Bunnell-Lammons, it appears the landslide started at Ghost Town’ retaining wall, where the fill soil placed with the MSE walls met underlying residual soil. Those MSE walls will be removed as part of the repair process.

Bunnell-Lammons stated in its report that it had been specifically directed not to determine the cause of the slide or evaluate the parties responsible for the slide.

“Our scope of work is how to immediately repair it,” said Will Gentry, a Bunnell-Lammons engineer. “We have not gone into why did it fail and how did it fail.”

Creek restoration

Meanwhile, mud, downed trees, and other debris have stopped up culverts where the creek crossed Rich Cove Road three times on its way down the mountain. The landslide also created a wide, long swath now prone to erosion.

To restore the stream, McGill’s plan recommends removing mud, downed trees, and other debris from three culvert crossings along Rich Cove Road. Currently, the blocked up culverts are forcing the stream to divert from its natural path.

Contractors will work upstream to downstream in the upper section, then downstream to upstream in the lower portion in order to work “dry.”

The removed trees would be ground up into wood mulch, which will be spread out on the mountain slope. This will minimize how much material contractors have to deliver up the steep slope.

“We’re going to try to limit the hauling out and the hauling in,” said Johns.

“Speed bumps,” made of mulch will be installed to slow down water as it flows down the slope.

Vegetation will be re-established with native species as much as possible, though a true restoration will be difficult to accomplish with the limited funding that’s available.

The first priority, however, will be to address the unstable slope at the top of the mountain.

“We don’t want to do any work down below until we get the top stabilized,” said J.P. Johns, an engineer with McGill.

Ghost Town owner Harper daunted but not deterred

As Al Harper watched the national recession undermine ticket sales at Ghost Town amusement park over the past two years, he faced a tough choice: pump more money into the faltering theme park or throw in the towel?

Walking away would mean losing the millions he already invested. But investing more could mean throwing good money after bad, with no hope of recouping any of it at the end of the day.

Harper ultimately drew his inspiration from a favorite historical visionary.

“It is kind of fun to do the impossible,” Harper said, quoting the words of Walt Disney, which are inscribed on a plaque he keeps on his desk.

Harper, the 65-year-old owner of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and scenic rail lines in Colorado and Texas, wants to revive the bankrupt and beleaguered Maggie Valley theme park.

Harper has been a major backer of Ghost Town since 2006, but he shared ownership with other partners and investors. Under Harper’s rescue plan, he will pay off $7 million of the park’s $13 million in debt — and emerge as the sole owner of the park in exchange.

The host of other investors will be cut out and their equity in the park simply evaporate.

“I have lost a lot of money. You have no idea,” said Steve Nichols, an investor from Orlando. “It totally ruined my life.”

Harper will also walk away from more than $5 million in back debt — including hundreds of thousands owed to local businesses, from electricians and plumbers to gas companies and media outlets — which will be wiped away by the bankruptcy court.

Despite the financial carnage in its wake, Ghost Town would avoid the uncertain fate of foreclosure and emerge from bankruptcy with a leader at the helm determined to resurrect the Old West theme park.

“I believe if there is anybody that can pull it off and can keep it as a theme park it is me,” Harper said.

To fund the deal, Harper has lined up a loan with an offshore lender. He said he is “90 percent positive” the loan will come through, hopefully by early June. The Greek financial crisis has come at a bad time, however, and Harper hopes it doesn’t make the lenders nervous.

Harper is putting up the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad as collateral, pledging 100 percent of the railroad’s ownership in exchange for a $15 million loan.

“I am gambling my railroad,” Harper said.

Half the money would be used to buy the park out of bankruptcy, and the other half would sustain operations and bankroll improvements to the park until it begins turning a profit. Harper has built in losses for the first three years, though he hopes to turn it around quicker.

The plan has been approved by the bankruptcy court. All the deal waits on now is the loan to close.

When Ghost Town was put up for sale several years ago, Harper was courted by tourism leaders in the region. Harper originally hoped to be a silent partner with a limited investment.

But the other two partners were unable to raise the cash they promised, and Harper was being pressured to put up more money, he said.

“Right at the beginning they were $2 million short. They said ‘Would you co-sign with us?’” Harper said.

The pattern continued over the next two years as the park struggled to get off the ground and stay afloat.

“I didn’t want to lose the $2 million, so I put in more,” Harper said.

Similar cash calls went out to all the shareholders and investors, but Harper’s deeper pockets left him as the last man standing when the need arose to pitch in more, he said.

Harper ultimately found himself in for more than $4.5 million in loan guarantees — which he is now on the hook for if the park goes under. It’s partly what motivated his plan to buy the park out of bankruptcy.

“Here are my choices. I can forget Ghost Town and write a check for $4.5 million and never look back. Or I can go in and try in this crazy economy to buy Ghost Town,” Harper said. “The easy way out is to walk.

“But this is a lot deeper than that,” said Harper. “My name got attached to it.”

A lot to lose

Several Maggie business leaders are among the ranks of those who will lose shares in the park, but those interviewed for an article last week don’t see their investments as being for naught. As long as Ghost Town continues to operate and bring in tourists, they believe their contribution helped the greater community, even if they personally have nothing to show for it.

A handful of investors from out of state who put up capital for the park’s purchase in 2006 are not feeling so rosy by what they see as an end-run by Harper. But they are helpless to do anything about it.

“I don’t think there is anything I can do other than write it off as a bad investment,” said Court Huish, an investor from California. “That’s just business.”

Jeff Anderson, an investor from Florida, will lose a substantial six-figure investment.

“I am not happy with what has transpired, but it is what it is. The bankruptcy court is the bankruptcy court,” Anderson said.

Nichols not only stands to lose his six-figure investment as a shareholder, but he is also on the hook for a portion of the park’s mortgage, a portion of which he personally guaranteed.

Ghost Town took out a loan of $9.5 million with BB&T in 2006. Harper’s deal will only pay off $7 million — leaving BB&T short by $2.5 million. Naturally, BB&T is coming after Nichols to make good on the portion he signed a personal guarantee for. Nichols wouldn’t say for just how much.

“The nail is in the coffin. They may as well throw the dirt on,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the owners kept returning to investors asking them to put up more to keep the park afloat, but he didn’t have any more.

“It’s not that we don’t care,” Nichols said. “I think Ghost Town is a wonderful place, but if you haven’t got the money you haven’t got the money.”

Besides, the shareholders weren’t given a say in park operations, like the large amount of the money spent on upgrades the first two years after reopening. The 1960s-era amusement park was plagued by crumbling infrastructure, from a jury-rigged electrical system to malfunctioning rides. Putting the park in order required a “big capital burn” and dug a hole it couldn’t emerge from, Nichols said.

“I think they tried to fix too many things too fast instead of little by little,” Nichols said.

Anderson agreed, to a point.

“To suggest the sole reason for the failure of the park to perform was because of the capital over-expenditure is ridiculous. As with everything that fails, there is not one reason, there is multiple,” Anderson said.

Nichols said the park has the potential to make money, but luring visitors was ultimately the main challenge.

“If you don’t have enough people coming, what are you going to do? It’s Business 101,” Nichols said.

Particularly in the days of Six Flags, Busch Gardens and Carowinds.

“That stuff wasn’t there back in the 1970s,” Nichols said.

Harper estimates it will take 150,000 visitors a year to make the park profitable. It brought in just 71,000 last year while suffering from the negative publicity of bankruptcy and spending no money on advertising.

As a sole owner, Harper said he will have the control he needs to make the park work — control he didn’t have under the old entity. Harper points to his success with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, even during the recession.

“My worst year ever I put 150,000 people on a train,” Harper said. Harper plans to cross-market with the railroad to send visitors Ghost Town’s way. He will also combine functions like payroll, accounting and ticket sales, saving hundreds of thousands, he said.

Huish, Nichols and Anderson say they were not properly kept apprised of unfolding events, like Harper’s bid to buy the park.

All three were all brought to the table as investors by Hank Woodburn, one of the lead buyers in 2006. Woodburn comes from the amusement industry, operating a network of 10 fun parks with water parks, mini golf, laser tag, go-carts and the like under the company Adventure Landing. Woodburn also recruited Harper to the deal.

Woodburn, who will lose substantially in the deal, did not return messages.

Moving on

Harper doesn’t see his deal as ruthless. The alternative was foreclosure, and under that scenario, the investors would likewise lose all their money and the small businesses still would go unpaid. Under Harper’s plan, at least Ghost Town has a shot at staying an amusement park.

Harper could theoretically use part of the $15 million loan he is taking out to pay back those left holding the bag. But divesting the park of its old debt is key to Harper’s business plan.

“I can’t pay for all the mistakes that happened in the past,” Harper said. “It is a tragedy that it ended up like it ended up.”

Harper said he is not exactly a winner in whole deal. He’s taking on a major new venture at the age of 65 — a defensive but risky strategy to protect the investment he already sunk into the park. In addition to the $7 million Harper will pay for the BB&T bank mortgage, he is on the hook for $2 million on an outside loan to fund improvements at the park that he co-signed for — which must be paid separately.

“I could take the approach I was a victim. But the world is full of victims,” Harper said. “I made mistakes, so I am going to correct them. I am going to make this thing work. We have got to move forward and get this past behind us.”

Getting the park open

A deal to bail Ghost Town out of bankruptcy court is contingent on a loan from an offshore lender.

If it goes through, the park could be open by the beginning of July, according to Ghost Town’s CEO Steve Shiver. Shiver told a group of business owners last week that there is a lot to do to get the park open for the season. Once the loan comes through, work can begin.

Workers must be hired and trained to run the park, but the biggest challenge will be getting the grounds, rides and facilities ready. Shiver laid out a long list of needed repairs, including replacing water pipes that froze and broke over the winter and two broken water pumps that move water around the mountaintop. Winter even took its toll on the rides, some of which need retrofitting now, Shiver said. The major rollercoaster, which opened only for a short time last season, has inspection hurdles to pass once more.

One issue to contend with will be nearly $400,000 in debt from 2009. The long list includes paying off at least $30,000 in utility bills from 2009 to get water and power restored.

It is also unclear whether the park could reopen until the mountainside below, which was destabilized by a mudslide, is shored up.

Ghost Town saga reaches deeper into WNC

Western North Carolina is a patchwork of small communities, close-knit groups operating independently to make their own town or area thrive. Whether it’s in the Nantahala Gorge, up the plateau in Cashiers or in downtown Canton, there are real people busting their butts each day who hold the well-being of their own “neighborhood” as a sort of higher calling. Personal success is intimately linked to the success of the community.

The latest — and in all likelihood, the final — effort to salvage the Ghost Town theme park that helped transform Maggie Valley into a unique kind of tourist town is a story that stretches across the mountains into several of these small communities. How this story finally unfolds will help define the future for those who call these places home.

Because our communities are small, those with lots of money have lots of power, the “big fish in a small pond” scenario. Al Harper, a successful entrepreneur whose holdings include the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, is one of these folks.

According to a story in this week’s Smoky Mountain News (page 6), Harper is close to securing a loan for $15 million. He plans to use about half the money to pay off a portion of the theme park’s $13 million in debt. A bankruptcy court has decided the rest of the debt will be wiped away, leaving about 200 businesses large and small to write off what in some cases is a substantial debt (in the interest of full disclosure, the theme park owed some money to this newspaper for advertising costs that will never be collected).

That decision also leaves many investors, some local and some from far away, with huge losses. Those running the park since its re-opening in 2006 have cost a lot of people a lot of money.

It’s the little guys in the small towns that make this story interesting. Among those is Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan. He cashed out $200,000 in his 401K to invest in Ghost Town. He’s lost every penny.

“If I was ever going to give up on something, this would have been it. But I refuse to quit, I refuse to lose. I believe too much in it,” said Bryan.

Maggie Valley resident Alaska Pressley also invested substantially in the park.

“Any price is worth it to help this area,” she told a reporter last week.

There is that community spirit, that willingness to risk a life’s work for a community and — if it had worked out — some financial reward.

This Ghost Town tale is now part of the story of Bryson City. In order to get the loan, Harper is putting up his railroad as collateral. That means if the park does indeed go belly up, which many believe it will, a portion of Bryson City’s tourism lifeblood may disappear with it. In its worst year, Harper says the railroad attracts 150,000 customers. That’s a lot of people spending money in a lot of stores and restaurants in Bryson City. Those people disapper, and Bryson is City hurts.

We haven’t had the opportunity to interview business leaders in Bryson City about this new scenario, about how their future is now directly tied to Maggie Valley and Ghost Town. I suspect those who have dedicated their lives to Bryson will be there, willing to step up and fill the void if the need arises.

Tourism is a unique business. It’s not high-speed fiber-optic stuff, it’s not about connectivity or e-commerce. Sure, marketing these properties will rely on some of that. But when it comes down to it, it’s about selling an experience. Harper’s business model at the railroad and, we suspect, at Ghost Town is about creating memories, tugging at the nostalgic fiber that runs through all of us.

I’m certainly no judge of his chances for success, but I will bet on the resiliency of these communities regardless of whether this final gamble pays off.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Ghost Town liability insurance lapsed prior to Feb. 5 mudslide

Ghost Town in the Sky failed to make timely payments on its liability insurance policy, and as a result it lapsed just days before a massive mudslide originating from the theme park wreaked havoc on the mountainside below.

Now, property owners downhill of the mudslide whose homes were damaged may have no recourse to pay for repairs to their homes.

It is unwelcome news, although not surprising, to Kurt Biedler, a homeowner in the path of the slide whose home is now unlivable.

“We are victims of shabby business,” Biedler said. “Ghost Town is the Sky has effectively turned my life upside down and it is a very difficult thing for anyone to put with. It is not an easy thing knowing that a company, whether it is bankrupt or not, has been allowed to pull the shenanigans they have.”

Biedler and his wife have a mortgage on a house that has been destroyed. They say they are innocent victims with no clear or obvious path for recourse. But that isn’t going to stop Biedler from trying.

“We are still exploring our options of what we are going to do. There are always options,” Biedler said.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver and others knew almost a year before the mudslide that the mountain was unstable. Ghost Town hired an engineer to examine the slumping portion of the mountainside in early 2009. The report calls into question the structural integrity of a massive series of retaining walls holding back a section of the mountainside that had proved troublesome on and off for 30 years.

“The MSE wall is not functioning as intended at this time and structural failure of the wall is possible if not replaced,” the report by Haywood County engineer Pat Burgin states.

The report was made in March 2009. However, Ghost Town owners failed to alert anyone of the potential danger — not the town, county, emergency agencies or homeowners living below.

Insurance saga

Ghost Town was three months behind in liability insurance payments when a cancelation was issued on Jan. 28.

The mudslide happened on Feb. 5. Five days later, on Feb. 10, Ghost Town wired $27,400 to cover the past due bill. Insurance was reinstated, but it was too late to cover damages stemming from the mudslide, the insurance company contends.

The insurance company, First Mercury Insurance, has been contacted by three homeowners suffering damage in the mudslide, according to the company. But First Mercury says it will not cover the claims, citing a lapse of Ghost Town’s liability insurance policy at the time of the slide.

“Some homes were in the direct path of the landslide and certain homeowners appear to be pursuing claims against Ghost Town for damages,” an attorney for First Mercury wrote in a federal bankruptcy court filing. “First Mercury contends that it has no duty to defend or indemnify any claims that may arise from the landslide because the policy was cancelled prior to the landslide, and therefore does not afford any coverage.”

Homeowners could redirect their claims and lodge them against Ghost Town directly instead of the insurance company, but First Mercury admits in the court filing that route could be futile, stating there is “little to no likelihood of recovering anything from (Ghost Town) itself.”

Ghost Town has been in federal bankruptcy court for more than a year. This week, Ghost Town brokered a deal to sell the amusement park to one of its current owners, but under a new corporate entity — walking away from several million in debt in the process and starting over with a clean slate.

The former corporate entity of Ghost Town may cease to exist once the new corporate structure takes over. The new entity, while comprised of the same major player, may not be responsible for claims against the old corporate entity.

It’s the same principle that allows the amusement park to leave behind millions in unpaid debt while the primary owner remains at the helm.

First Mercury Insurance points out in its court filings that Ghost Town may not be liable for damage claims anyway. Lawsuits would have to hash out whether Ghost Town is at fault for the slide before the insurance company would have forked over damages under the policy, even if it was valid.

When The Smoky Mountain News first reported on Ghost Town’s insurance lapse two months ago, Ghost Town partners insisted their coverage had never lapsed. Failure to keep insurance current is a violation of bankruptcy rules.

Ghost Town has not filed a response to the court filing of First Mercury outlining issues with the insurance coverage.

$7 million investment rescues Ghost Town from bankruptcy

Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley will emerge from bankruptcy under a new corporate structure.

One of the current owners has agreed to put up $7 million to buy the park. It’s not nearly enough to cover the $13.5 million in debt the park has. The rest of the park’s debt will be wiped clean, allowing the new corporate entity to start over with a fresh slate free and clear of old debt.

The deal was approved by the federal bankruptcy court on Tuesday (May 5), saving the park from certain foreclosure.

The deal turns over ownership of the park to a new corporate entity called American Heritage Family Parks, which was formed less than a month ago by Al Harper, who incidentally is one of Ghost Town’s current owners and primary investors. Harper is also the principal owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City, and another excursion railroad in Durango, Colo.

Harper is one of three partners that chipped in to buy Ghost Town in 2006, but is the only one emerging with an ownership stake under the new entity. CEO Steve Shiver, who will remain at the helm as day-to-day operations manager, hopes the park will open for the season by July 1.

Shiver called a meeting of Maggie Valley business owners on Monday to share details of the plan and answer questions. He acknowledged that the outcome isn’t ideal but is the best option on the table.

“There are some of us in the room that if the plan is allowed to move forward would lose a substantial amount of money, but it would allow Ghost Town to open,” Shiver said. The deal was indeed approved the next day by the bankruptcy court.

The alternative was foreclosure, which was scheduled for the end of the month if Harper’s deal didn’t go through. Ghost Town would have been auctioned off to the highest bidder. Whether there were interested buyers waiting in the wings — particularly one willing to pay more than $7 million — will remain a mystery. But Ghost Town’s supporters feared no one else would be willing to keep operating it as an amusement park.

“I don’t see anybody else stepping forward,” said Randy Bryan, a Ghost Town employee and supporter.

Ghost Town faced a perfect storm that knocked it off its feet in 2008. The nation was beset by a recession, gas prices soared, and vacation travel plummeted.

Shiver estimates that the park needs 150,000 visitors a year to be profitable. But the park only had 129,000 visitors in 2008 and 71,000 in 2009, he said. The park lost money both years.

After a 40-year run, the park had been shut down for five years until new owners came along in 2006 to resurrect it.

But they discovered the infrastructure of the 1960s-era theme park was decrepit, requiring an unexpected and substantial burn of capital to make repairs and upgrades.

“We have done our damn best,” Shiver said of the park’s struggles. “It has been a challenge to say the least.”

Who loses

Those left holding the bag under the new deal are numerous, from local business owners owed money to mudslide victims — even town and federal taxpayers will cough up money due to Ghost Town’s failings.

First come the more than 200 businesses collectively owed more than $2.5 million who will never see their money. The list includes local plumbers, electricians, contractors, building suppliers, and vendors of everything from fuel oil to advertising.

“It is very difficult for me personally to look someone in the eye I owe money to,” Shiver said. “But we have to more forward and open the park. That is our vindication.”

Shiver said the businesses aren’t the only ones not getting paid.

“Nor do any of the investors, nor do any of the bondholders. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles in the bankruptcy world,” Shiver said.

Shiver said he’s one of the losers in that sense. While he will keep his job as CEO of the park, he will no longer have an ownership stake to show for the investment he’s made, Shiver said.

“I am wiped out like everybody else,” Shiver said. “I lose a substantial amount of money. I make no bones about it. Millions.”

While some of the businesses left out in the cold by the deal may harbor ill will, locals who invested their money in Ghost Town say they aren’t angry.

“You have never heard me say a word about losing the money,” Brenda O’Keefe told Shiver at the meeting. “I want the park open. I want the park open for Maggie Valley. The poor guy who gave his 401K, now that’s a different story.”

That guy, however — Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan — said he isn’t mad either. He cashed in his 401K of more than $200,000 to invest in the park — money that he will now lose. But Bryan said his satisfaction is to see the park keep going.

“If I was ever going to give up on something, this would have been it. But I refuse to quit. I refuse to lose,” Bryan said. “I believe too much in it.”

Alaska Pressley, another Maggie Valley resident who invested a substantial sum, said she has no ill will either. Her only desire is to see Maggie Valley prosper, and the way to prosperity is through Ghost Town’s survival, she said. Pressley said she was happy to contribute to that.

“Any price is worth it to help our area,” Pressley said.

Federal taxpayers could be left holding the bag on $2.5 million of Ghost Town’s bad debt still owed to BB&T but backed by a federal loan guarantee. Ghost Town owes BB&T $9.5 million on a mortgage dating back to 2006. But only $7 million will be paid off under the current deal with Harper. The U.S. Rural Development agency had backed a portion of the loan back in 2006. The loan guarantee was intended to convince BB&T to underwrite the purchase of Ghost Town, which was otherwise considered a risky loan to make.

The U.S. Rural Development staff that made the loan guarantee wouldn’t reveal the terms — namely how much federal taxpayers may have to cough up. Richard Tucker of the commercial credit department with BB&T would not say either, citing “financial privacy,” and adding that the loan guarantee was between BB&T and the Rural Devleopment office, despite the fact that the public would be the one paying up.

And then there’s the mudslide.

Taxpayers with the town of Maggie Valley will foot at least $25,000 of the bill for the clean up and stabilization, and possibly more if costs exceed initial estimates.

Homeowners downhill of the mudslide may also be without recourse for damage to their property. (see article above).

Who wins?

Business owners in Maggie Valley seem to be pleased with just about any scenario that means Ghost Town will remain an amusement park and hopefully open sometime this summer.

“It’s a great day for Maggie,” Mayor Roger McElroy said. “The only thing I feel sorry about is anybody who is going to lose any money in the deal.”

Ghost Town today is nothing like its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when more than 250,000 people a year funneled through Maggie Valley. But it is still a tour de force when it comes to filling motel rooms in the valley, according to Larry Debuke, owner of Tanglewood Motel for 14 years.

The county and town of Maggie Valley will also finally get their taxes. Ghost Town owes $65,000 in town and county property taxes from 2008, which will be paid when the deal goes through, and another $75,000 in property taxes from 2009, which is supposed to get paid as well.

Ghost Town charts course to walk away from debt

A primary owner of Ghost Town in the Sky wants to buy the amusement park out of bankruptcy. But there’s a catch.

The owner would walk away from more than $5 million in debt, yet continue to own the park — only this time under a new corporate name.

More than 200 businesses still owed money by Ghost Town would be left holding the bag, including local contractors and laborers who did work for the park and were never paid. Myriad Ghost Town supporters in Maggie Valley coughed up cash to help the amusement park get off the ground when it reopened. They were promised a stake in the company in exchange for their investment, but they, too, would be left with nothing.

Employees who were sent home at the end of last season still owed two weeks of pay may be out of luck as well under the deal.

The deal is merely a proposal and would have to pass muster with the bankruptcy court. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 4. Ghost Town has asked the court to approve the sale to the new entity.

The timing is no mistake. Foreclosure of the park is scheduled to begin May 31. The plan put forward would avoid a forced auction of the park on the courthouse steps.

The bankruptcy court could opt to let the auction go forward in order to determine if there are any other prospective buyers willing to pay more.

The deal

The 1960s-era theme park was once a cash cow for Maggie Valley, raking in tens of thousands of visitors each year.

But attendance declined throughout the 1990s and the park was eventually shuttered in 2002.

It was purchased by a trio of new owners in 2006, including Al Harper, the owner of Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City and other railroad tourism ventures, including the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad in Colorado.

Harper formed a new LCC just two weeks ago called American Heritage Family Parks — the entity that is now trying to purchase Ghost Town out of bankruptcy. The name of the new entity is similar to the umbrella corporation for his railroad ventures, American Heritage Railroad.

The LLC was just created by Harper on April 8, apparently for the express purpose of buying the park. The registered agent is Jon Schlegel, the former general manager of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. The address listed for the new LLC is the same as the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad headquarters in Bryson City.

The public face for Ghost Town for the past two years has been CEO Steve Shiver. It is unclear from court filings or incorporation papers what, if any, role he would have in the new park.

“It is an unfortunate situation for all of us,” Shiver wrote in an email. He directed further requests for comment to Harper. Harper did not immediately return phone calls or emails requesting comment.

When Harper bought the dated theme park in 2006, he got an aging facility that needed millions of dollars in costly repairs and modernization. Coupled with the economic downturn, the park lost money and after just two years of being open landed in bankruptcy a year ago. It owes a total of $13.5 million. CEO Steve Shiver pledged the park could regain its footing and become profitable again, eventually paying off what it owes and pulling out of bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy court requires a detailed plan spelling out exactly how a turnaround will be achieved. Shiver was unable to put together an acceptable plan.

BB&T, which holds more than $9.5 million in debt on the property, was given the green light to proceed with foreclosure. The park was slated to be auctioned off to the highest bidder as early as June.

The entity is offering to buy the park for $7.5 million, although Ghost Town has more than $13.5 million in debt.

BB&T would get $7 million and back taxes would be paid — and that’s about it. The plan calls for paying back $300,000 in select debt, though it doesn’t say to whom.

Financial filings show past due bills of more than $400,000 still lingering from last year — racked up on top of the debt Ghost Town carried with it into bankruptcy. Last year’s past due bills include everything from property taxes to utilities, which were cut off due to failure to pay at the end of the season.

Current owners had been trying to find financing to bail themselves out of bankruptcy and open the park for the summer season. Ghost Town is urging the court to quickly approve the sale to the new entity so that it can still try to open the park by summer.

However, Ghost Town is still plagued by unstable remnants of a landslide that makes the mountain unsafe, according to state geologists. Stabilization will not be completed by the start of summer.

Federal, state taxpayers to fund Maggie slide cleanup

Everything has fallen into place for a government-sponsored cleanup of the Rich Cove mudslide in Maggie Valley, an undertaking pegged at roughly $1.47 million.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed last week to foot 75 percent of the bill to stabilize the slide through the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which helps repair watersheds damaged by natural disasters.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has agreed to fund much of the remaining 25 percent local match since the slide affects a state-maintained road.

Maggie Valley’s town government has agreed to chip in $25,000 toward the local match, while Ghost Town in the Sky, a bankrupt amusement park where the slide originated, has volunteered $25,000 as well, but possibly in in-kind services rather than cash.

Town officials were driven by a sense of urgency to lock down funding for the cleanup since a large part of the mountainside remains unstable and threatens an even worse slide.

“I don’t think we have a choice but to do it,” said Maggie Valley Alderwoman Saralyn Price. “Because I feel like it’s a safety issue.”

At first, the town was at a loss for how it’d come up with the local match, which under current estimates comes to $334,000. Maggie Valley could hardly afford the whole amount by itself.

The town asked county leaders for help, but they balked at the idea of committing tax dollars to fix a slide that originated on private property — even though the property owner is in bankruptcy with a long trail of debt and was unable to pay up, either.

In the end, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire and N.C. Sen. Joe Sam Queen stepped in, teaming up to secure emergency funding from the N.C. DOT.

“We realize the dire circumstances those people who use Rich Cove Road were in,” said Haire. “I’m certainly glad Sen. Queen and I could do all we could to help out.”

Alderman Scott Pauley said Friday he was disappointed in the county board for not pitching in.

“We’ve got county residents and town residents that are losing sleep every night and haven’t slept since the slide,” said Pauley.

Pauley called the town’s contribution of $25,000 “a small, small cost to get this done.”

Town Manager Tim Barth said the town had to take action because it was unrealistic to expect Ghost Town to foot the bill.

“The reality is Ghost Town is in bankruptcy,” said Barth. “I know that they don’t have $334,500, so there’s no point in forcing them to pay because they won’t.”

However, Barth and Pauley have not ruled out the possibility of suing Ghost Town to be reimbursed. For now, Pauley said the focus is on getting the cleanup going.

“Anything after that is going to have to be for a later date,” said Pauley.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said he hopes to pay the company’s share of the cleanup cost by contributing work from Ghost Town’s engineer.

“We want to make sure that he’s involved completely,” Shiver said.

Shiver also pointed out that Ghost Town has already cooperated with NCDOT, and state and local agencies to help study the slide and facilitate cleanup.

According to Shiver, the economic importance of Ghost Town to Maggie Valley “far outweighs” the government’s investment to repair the slide.

“There are issues that we all must be a part of the solution,” said Shiver. “This is one of them.”

Engineers stumped on best way to shore up Maggie slide

With federal and state grants in hand, work will soon get underway to stabilize the remnants of a massive landslide still looming precariously over Maggie Valley.

“You can see the cracking of the soil. It is obviously very unstable and just hanging there, if you will,” said Mike Hinton, manager of the federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Raleigh.

The landslide originated from Ghost Town in the Sky, a mountaintop amusement park, and damaged five homes along its 3,000-foot path. But several other households are in the potential line of fire if the remaining portion of the mountainside gives way, essentially leaving them without a home until something is done to fix the unstable slope.

A chief concern right now is spring rain. A good, soaking rain could easily trigger a second slide, which makes time of the essence, Hinton said. But not at the expense of a carefully crafted plan.

“I know it is an emergency, and I know the people who are out of their homes are anxious for work to be started. I know if I was in their shoes I would be thinking ‘This is taking forever,’” Hinton said. “But at the same time, we need to make sure that whatever we do does not cause further damage and takes into account the workers’ safety.”

While a second slide would certainly solve the problem of trying to stabilize the precarious slope — it would simply come crashing down on its own — a second slide could be even worse than the first one.

Only a portion of the slope collapsed in the first slide. Far more is still vulnerable.

While a second slide would likely follow the same route down the mountain, it would be deeper, wider and faster — and travel further. Houses unscathed last time could be taken out by a second slide, Hinton said.

Plus, giant piles of dirt and debris left in the landslide’s track would get caught up in a second slide, creating even more momentum, Hinton said.


A daunting challenge

But figuring out how to shore up the remaining mountainside remains elusive. Clearly, it can’t all be stabilized in place. Some will have to come down, Hinton said.

“That is easier said than done: how do you remove it?” Hinton said. “That part is really the dilemma.”

A contractor who was at Ghost Town the same day Hinton was surveying the site said he was willing to get on his dozer and just start pushing dirt off the side. But if the whole slope began to give, the man on the dozer would have had a wild ride to the bottom.

Hinton said it would be impossible to be stationed on the slope itself while performing the work. Equipment would have to far from the edge and on stable ground. But from that far back, could it reach out far enough to knock loose the unstable part?

Another option is evacuating everyone who lives below and blasting the soil off — not in one big blast but a series of smaller, controlled blasts.

“But who is to say one little blast wouldn’t trigger the whole thing?” Hinton said. So that option would likely be frowned on.

Simply coming up with an estimate was challenging. They obviously couldn’t scamper along the face of the slope. Hinton wasn’t willing to stand at the bottom and look up at it either. So all they could do was stand at the edge and look down on it.

As a result, the estimate of $1.47 million is an estimate in the truest sense of the word.

“That amount could change dramatically,” Hinton said. “This is really a starting point if you will. We had to come up with an estimate in order to request the funds, so that’s what we did.”

The first order of business now is to hire a geotechnical engineer to do a more thorough assessment. Once work does get underway, Hinton has no guess how long it may take, since the approach hasn’t even been figured out.

Last on the list will be cleaning up debris left along the track of the first slide. The area is steep, wooded and inaccessible, so carting off truckloads of dirt from the slide’s wake may be difficult, Hinton said.

“You would likely create even more of a problem, so the question is ‘Can we stabilize it on site?’” Hinton said. “I think everyone would agree just throwing grass seed on it isn’t going to do it.”

But, it could be possible to recontour the mounds of debris and build some retaining walls that would hold it. Rich Cove Road, which winds up the mountain to Ghost Town, is crossed twice by the slide’s track.

“For a while every time you get a rain, it is going to wash some of that across the road,” Hinton said.

For now, that’s the least of their concerns.

“The main thing is to stop a major movement,” Hinton said.

In the meantime, Hinton does not foresee Ghost Town amusement park opening until the slide is stabilized, although it is not an area his agency has jurisdiction over.

“I don’t see how they could,” Hinton said. “I wouldn’t want a crowd up there on a Saturday and that thing decide to let loose.”

Ghost Town has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year. Foreclosure against the park is scheduled for June by BB&T, which is owed $9.5 million on the property. However, Ghost Town owners are optimistic that investors or some sort of financing will materialize between now and then. If so, BB&T has said it would call off foreclosure.

Maggie may get on board with county erosion control

The Town of Maggie Valley recently transferred the responsibility for building inspections to Haywood County. Now, Maggie is considering handing over soil and erosion control, too.

“We could really become a one-stop shop,” said Maggie planning director Nathan Clark.

Town officials from Maggie Valley and Clyde will meet Tuesday, March 23, with the Haywood County manager to discuss the potential takeover.

Both towns are also interested in exploring the possibility of adopting a county ordinance that regulates construction on steep slopes. Currently, neither town has such a policy.

The joint meeting follows a massive mudslide in Maggie Valley, which traveled 3,000 feet down the mountainside and damaged four homes.

Roads have been cleared, but up to 16,000 tons of unstable material still looms over the Rich Cove community.

Haywood’s steep slope ordinance allows the county government to force a property owner to clear debris from landslides. It can also coerce a landowner into stabilizing a slope that the county engineer deems unsafe.

If the Town of Maggie Valley adopts that ordinance, the county would have authority to deem the Rich Cove area an unstable slope, forcing Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park to take action.

Ghost Town faces June deadline to stave off foreclosure

Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park could be foreclosed on as early as June unless investors step forward with a cash infusion between now and then, according to Ghost Town’s bankruptcy attorney.

The theme park in Maggie Valley has been struggling with bankruptcy for the past year. Owners pledged to pull through and become profitable again.

But as of now, the company doesn’t have the money to ramp up to open for the summer season, according to David Gray, bankruptcy attorney for Ghost Town.

“We don’t have any funding to open the park,” Gray said in court last week.

Meanwhile, BB&T has been pushing to collect on its $9.5 million loan to Ghost Town. The current owners took out the loan to buy the park in 2007 and make major repairs. A frustrated BB&T has been calling for a court-ordered liquidation of Ghost Town, essentially a forced sale of the park to pay off its debts.

Ghost Town chose not to put up a fight in bankruptcy court last week and instead agreed to let BB&T start the wheels of foreclosure with one caveat: that it not take place before June. The move bought Ghost Town owners three months to continue their hunt for funding.

“They are going to try to put together some sort of financing,” Gray said.

Gray said it takes $250,000 to $300,000 to open the park for the season. Most of that goes to hire some 200 employees and pay their salaries until revenue from ticket sales starts to roll in, and to spruce up the grounds and get everything working again.

Ghost Town was supposed to formulate a plan on how it would emerge from bankruptcy and repay some $13 million in debt. Such a reorganization plan is required by the bankruptcy court.

The park owners came up with a plan that requires $2.3 million in new equity this year in order to pull off a reorganization, according to the bankruptcy administrator. But the plan fails to say where the new equity will come from. Gray said the park owners need more time.

Gray said Ghost Town will revise its reorganization plan — which faced serious court objections anyway — and present a new one if it can find the necessary capital.

If that doesn’t happen by June, Ghost Town will be sold to the highest bidder. CEO Steve Shiver could not comment on negotiations with potential investors but is positive about the eventual outcome.


What will become of Ghost Town?

If Ghost Town can come up with a new, viable plan between now and the June foreclosure proceedings, BB&T will likely be willing to work with Ghost Town and halt the foreclosure, Gray said. If Ghost Town is sold in foreclosure, it is unclear whether it would fetch enough to cover what BB&T is owed.

Ghost Town includes 288 acres and a collection of amusement park rides. Often with foreclosures, the bank holding the mortgage ends up owning the property.

“Do you think BB&T wants it?” Grey asked. “It’s the tar baby. What are they going to do with it?”

Prospects of a buyer are complicated by a mudslide originating from Ghost Town’s property last month. Who’s liable for the cleanup and stabilization is still being debated.

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy just hopes that it stays an amusement park rather than getting turned into a real estate development.

“Whoever can make a go of it will be what’s best for the town, whether it is this group or another group,” McElroy said.

Ghost Town is zoned commercial by the town. Residential is not allowed without an exemption. If a future owner wants to turn the mountaintop into a residential development, they would have to seek an exemption from the town zoning board of adjustment.

When Ghost Town’s current owners appeared on the scene in 2007, the park had been closed for five years.

“A lot of motels and restaurants were hanging on by the skin of their teeth. When Ghost Town opened back up, it made a difference,” McElroy said.

Lacking start-up capital for the season is not new, however. Ghost Town faced the same problem last year. Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver went on an extensive but unsuccessful hunt for public funding from the Town of Maggie Valley, and courted numerous local and regional tourism and economic development entities but to no avail.

The town was unwilling to pledge tax dollars to help the struggling amusement park reopen with no guarantee it would be paid back. Investors, many of them Maggie Valley business people, chipped in to provide the capital to get the park open.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, invested in the park’s new owners out of her love and devotion for Maggie Valley. For four decades, Ghost Town was an anchor attraction that pulled tens of thousands into Maggie Valley each summer and fall. Like so many, O’Keefe was eager to see it reclaim its former glory.

“Was I 100 percent sure it was going to make it? No. But the motel owners have to have people come into Maggie Valley and stay overnight to make it,” O’Keefe said. “I am a member of this community, and I want to see it thrive.”

So she and others stepped up to the plate.

When Ghost Town reopened in 2007 after five years of being closed, it garnered lots of media attention. Now, it could be worse than if it had never reopened at all.

“A closed amusement park is one thing. A failed amusement park is much worse,” O’Keefe said.

Feedback from customers who had visited Ghost Town was all positive this year, which hasn’t always been the case, O’Keefe said. O’Keefe said that shows the park and its employees were trying their hardest to provide tourists with a positive experience. O’Keefe believes the park is almost where it needs to be, but has been a victim of the economy.

“If you got the figures for all theme parks last year, it wasn’t good,” O’Keefe said. “Everybody’s figures were way down. It is not just Ghost Town.”

O’Keefe credits Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver for doing all he could.

“He has worked very hard to try to keep it going. He has put a lot of money into it certainly more than anyone else,” O’Keefe said. “It is just a matter of having enough capital to go forward. It has always had a problem of being undercapitalized.”

Like McElroy, O’Keefe is concerned about the impacts to Maggie Valley business owners if Ghost Town doesn’t open this year.

“We are very distressed about it,” O’Keefe said, adding that it is time for the town to get creative. “We are certainly going to be looking for something else to bring people to Maggie. We are not going to sit on the sidelines.”


Ghost Town buys time to find financing

When Ghost Town agreed to a June foreclosure by BB&T, what could have been a lengthy and dramatic courtroom showdown last week was reduced to less than five minutes.

Had Ghost Town pushed ahead with the reorganization plan in its current form, it’s unclear whether a judge would have approved it. It faced serious hurdles due to inadequacies, according to Alexandria Kenny, a federal bankruptcy administrator who works for the bankruptcy court.

Kenny wrote in her objection that the plan is “vague, ambiguous and not feasible,” and even called one portion “absurd.”

A handful of major stakeholders objected to the plan.

BB&T claimed the plan was not proposed in “good faith.” BB&T also objected to the general way Ghost Town has conducted itself during bankruptcy proceedings. Ghost Town’s reorganization plan was slow to materialize, requiring several court extensions. It has repeatedly failed to meet other court-imposed deadlines for filing various financial documents.

Failure by Ghost Town to pay its taxes in 2009 led both Haywood County and the town of Maggie Valley to object to the reorganization plan. Both are still owed taxes from 2008 as well.

Everyone owed money by Ghost Town could vote on the plan. Other than BB&T, there are 225 companies collectively owed $2.5 million from Ghost Town for everything from radio ads to souvenir merchandise to plumbing parts. Of those, 90 sent in ballots and 84 voted in favor of the reorganization, Gray said. It’s not surprising since those companies stand at the back of the line. Under a foreclosure or liquidation, the park’s 288 acres would have to sell for more than $10.5 million before those companies saw their first nickel.

Under reorganization, Ghost Town proposed paying back those 225 companies starting in summer 2011 based on a 6.5 percent cut of the park’s revenue. Kenny objected that Ghost Town should pledge a specific minimum dollar amount it would pay each year.


Still piling on debt

While in bankruptcy protection, Ghost Town got a hiatus from bill collectors and old debt. But the park continued to rack up new debt during 2009.

Financial filings show past due bills of more than $400,000 still lingering from last year. Some are for goods and services rendered, like attorney’s fees, termite exterminators and a marketing consultant.

But there are also hefty utility bills. Ghost Town owes a water bill of $4,430 and power bill of $20,000, both of which were cut off due to failure to pay at the end of the season last year. It owes AT&T $2,000.

Other past due bills from 2009 include $85,000 in property taxes to the town of Maggie and Haywood County. Both are still owed taxes from 2008 as well.

Ghost Town also owes the state $10,500 in sales tax from 2009 and $4,800 in amusement tax. It owes the IRS $2,300.

In addition to $400,000 in past due bills from 2009, Ghost Town owed investors and partners $712,000 that was put up over the course of the year. Ghost Town has listed the $712,000 from as part of its debt to be repaid.

Ghost Town’s current reorganization plan forecasts the park would continue operating at a loss until 2013, even with the infusion of new equity to the tune of $4 million over the same three year period, according to the bankruptcy administrator.

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