Safeguards in place, but cracks remain

While buckling and cracks were readily visible in old retaining walls built out of railroad ties at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park owners failed to officially notify anyone with Haywood County of the town of Maggie Valley.

Mountainside construction regulations passed by Haywood County in 2007 likely could have stopped the massive landslide in Maggie Valley from happening, if the right people had known about the potentially unstable slope being held back by a series of terraced retaining walls.

But the county planning and engineering department did not know, and even if it had, it would have lacked jurisdiction.

Ghost Town, where the slide originated, is in the town limits of Maggie Valley and the county’s slope laws don’t apply there.

The town could “opt-in” to the county’s slope ordinance, but hasn’t done so. Maggie could choose to adopt its own slope ordinance, but it hasn’t done that, either. Town Manager Tim Barth said the town board has never discussed whether the town should adopt the county’s slope ordinance or one like it.

Had the county slope ordinance applied, and had County Engineer Mark Shumpert been alerted to possible instability, he could have stepped in.

“I didn’t know there were any problems up there. That is news to me,” Shumpert said.

The county slope ordinance is usually triggered when an earth-moving project exceeds a certain threshold — depending on the height and pitch of the excavated slope. It typically does not apply to slope work prior to 2007 when the ordinance was passed.

But there is an exception. The county engineer has the authority to declare any slope that poses an imminent danger a “critical slope,” and force a property owner to make repairs regardless of whether the work pre-dated the passage of the ordinance.

“If it is a critical slope that looks like there is a potential for failure, we could require something to be done,” Shumpert said. “I didn’t know there was a wall up there in imminent danger of failing.”

Repairs to the giant system of terraced retaining walls were made in 2007. If that work had fallen under county’s slope ordinance, Shumpert would have inspected the site and likely realized that problems were still lurking, he said.

While many people in Maggie Valley knew — from Ghost Town employees to residents living below it — no one informed the county. Neither Shumpert, nor County Planner Kris Boyd, nor Erosion Control Officer Marc Pruett were alerted to the problem.

Barth said he was not aware of anyone with Ghost Town reporting the potential of an unstable slope to the town.

Shumpert is usually called in after a slope has already failed. There were roughly half a dozen small slope failures in the county last year, more than in the previous years due to higher rainfall in 2009. He also got a few pre-emptive calls for the first time from people concerned about the potential of a slope failure. None rose to the level of being designated a critical slope, however, he said.

“For the most part, we are getting calls after the fact. The stuff we are getting preemptively, we have been able to help them get a contractor involved before it gets worse,” Shumpert said.

Last winter, there were two landslides in Maggie. In one, a home was reduced to matchsticks with a family inside, but they miraculously escaped alive. In another, a slope below a house slumped away but stopped just sort of taking out the foundation.

In both, the county forced the property owners where the slide originated to make repairs.

One of the homeowners ultimately filed for bankruptcy. The home was foreclosed on and the county is now putting the bank on the hooks for repairs, Shumpert said.

Five years ago, a woman in Maggie Valley was killed when a landslide crushed her home.

Shumpert said the rash of landslides in Haywood County have all been a result of earth-moving. None occurred naturally on an untampered site, but all originated from a spot where excavation or construction had occurred.

On a positive note, no slope failures have occurred at sites subject to the county’s ordinance since its passage in 2007 — suggesting the ordinance works when followed.

The problems instead have all occurred on sites that were exempt from the slope ordinance — either because they predated the regulations or, in the case of the recent slide, fell outside the county’s jurisdiction.


One legislator’s fight for safety

A bill percolating in the state legislature would force the myriad mountain counties and towns that still lack slope ordinances to adopt them. The bill spells out the bare minimum for such an ordinance — modeled almost identically to Haywood County’s — but allows counties to go tougher if they want to.

It has been stalled for four years, stuck in various committees unable to garner widespread support it needs to pass, however.

“I am a bit frustrated,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has championed the bill. “We are dealing with a situation where human life is at stake.”

Rapp said the bill doesn’t aim to stop mountainside construction, but does insist it is done safely.

“They are going to have to build to exacting standards so we don’t put people’s lives at risk,” Rapp said. “This is unacceptable, what is going on now.”

Rapp said he plans to keep introducing the bill until he can get it passed.

“What we are getting is a slow erosion of opposition. I just hope we don’t have to lose lives in the process,” Rapp said. “I think this would be a wake-up to county commissioners in counties without any slope ordinances as well as a wake-up call for the North Carolina legislature.”

No road in or out

On Friday night, a mudslide thundered across Rich Cove Road in Maggie Valley, taking out a section of a guardrail and bending a drainage pipe in its path, causing water to flow alongside the road and collect at the bottom.

The landslide deposited a significant amount of mud at two spots on the road and downed several trees across other parts.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s chief priority will be to restore a “primitive road condition” to allow temporary access for residents and repair efforts, according to Joel Setzer, who heads the regional DOT division. But the DOT isn’t prepared to begin work right away.

“We’ll have to wait for some drier weather before we make an effort,” said Setzer. “Full restoration of the road will have to be done later on.”

According to Setzer, the DOT faces a Catch-22 when it comes to the water that’s been diverted by the mudslide. If left alone, the water will continue flowing out of its established path and damage the road and some houses, but if it’s redirected to its usual flow pattern, it will “add water to an already saturated, muddy mess,” said Setzer.

While the DOT normally reflows the water to its established path, it faces a quandary with the latest mudslide.

“We’re looking for direction on what is the best thing to do and the overall public good,” said Setzer. “It’s a tough situation, but it’s going to require some aggressive emergency management.”

After scare of slide wears off, residents want answers

Betty Miner was standing in her kitchen getting ready to fix supper last Friday when the pictures on her walls fell to the ground.

“I heard a sound and ran to where I heard it and that’s when the mud came up and splattered the window,” said Miner. “I thought an airplane had crashed right next to us or on top of the house.”

A 30-foot-high wave of mud and rock screamed by at 30 miles per hour, picking up any debris that lay in its half-mile path down the mountainside. While only four homes were damaged and no one was injured, Miner and her neighbors in Maggie Valley’s Rich Cove area were forced to evacuate after dark.

Teenager Shane Bryan was in his house watching TV when the slide hit.

“We grabbed the first things we saw and then they came to get us in the four-wheelers,” Bryan said.

The slide occurred around 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5. Emergency responders were on-hand in less than a half hour beginning the work of evacuating residents from the path of danger.

Tammy Jones was trapped on the second story of her house after her ground floor was buried by debris.

“I heard it coming and knew what it was, but I didn’t have time to do anything but stand still,” Jones said.

Jones and her four dogs were eventually freed by rescue workers who dug their way in to a door on the ground floor to get her out and take her and the dogs down the mountain.

Cam Sutton said the slide sounded like “thunder coming down the mountain” and Tammy Rich described walking through mud up to her waist to check on her family members.

It was a night that none of them will ever forget.


Lingering threat

In the hours after the slide, the Haywood County office of the American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter at the Maggie Valley Methodist Church where eight residents from the landslide area slept Friday night. Others stayed with family or at hotels.

Ultimately, the area endangered by the slide included 13 homes lived in year-round, and another 24 that are second-homes and were unoccupied.

According to residents, on Saturday emergency management staff and staff from the North Carolina Geological Survey told them a retaining wall at Ghost Town gave way higher up the mountain and was likely the cause, but that they would continue to flesh out the details.

Church volunteers and area businesses helped sustain the displaced residents by furnishing meals. By Sunday, the shelter had closed and everyone had found housing elsewhere, but emergency management officials informed residents that anyone past the 600 block of Rich Cove Road should not return to their houses because the land above them was still unstable, posing the risk of a second, possibly even larger slide yet to come.

Betty Miner explained what she felt after the event.

“I’m just shocked that this could have happened,” Miner said. “Last night I finally slept. It’s a shock to the system and kind of a feeling of loss.”

Residents were briefed again Sunday night by emergency management personnel who had conducted a fly-over of the area accompanied by Rick Wooten, geologist from the North Carolina Geological Survey.

After reviewing the site from the area, Wooten estimated that 12,000 to 16,000 tons of material was still unstable at the top of the slide. With the weather report predicting four inches of snow on Wednesday this week, the area still presented a threat.

Some residents below the 600 block of Rich Cove Rd. chose not to leave their homes. Tammy Rich, who lives at the Sutton family home, wanted to stay on the mountain.

Rich said she and her relatives were aware of the danger the slide presented because they’ve lived with it for years.

“They told us stuff we already knew,” said Rich. “We knew there were problems with the retaining walls, because it’s happened three times before.”


The Cause?

On Monday, officials gathered the residents one more time at the Methodist Church to brief them on the situation. The shock and relief they had felt in the days following the event had begun to give way to a pressing need for clarity.

“The information stream has really slowed down,” Jones said. “We don’t know any more now than we did on Saturday.”

Cam Sutton, whose house was cut off by the slide had a simple question for Wooten.

“The cause?” Sutton said. “Do we know the cause?”

Wooten said determining the exact cause of the slide would take time. There were many factors, he said. Missing from his presentation this time around was any direct reference to Ghost Town’s retaining wall, however.

“This is an area that’s failed before. Twice at least and probably more than that,” Wooten told the crowd.

Using contour maps of the area showing the path of the slide, he explained the risks presented by the material still hanging from the top of the mountain.

But the residents gathered wanted concrete answers to practical questions. When will we know for sure what happened? When can we go home?

For Tammy Jones and Kurt Biedler, there is no going home. The foundation of their house was breached and their water system went down the mountain.

“I have no patience left,” Biedler said. “We’re 72 hours into an emergency situation and our house is not livable. The lack of information is unacceptable.”

Jones and others wondered why the owner of Ghost Town in Sky Amusement Park hadn’t shared any information with residents about what had happened.

“If it was my retaining wall and it fell on my neighbor, my insurance adjuster would be down there immediately interviewing the neighbors,” Jones said.

Jones and Biedler bought their house in May after moving from Savannah.

Jones said she has given up on returning to her house in the near future.

“I’m not interested in living below that,” Jones said. “It’s like a ticking time bomb.”

Cam Sutton, a lifelong resident who had to walk through the woods carrying his children during the Friday evacuation, was furious that Ghost Town’s owners have not met with residents yet.

“Ghost Town hasn’t been to one meeting. The community helped each other and stuck together, but the cause of this hasn’t shown up yet,” Sutton said.

Ghost Town’s CEO and a hired engineer have been involved in meetings with the county and state geologists.

“First and foremost we are very thankful and grateful no one was hurt,” Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said in a phone interview.

Sutton said he wants Ghost Town to make right the situation he believes it has caused.

“I would expect them to clean up the whole mess,” Sutton said.

Kim Czaja, executive director of the Haywood County Red Cross, told residents gathered at the church her staff would begin case management with people displaced by the slide on Tuesday morning.

“This is a long-term effort but right now our priority is your immediate concerns,” Czaja.

Czaja said she her staff would focus on assessing what displaced residents need and then would work to identify what resources may be available to them.

Tammy Rich spoke for the rest of the Suttons on Rich Cove Road.

“We’re just gonna ride out the storm,” said Rich. “What can you do?”

Messy lawsuits likely left in landslide’s wake

It could take months or even years for lawsuits over a massive landslide in Maggie Valley to be resolved, leaving affected property owners in limbo over who is financially responsible for the damage to their homes.

The landslide originated from Ghost Town in the Sky, a mountain top amusement park, where a giant system of terraced retaining walls gave way. N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten does not believe the slide was solely due to natural causes, but could not be more specific.

“We are not ready to make any kind of statement on that or jump to any conclusion on that yet,” Wooten said.

The retaining walls have been a source of consternation for Ghost Town over the years, according to those familiar with the amusement park’s history. When the park was built in the 1960s, the top of the mountain was leveled off and dirt pushed over the side. The terraced system attempts to hold that dirt in place.

It has occasionally slumped in places but a major section gave away in 2007. Ghost Town hired an engineer and contractor to make repairs to portions of the terraced slopes.

But some of the old walls — constructed out of railroad ties — were left in place.

Last Friday night, heavy rain exacerbated by melting snow triggered a landslide that started at the retaining wall. The question is whether the old portion of the railroad tie walls or the new walls constructed in 2007 were at fault. The slide took out some of both.

“Obviously there is a responsible party, but I am going to let the engineers and attorneys figure that out,” Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said. “We are not going to make any comment about liability.”

Pat Burgin, a local engineer hired by Ghost Town, said the work performed in 2007 was not properly engineered nor constructed by Caroline-A-Contracting of Maggie Valley. The company disputes that, however.

“It is the contractor’s position that there is nothing that they did which resulted in this slide,” said Rusty McLean, a Waynesville attorney providing legal counsel for Caroline-A-Contracting. “They repaired the portion they were hired to repair.”

Ghost Town chose to leave some of the old railroad tie sections in place, “against the recommendation of the company,” McLean said.

Verlin Edwards of Maggie Valley was the engineer for the 2007 work and his son, Colin Edwards, an excavator, performed the work. However, in fall of 2008 they sued Ghost Town for failing to pay the full bill. The suit claimed they were still owed $28,866.

Ghost Town filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few months later, however, and the suit is on hold pending the result of bankruptcy proceedings.

Meanwhile, Ghost Town filed a counter claim arguing the wall was “not property constructed, designed and compacted,” and, therefore, the company shouldn’t have to pay.

One of the old walls built from railroad ties sat at the top of the mountain. If it failed first, it would naturally take out the newer section below it. But if the newer section failed first, it could have yanked the support out from under the older walls above and caused them to collapse. Photographs of the slide clearly show it started at the retaining wall.

Lawsuits are imminent, ones that will likely pit the insurance companies of Ghost Town, the contractor and the homeowners against each other.

Which section of wall failed first — the old portion or new portion — ultimately might not matter in court, however.

“By general statute, the property owner is ultimately responsible,” said Haywood County Planner Kris Boyd.

A third option is that the landslide will be deemed a natural disaster, known in legal terms as an “act of God,” meaning no one is at fault. It also means that damage to homes in the slide’s path won’t be covered, as homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover natural landslides. No insurance companies offer separate slide policies, either.

“It’s a horrendous problem,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. Rapp points to an arrangement between the state and insurance companies to provide hurricane coverage for coastal homeowners as a solution for landslides.

“I think if we could do that for property owners on the coast, we should be able to work out a similar package to induce insurers to provide coverage for land movement in the mountains,” Rapp said.

Ghost Town has not made a profit in two years. It hopes to pull through bankruptcy, but has been forced to operate on a lean budget. It has more than $12 million in debt.

“Financially, their hands are tied. It costs a lot of money to move dirt,” said Burgin.

Even after repairing large sections of the retaining wall in 2007, Ghost Town brought in another contractor in 2008 to make more repairs.

“They have been very proactive in trying to deal with it,” Burgin said. “Ghost Town is between a rock and a hard place.”

State codes require a building permit for retaining walls more than four feet high. But it does not appear Ghost Town got a permit when the new portions of wall were built in 2007.

“We could not find any permits directly related to the retaining wall,” said Town Manager Tim Barth, who looked back at building permits from the time period.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver could not say whether they ever got one from the town.

“That would be the responsibility of the contractor,” Shiver said.

However, the state code actually places the onus on property owners to secure necessary permits. Even if Ghost Town had gotten a building permit for the retaining walls in 2007, the permit merely requires the work to be conducted per an engineer’s plan, which was done anyway.

More to come?

The majority of the retaining wall system is still in place.

But the slide undermined the integrity of the remaining sections, making it all vulnerable to another slide, Wooten said.

“There is a lot of unstable material at the top,” Wooten said. “If it should fail in a catastrophic way — which we don’t expect but we have to prepare for it as a contingency — where would it go? For the most part we hope it would follow the path that is there now.”

Meanwhile, residents in the area are advised not to return to their homes. Wooten said it is fortunate there weren’t more homes in the direct path of the slide or the situation could have been far more catastrophic.

Everyone who’s seen the slide — emergency responders, geologists, evacuated residents and even casual observers looking up at the dark swath on the mountain from the valley below — share disbelief that people weren’t killed or injured by the massive wall of fast-moving dirt.

“It is a thousand wonders,” said Marc Pruett, Haywood County Erosion Officer.

Following a major landslide in Macon County in 2004 that killed five people, the state embarked on a major project to map areas vulnerable to landslides. Known as landslide hazard mapping, the state is funding the effort at the pace of two counties per year. If funding remains steady at past levels, Haywood is in the queue for mapping in 2011 or 2012.

It is unclear how helpful the mapping could be to residents in landslide prone areas, however. Wooten, the state geologist, said the mapping is designed to pinpoint areas where the naturally occurring slopes and soil types are landslide prone. But it would not account for sites where excavation and earth-moving have created an artificial risk, Wooten said.

Nonetheless, those who know they live in a vulnerable area could chose to spend the night elsewhere when major rains are forecast.

Rescue workers act fast in landslide disaster despite threat of more to fall

Chris Carver found himself in the unusual position of being both rescuer and evacuee when a massive mudslide struck Rich Cove Road in Maggie Valley on Friday night.

“I live there, right where it stopped,” said Carver, assistant chief of the Maggie Valley Fire Department and one of the first responders on the scene.

Carver was headed to the shower when he heard his pager go off, notifying him of the emergency.

At that point, Carver and his family were unaware that a slide 3,000 feet long and up to 175 feet wide had just sped 30 miles per hour down the mountainside, seriously damaging four houses in its path, and stopping just short of his own. The mountain of mud that slammed the slope at times measured as high as 30 feet.

Carver immediately headed out into the foggy night to make his way up to the slope to begin evacuating his neighbors. Crews from the Maggie Valley police and fire departments joined Carver in the rescue effort just five minutes after a call went out for help at 6:33 p.m.

Rescue workers went door to door, trying to find residents and evacuate them, while police officers secured the roads and set up a blockade. Limited visibility plagued the rescue effort.

“You couldn’t see five inches in front of your face,” said Scott Sutton, chief of Maggie Valley police.

Most residents were unaware of the immense scale of the mudslide at that point, but rescue workers understood that the slide was still potentially active. The threat of a second landslide wave loomed.

“Everybody was uneasy about it,” said Sutton. “You didn’t know what it was, you didn’t know its origin, you didn’t know how far it was.”

But the 50 or so responders from all over Haywood County who worked Friday night were able to maintain their cool during the emergency.

“Everybody stayed calm,” said Carver. “You have to, you got a job to do.”

Some residents walked quite a distance down the hill, abandoning their houses upslope to escape the slide.

“They were shook up a little bit,” said Carver. “Who wouldn’t be?”

A few were able to drive away in their cars, but debris from the mudslide blocked off many other driveways.

Firefighters had to dig mud out to evacuate one woman who was stuck inside her house after the landslide tore off her deck. They were able to rescue her after sending a ladder up to her front door.

Carver said no one appeared to have any major injuries from the slide.

Emergency crews transported residents to a command center at town hall. They were later transferred to a shelter set up by the Red Cross at Maggie Valley United Methodist Church. Some opted to stay with relatives, friends or at a motel instead.

In the next few days, crews gave some residents a lift in all-terrain vehicles back to their homes to help them recover their vehicles and belongings. It was impossible to clear driveways in a few cases.

Most on site now must either walk or utilize ATVs, according to Carver.

“It’s the only way you can maneuver up there,” Carver said.

Kim Czaja, executive director of the Haywood chapter of the Red Cross, commended rescue workers for arriving on scene so quickly.

“I’m quite amazed that no one got hurt,” said Czaja, who still had mud on her shoes Monday after visiting the mudslide zone and assessing damage to individual homes the day before.

“I don’t think there are words to describe the amount of debris,” said Czaja. “It blew me away.”

Assessing the damage

While rescue workers focused on evacuating residents, Greg Shuping, director of Emergency Management for Haywood, was busy preparing for the days ahead.

He called in representation from state emergency management division, the North Carolina Geological Survey and the North Carolina Department of Transportation immediately after the mudslide struck on Friday.

Despite snowfall, Shuping and his crew worked all day Saturday to transport engineers and geologists up the mountain to assess the mudslide and take pictures.

Shuping also coordinated a helicopter ride for town and county officials.

“The value of being able to look down at the entire site and see that footprint...I believe, was very important,” said Shuping.

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy and Alderman Scott Pauley were two officials who got a bird’s eye view of the mudslide during a helicopter ride.

“It’s a mess,” said Pauley.

McElroy was shocked at how far down the mountain the slide traveled, but said the impressive trajectory was likely due to the sheer drop of the slope.

In McElroy’s view, even the best engineering and technology may not be enough to save houses on such steep slopes in emergencies.

“Under certain circumstances, they just won’t stand up,” said McElroy.

“Bad coincidence”

Haywood County and the Town of Maggie Valley quickly signed off on a disaster declaration over the weekend, making them eligible for state and federal aid.

Local officials have stated representatives from both the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will visit the mudslide site this week.

Officials were already slated to visit the region for another reason, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Division of Emergency Management.

They are visiting counties in Western North Carolina to assess damage from December snowstorms to possibly provide funds to local governments to help recoup the cost of removing debris or getting power back up.

That’s not to say the officials can’t have a look at the latest mudslide while they’re here, but Jarema said local governments would have to send in yet another application to request assistance for this slide.

“It’s a different disaster,” said Jarema. “The fact that it’s occurring around the same location is really just bad coincidence.”

Regardless, Shuping said his primary focus now is to coordinate with town, county and state officials, as well as Ghost Town, to bring a safe resolution to the mudslide as quickly as possible.

“We’re asking for any and all assistance on behalf of the town and county,” said Shuping.

Rich Cove may be a portent of things to come

Writing about the weather is usually about as exciting as a yawn. For 12 months, though, we in the mountains have been taking it on the chin time and again, and it’s got me wishing for a bit of a reprieve.

The mudslide that tore down Rich Cove in Maggie Valley Friday night is a solemn reminder of just how powerful the forces of nature can be — especially after we have come in and changed the original lay of the land. We’ll leave it to the attorneys to find out if any entity is liable for this slide and its damage, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that there are almost certainly more slides in our future over the next few months. When we have snow and rain like we have in the last 12 months, disturbed mountaintops with cuts and roads and houses won’t hold.

What makes this recent slide so disturbing, though, is the damage it could have caused. At least four or five houses are deemed too dangerous for residents to return to, and a couple of dozen others were very close. That no lives were lost is a minor miracle.

It also came on the heels of so many other large slides. One in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is being cleaned up now; another huge slide in October on Interstate 40 is stopping tourists from coming our way and it was followed by a smaller rockslide close to Harmon Den on the interstate; and several other smaller slides are disrupting lives throughout our region. Over the last few years, lives have been lost in Peeks Creek in Macon County and in Maggie Valley due to slides destroying homes.

I recall about 15 years ago when I was the editor of The Mountaineer and tourism officials started touting the fact that Haywood County was the most mountainous county east of the Rockies. Depending on who claims some of the mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are at least 14 peaks in Haywood over 6,000 feet. The mountainous slogan bodes well for attracting tourists, but we have to live with the destructive reality of the terrain in this place we call home. For many there’s probably a feeling of helplessness creeping in. Where, and how bad, will the next one be?

There’s little doubt that the rockslides are related to this wet, cold winter. I’ve lived in these mountains 17 consecutive winters, and prior to that spent another five winters in the Boone-Blowing Rock area. I’ve not seen the kind of snow we’ve had this year in all 23 of those winters. We’ve had bigger snowfalls in previous years, but at my house we’ve had snow on the ground since Dec. 18, barring two days when I could see all the grass in my yard. Even if you live on a north face at over 3,000 feet, this is just craziness for the southern mountains.

And they’re calling for more. I fondly remember the jokes about how many times Bob Caldwell, the former well-known weatherman for WLOS, said it was going to snow and it didn’t. So far this year, when they say snow, they mean it.

This crazy winter didn’t come out of nowhere. Since last winter, the rain has been coming down. All spring and summer, my son couldn’t stop equating the constant rains with the potential for a snowy winter and lots of great snowboarding and canceled school. Looks like he was right.

But the rains were welcome. We had been in a severe drought and aquifers were drying up. Just like the landslides, some said it wasn’t just the lack of rain contributing to the groundwater shortages in the mountains. Many said all the wells we were sinking into the mountainsides, coupled with the drought, were setting us up for a severe water shortage. And back during the 2004 floods, many said the prevalence of paved surfaces where the water could not drain multiplied the destructive power of the flood and rain waters.

The rains came so fast and so hard this year that we were out of the drought by summer. The wet weather has carried on, both rain and snow. And so we have the most recent disaster at Rich Cove, with many worried about more of the same. It’s not quite man vs. nature, but the two working out of sync with each other in these mountains make for a volatile, sometimes frightening, mix.

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

New festival director seeks a larger audience for Maggie Valley

The hunt for a festival director for Maggie Valley is officially over.

Beating out 22 other applicants, Audrey Hager took over the position in mid-December.

With Hager at the helm of the town’s struggling festival grounds, Maggie Valley is hoping to break its cycle of fleeting festival directors, who failed to bring lasting success to the venue.

Taxpayers subsidized roughly half of the festival grounds’ $1 million cost, aiming to reap a windfall from tourism business brought in by events held there.

When the last festival director, who lasted a mere three months, was fired in May, the town decided to hold off on filling the position to see if events still materialized.

The laissez-faire attitude garnered criticism from many business owners who rely on special events to bring tourists and customers to their doors.

Town Manager Tim Barth said the process wasn’t unnecessarily delayed since the town wanted to be careful with its next pick.

“We wanted to get somebody on as quickly as we could,” said Barth, who hopes Hager will line up events for those weekends that are still freed up for next summer.

Hager said while she’s heard a lot of negativity about the festival grounds, she wants to play a positive role in Maggie Valley. Hager had nothing critical to say about her predecessor.

“I’m not here to sling mud,” said Hager. “All I can say is he’s he, and I’m me ... maybe it wasn’t the right fit, but now they have the right fit.”

Hager hopes to not only line up events for some of the gaps in next summer’s festival season but to also pursue a long-term strategy.

“Trying to fill in holes for the calendar for this year [and] trying to plant seeds and develop events for 2010, 2011, 2012,” said Hager.

Hager’s extensive experience in lining up entertainment will certainly assist the endeavor.

She has helped promote nearly every kind of event, including celebrity golf, 6,000-seat concerts, fishing tournaments, hunting events, car giveaways, sock hops, old car shows, billiard tournaments, live boxing, tough man contests, mixed martial arts, and downhill skiing events in Tahoe.

“I’ve probably done 300 events a year,” said Hager, who has collaborated with musicians like the Doobie Brothers, Rick Springfield and Alice Cooper.

Her most recent position was entertainment manager at Harrah’s in southern Indiana.

Hager said she plans to use the connections she already has to line up events in Maggie Valley

Last week, Hager made contact with a friend who organizes such mega events as Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits festival, who got her in touch with the organizer for MerleFest in Wilkesboro.

Hager said it’s relationships like that that will give her an in with the promoter crowd in the Southeast.

In the near future, Hager would like to organize a fam, or familiarity tour, to bring corporate meeting planners and other promoters to Maggie to see the venue.

Hager will also help the town get its promotional DVD together, making sure it’s properly geared to a promoter audience.

Changing focus

Hager said her priority is to bring business to the town through the festival grounds but to do that, she must first lay a foundation by getting the word out to promoters.

She would like to get Maggie Valley featured in trade magazines dedicated to promoting festivals and special events, as well as on the Web.

In the future, Hager would like to pursue a signature event for Maggie Valley, similar to Folkmoot in Waynesville, Bel Chere in Asheville, and Merlefest in Wilkesboro.

“We could work with Asheville so we’re not competing directly with Asheville, work with Waynesville so it’s not the same time as Folkmoot,” said Hager. “We don’t want to compete with those. We want to support their events, and we want them to support ours as well.”

But unlike previous festival directors, Hager’s priority is not to spend all day brainstorming ideas for events.

“The sky’s the limit on the type of events,” said Hager. “We can have all the ideas for events in the world, but if we don’t have somebody to pay to bring the event to Maggie Valley, then we don’t have an event.”

Instead, Hager said her chief strategy is getting the word out to promoters about Maggie Valley, which she considers Western North Carolina’s best-kept secret.

When Hager’s husband transferred to Harrah’s in Cherokee three years ago, Hager made frequent trips to the area. At that point, she didn’t even realize Maggie Valley was separate from Waynesville.

Hager said she would like to do a better job of letting people know about Maggie Valley, which she said is central, beautiful, and has a lot to offer.

“When I think of this area, I don’t think Maggie Valley. I think Asheville, I think Blue Ridge Parkway,” said Hager. “I think where we missed the boat is letting people know about this location.”

According to Hager, Maggie Valley’s target tourist is an active babyboomer, who enjoys the outdoors and riding motorcycles on the area’s curvy roads.

Part of the process in attracting such a clientele is working closely with business owners. At first, Hagar hoped to go door to door to meet local entrepreneurs, but the town is planning to organize a meet-and-greet with the business community in January.

“I think we can all work together,” said Hager, who would also like to cooperate with venues at Eaglenest, Harrah’s, and the Biltmore Estate.

“I don’t know if they’ll partner with us, but I can certainly try,” said Hager.

Hager was born in New Hampshire, spent 20 years in Lake Tahoe, Calif. and most recently came from southern Illinois, near Louisville.

Slump in construction leads Maggie to can building inspector

The Town of Maggie Valley decided Monday to lay off its building inspector after already trimming 10 hours off his weekly schedule earlier this year.

Town Manager Tim Barth said there was a strong economic case to discontinue the town’s building inspections department since the county provides the same service.

Smaller towns often opt to go through a county building inspector rather than employing their own. Waynesville and Canton have their own inspections departments, but Sylva and Bryson City do not.

After the recession hit and building activity plummeted, the town has had to increasingly subsidize the department.

Barth estimates that the town will spend $50,000 to prop up the department in the 2009-2010 fiscal year — a number that has been on the rise as fees from building permits have dropped. In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the town spent $37,000 more than it brought in through fees, and $40,000 in 2008-2009.

“It’s just too expensive to continue to have,” said Barth. “Building activity has dropped off significantly in the last couple of years. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify having a position where the person doesn’t have as much work to do.”

Barth said the building activity may pick up, but the town may never do building inspections again if the new arrangement works out well.

Alderman Colin Edwards said the option of hiring another building inspector is not off the table in the long-term.

“If we see the need to hire another building inspector, we can do that, but right now, times are tough and we need to save the taxpayers all we can,” said Edwards.

Maggie building inspector Ron Mercier said the county could not provide the same level of service.

“I’m here all the time,” said Mercier. “I provide a much better service than the county ever could because I’m local. I care more about Maggie Valley than the county does.”

According to Mercier, the board is doing a disservice to the town by eliminating his position.

“They’re not lowering the taxes but are taking away services,” Mercier said.


Conflict of interest?

Mercier’s supporters suspect personal motives are a factor in the town’s move, but Edwards disagrees.

The town’s motives are strictly economic, he said.

According to Edwards, the decision had nothing to do with a complaint against the building inspector brought to the town in October. The decision to cut Mercier’s hours came in July.

“We’ve been thinking about this, probably four or five months,” said Edwards.

The October complaint was brought forward by Jim Redmond, who owns Leatherwood Cottages, where Edwards has a cottage.

Redmond demanded the town reimburse him for $300 after Mercier mistakenly told him to remove and reinstall wiring for a pavilion at Leatherwood Cottages.

According to town minutes, Redmond said he’d also heard several complaints against Mercier and asked the town to let Mercier go.

Alderwoman Saralyn Price said at the meeting that Barth should take over the matter since it was a personnel issue, which is usually handled by the town manager.

Edwards claims the wiring issue played no role whatsoever in the town’s move toward shutting down the inspections department. The cost, which was split up among 17 cottage owners, was not significant.

“That ain’t never cost nobody nothing,” said Edwards.

Edwards repeated that only the recession was driving the decision.

“We’re losing so much money having a building inspector, and we’re trying to trim the fat,” Edwards said.


Defending the inspector

While contractors in other towns usually complain about building inspectors who help enforce codes, those in Maggie Valley actually came to Mercier’s defense.

Several spoke up at last week’s town meeting to ask the town to keep the building inspections department.

“Once the economy starts picking up, we’re going to get slammed here,” said Torry Pinter, a general contractor who spoke at the meeting.

“Just because the economy’s down and the building is down...using personal vendettas or personal problems as a reason to get rid of Ron is not right,” said Burton Edwards, a planning board member and Colin Edwards’ cousin.

Burton added Maggie Valley had no right to annex territory if it did not make an effort to support code enforcement.

“If we’re going to annex and we’re going to grow, we’re going to need a building inspector,” said Burton.

According to Burton, getting rid of the building inspector while there’s no building activity is akin to getting rid of a fire truck because there were no fires last year.

“If it’s a money issue, find a way to keep him please,” said Burton.

Meanwhile Kyle Edwards, owner of the Stompin’ Ground and Colin Edwards’ uncle, said the town could come up with the money to support the department if it wanted to.

Kyle added that the building inspector helps homebuyers, home builders, the town board, the mayor, and everyone else in town.

Sometimes, people get upset when the building inspector does his job and goes by the books, Kyle said.

According to Colin Edwards, the primary responsibility for enforcing codes rests with Nathan Clark, the town planner.

“We put that on Ron to help Nathan,” said Colin.

The town board held a meeting on Monday and went into closed session to discuss personnel issues.

After coming out of closed session, board members engaged in a “brief discussion” and passed a motion to move forward with eliminating the building inspection department, Barth said.

The town board was careful to not discuss the topic in closed session, according to Barth.

According to N.C. Open Meetings Law, an elected board can discuss an employee’s performance in closed session, but they can’t talk about general issues of town operations. Barth said the town did not discuss eliminating the building inspections department in closed session.

Unpaid Ghost Town workers were warned pay might not come

Ghost Town in the Sky, an amusement park in Maggie Valley, failed to pay employees for their final two weeks of work before shutting down for the winter.

While most employees were told upfront that they might not be paid their full wages immediately and were given the choice to work or not, the company could still be in violation of state labor laws.

“The law says they must pay all accrued wages to employees on the regularly scheduled payday,” said Darrell Sanders, supervisor for Wage and Hour Bureau with the N.C. Department of Labor. “Even with the employees’ agreement, nobody can waive the law. As soon as midnight ticked by on payday, the company automatically went into violation of the law and will be until the employees are paid.”

CEO Steve Shiver said the company still plans to pay employees what they are owed.

“They will be paid as quickly as possible. I am doing everything I can every day to make sure that takes place,” said Shiver.

In the meantime, there may be little the employees can do about it other than wait. Ghost Town is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy with hopes of reorganizing and regaining its footing. Workers who are not paid by an employer usually take their complaints to the labor department, but the department has no jurisdiction when bankruptcy proceedings are in play.

“It is a large wrench to throw in the machinery,” Sanders said.

Ghost Town filed for bankruptcy early this year. In addition to a $9.5 million mortgage, the park has a trail of unpaid bills with more than 215 companies totaling $2.5 million, including local contractors, electricians, media outlets and equipment rental companies.

Shiver held a meeting with employees going into the final few weeks of the season in October to fill them in on the financial status of the amusement park.

When Shiver leveled with workers and told them cash flow was tight, it came as no surprise. A few times during the year, the park couldn’t make payroll on Friday and instead relied on revenue from weekend ticket sales to pay employees the following Monday. The park eventually moved payday from Friday to Monday on a permanent basis, according to employees. Even then, the park didn’t always make full payroll, and would only give employees a partial paycheck and make up the difference the following Monday after another weekend of revenue came in.

At the meeting, Shiver gave employees two choices: shut the park down early or remain open the rest of the October. If they stayed open, however, there was a chance they wouldn’t bring in enough revenue to pay everyone on time.

Shiver then left the room while employees voted with a show of hands whether to keep working. The vote was unanimous.

“We all knew there was a possibility we may not get paid,” said David Aldridge, a Maggie resident who worked at Ghost Town. “We were willing to risk it.”

Shiver said the dedication of employees is remarkable.

“I have such great employees,” Shiver said. “It shows the dedication of all of us, including myself, to make sure Maggie Valley and Ghost Town in the Sky and all that goes with it survives. I am very humbled by their support and continued efforts.”

While Shiver never suggested employees would be volunteering their time in exchange for no pay, that was certainly in the back of their minds, Aldridge said.

“We were asked if we were willing to take half our paychecks now and half later,” Aldridge said. “Nobody ever agreed to not get paid. Everybody expected to get their last paycheck.”

The paychecks haven’t been forthcoming yet, but Aldridge said he isn’t mad. He said most employees understand and care deeply about the park and want to help it succeed. Aldridge said Shiver was a good leader and an inspiration for employees.

“He was out there working every day as hard as everybody else. He was trying to do all he could to keep Ghost Town going,” Aldridge said.

Shiver has exemplified the all-hands-on-deck attitude that allowed Ghost Town to make it through the year.

“I bussed tables, I swept floors, I blew leaves off the streets to make sure our guests could enjoy themselves,” Shiver said.

Not all employees were at the meeting when Shiver leveled with the state and the informal vote was held, however. The meeting was billed as a non-mandatory staff meeting and the topic wasn’t shared in advance, so Ron Coates, a worker who lives in Hot Springs, opted not to make the hour-long drive on his day off to attend.

No one in management ever told him what had transpired or warned him that he may not be paid if he kept working.

“Nobody ever said we might not get paid,” Coates said.

Coates has filed a claim with the bankruptcy court for $386 after being told by the state Labor Department that was his only recourse.

Meanwhile, water to the amusement park has been shut off due to failure to pay bills, according to the Maggie Valley Sanitary District.

Maggie ABC store captures share of Waynesville business

The recession has taken a toll on liquor sales at the ABC stores in Maggie Valley and Waynesville, in turn reducing the profits paid out to the towns.

Rather than curtailing their intake, customers are buying cheaper brands, according to Joy Rasmus, manager of the Waynesville ABC store.

“It is an easy thing to cut back on. It is a luxury item,” Rasmus said.

Meanwhile, fewer tourists during the recession hurt sales at Maggie’s main ABC store. Austin Pendley, the chairman of the Maggie ABC board, cited “the lack of full motel rooms” as the main factor behind a drop in sales.

Maggie Valley’s ABC store has noticed a further decline in business following the rockslide on I-40, which closed part of the interstate and discouraged travel.

“We could tell an immediate difference,” Pendley said.

That said, the rockslide occurred just when the tourist season was winding down anyway, making it difficult to determine what can be blamed on the rockslide versus the standard drop off Maggie sees this time of year anyway.

“There are too many variables this year,” Pendley said, adding that sales will pick up again when ski season arrives in full force.

Maggie is also bracing for a potential loss in ABC revenue with the advent of liquor at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel. The hotel at Harrah’s began selling alcohol in restaurants and bars this fall, with hopes of eventually offering it inside the casino itself.

Maggie’s ABC store had been a favorite stop for those en route to Harrah’s.

“It will definitely have an effect. There’s no doubt about that, but to what degree I do not know,” Pendley said.

Maggie’s ABC store did a brisk business in miniature airplane bottles, which gamblers would tuck into their pockets and purses before heading over the mountain to the casino.

If and when Harrah’s begins offering alcohol to gamblers on the casino floor, Pendley expects a drop off in sales of airplane bottles.

Turf wars

In a tactical move to grow revenues, Maggie Valley opened a second ABC store this year aimed at capturing business from Waynesville. Maggie’s second store is on the outer fringes of town — more than a mile outside the town proper. Maggie annexed a satellite tract into its town limits to strategically build a new store between Maggie and Waynesville on U.S. 19 in Dellwood.

“Building store number two has been very gratifying,” Pendley said.

The second store likely pulled some business away from Maggie’s existing ABC store.

“We knew some portion would be siphoned from store number one. We don’t know how much,” Pendley said, citing the myriad variables at play this year.

Since Maggie’s new store opened, revenue at Waynesville’s ABC profits have taken a dive (see chart). While Maggie ABC revenue has grown by an additional $30,000 to $50,000 a month since the opening of the new store, Waynesville’s has dropped by a comparable amount.

The drop in revenue came as no surprise to Joy Rasmus, the manager of the Waynesville ABC store.

“We were expecting an impact, but we didn’t know how much,” Rasmus said.

Waynesville once captured a large share of the liquor purchases in the county by default. Residents from the county’s outlying areas come to Waynesville for their grocery shopping. While in the neighborhood, they would stop by the ABC store.

But Maggie’s new store — stationed practically at Waynesville’s doorstep — is snagging a share of what Waynesville once got.

It’s particularly true for those making a special trip from places like Lake Junaluska and Jonathan Creek.

“If you were just coming to town to buy alcohol, it is easier to stop at Maggie’s new store,” Rasmus said.

In response, Waynesville’s ABC Board is contemplating a new store of its own: one in the vicinity of the new Super Wal-Mart. Super Wal-Mart pulls in a huge volume of traffic, which Rasmus would like to capitalize on.

The current ABC store in Waynesville has been there since 1967.

“Absolutely we’ve outgrown it,” Rasmus said.

The Waynesville ABC Board is keeping an eye out for property to build on in the Super Wal-Mart vicinity, but there’s nothing concrete in the works yet.

“In a perfect world, it would be nice to keep two stores,” Rasmus said.

Opening a new ABC store isn’t cheap, Pendley said. There’s the cost of land and construction, but there’s also start up costs like shelving and a computer system. The upfront inventory cost to stock the store was “overwhelming,” Pendley added.

“We had no idea that there was going to be a recession or we probably wouldn’t have done it at this time, but we were too far committed not to go ahead with it,” Pendley said of the second store.

But Pendley is glad they did. The second store has already proven lucrative and will continue to pay off for the town, which reaps the profits from ABC operations.

“The whole purpose is to get more revenue to keep down taxes,” Pendley said of their mission.

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