JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 885

Bridging the divide: Maggie struggles to find new identity among tourists, second-home owners and year-round residents

Home to 3,000 motel rooms yet only 1,610 year-round residents, Maggie Valley can’t exactly escape the term “tourist town.”

Anyone driving through the main drag passing a long line of lodging options would know. But perhaps less evident to visitors is the precarious balancing act the town constantly faces in satisfying both tourist and local needs.

In helping to achieve that delicate equilibrium and develop a vision for future growth, Maggie Valley has formed its own Economic Development Advisory Committee. Though the town officially created an economic development advisory commission way back in September 2005, the ball finally got rolling on the committee only recently.

The seven members appointed to the committee last month will serve as a liaison between businesses, the town and citizens of the community. The commission has met twice so far to formulate a better idea of its responsibilities and avoid redundancies.

The EDC faces the gargantuan task of creating an attractive model of growth that will satisfy everybody, from year-round residents to the increasing number of second-home owners to tourists simply visiting for a few days. Since Maggie Valley has long catered to tourists, one of the EDC’s tasks may be to update the town’s tourism model, which has been criticized in the past for being somewhat outdated.

As the main breadwinner for the Haywood Tourism Development Authority, with nearly 60 percent of the authority’s revenues coming from Maggie Valley, how the town handles its growth - and how that affects tourism - will clearly be relevant outside its borders.


What Maggie Valley wants

The EDC has discussed the idea of surveying residents and local business owners to learn more about what the community craves in terms of growth. Asking Maggie Valley residents about what they’d like to see developed in their town will naturally elicit some divergent reactions, but there does seem to be a near consensus on some issues. While many acknowledge that tourism is the “lifeblood” of Maggie Valley, they would like to see more services for full-time residents.

One step in that direction is to keep businesses open year round.

“Some of us who are open need to survive the winter,” said Gabriela Edwards, co-owner of A Holiday Motel. “The ski area is great and Tube World is great, but they’re done in the evening so it’s like, what do we do now?”

“More businesses in Maggie Valley need to bite the bullet and stay open year round,” Joe Moody, who serves on the board of directors for the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Bob LaBracio, who owns Specialty Lock & Door Company, said he’d like to see stores selling more than just “T-shirts and trinkets” open all year.

Also on LaBracio’s wish list are healthier choice restaurants and specialty grocery stores like Earth Fare and Greenlife. Many residents interviewed expressed interest in having a grocery store of any kind developed so they wouldn’t have to drive elsewhere to pick up groceries.

Ken Johnson, chairman of the newly formed EDC, said it’s been difficult to bring a grocery store to Maggie Valley since there are so few full-time residents, but a specialty store might be a feasible option. Making up for Maggie Valley’s sparse population, a specialty store would have a broad demographic and attract people from neighboring counties.

However, there is at least one point of contention for residents: fast food chain restaurants. Some residents prefer more options for a quick bite to eat, while others are strongly against chain establishments.

“I’d like to see McDonald’s and Dairy Queen [rather than] go all the way over to Waynesville,” said Gene O’Kelley, a regular on the front bench of the Shell gas station in town. “McDonald’s would do good here.”

“I don’t mind going to Waynesville,” said Joanne Martin, owner of Fireside Cottages and Mountaineer Restaurant. “I don’t want Burger King and McDonald’s up and down.”

Other suggestions for businesses included a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and more medical facilities in general.


Preservation as a goal

Jim Higel, owner of Legends Sports Grill, said Maggie Valley might just need more of the same.

“We need more shops, motels and restaurants,” Higel said. “If you have a motel in the middle of the desert, you’re bankrupt. If you have 500, you’re Las Vegas.”

But being akin to Las Vegas is a far cry from what other residents want.

“It’s not what you want to see, it’s what you don’t want to see,” said Wayne Busch, owner of America Rides Maps. “I prefer not seeing any change at all, but it’s going to come.”

Though some Maggie Valley residents can spout off a list of things they’d like to add to the town, there are some facets of Maggie Valley living they do not want touched.

Busch said industry and manufacturing should not even be considered. “What we got here is somewhat fragile,” said Busch.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, said she’d like to see Maggie Valley take a step back and focus on its mountain culture.

“I think we can market ourselves in a different way,” said O’Keefe. “I have always wanted this area to look back toward heritage culture.”

Kathleen Klawitter, a member of the EDC, moved to Maggie Valley a month after her first visit last year. She said she is interested most in preserving what brought her here in the first place though she knows growth is somewhat inevitable.

“I believe Maggie Valley will grow anyway. Its beauty and tranquility will invite growth,” said Klawitter.

Steve Shiver, another EDC member and president of Ghost Town, said there is a need to officially gather community input and data collection to see both what residents desire and what is possible.

According to Shiver, Maggie Valley’s infrastructure can handle more tourists. Drawing more visitors to the area would benefit everybody in town with better tax revenues, he said.

But for now, the town’s major projects seem to include a focus on residents. The town is putting in two wheelchair accessible river decks in Parham Park near Jonathan Creek and working on getting a “very promising” $1.3 million in stimulus funds to build the first residential sidewalk in Maggie Valley. It has also recently approved a special zoning exception for an assisted living facility.

Maggie chases festivals as ticket to tourism

When the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen purchased land for a town festival ground in 2002, it had high hopes for success.

Events held there would reel in visitors to stay at local motels, eat at local restaurants, and shop at local stores.

As well intentioned as the act may have been — seven years and more than $1 million later — the festival grounds is still not producing enough money to cover expenses. The town recently decided to write off the debt, which means money generated from the festival grounds won’t be used to pay back the town’s general fund, which has been covering costs ever since the festival grounds were created.

The town rushed to develop the festival grounds to compensate for a potential dwindling in tourism after Ghost Town, an amusement park and one of Maggie Valley’s anchors of tourism, shut down temporarily.

The Town of Maggie Valley has paid for roughly half of the $1 million cost of buying the property and installing improvements, with the rest of the money coming from grants and donations.

Annually, the festival grounds has brought in an average of nearly $11,000 in revenues, paid by groups holding festivals there. Meanwhile operating expenses runs an average of about $31,000 annually.

“The festival grounds fund doesn’t generate enough money to pay off the expenses to run the festival grounds,” said Town Manager Tim Barth.

Furthermore, revenue doesn’t begin to cover debt on the property, both from land purchase and improvements made over the years, such as a stage, restrooms and concession stand. The debt has averaged $147,000 a year.

“The general fund is still making the payment every year for the land,” Barth said.

The result is that town taxpayers, including residents with no personal stake in tourism, have been saddled with subsidizing the operation.

Barth said the town never envisioned that the festival grounds would be a profitable venture. Its main function was to bring tourists to “spend time in Maggie and spend money in Maggie.”

But Alderman Phil Aldridge said while others claim the festival grounds will never be a “money making proposition,” he begs to differ. According to Aldridge, the town could make a better effort to promote the festival grounds.

“Why say the race is over when it’s only half run?” said Aldridge. “You’re investing into something. It takes money to make money.”


Revolving door

The town is hoping to bring in fresh talent yet again to aid the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds in attracting events. Town leaders have oscillated over the years on whether the town needed a dedicated festival director, seeing a few come and go without lasting success. The last festival director, who was fired in May, lasted a mere three months.

Barth said the town board decided to see if it could go without the position and still have events materialize. The laissez-faire approach has now been put aside, as the town is once again on the hunt for a festival director who will better market the venue.

A 1 percent tax on Maggie Valley’s lodging will fund about $20,000 of the next festival director’s salary, with the town making up the rest.

Maggie Valley’s festival season, which runs from May to October, saw a total of 11 festivals this year, compared to 13 the year before.

Some business owners said the festival grounds has great potential for success, and the move to hire a festival director should have happened a long time ago.

“They need to put somebody in charge,” said Jim Higel, owner of Legends Sports Grill. “Nobody knows who to call.”

“The problem with the festival grounds is who’s managing it,” said Joanne Martin, owner of the Mountaineer Restaurant and Fireside Cottages. “The festival grounds is an important part of the town’s well-being. They really need to get that hitched up.”

Tammy Brown, chairwoman of the town’s parks, recreation, and festival advisory committee, said even though the town has been very dedicated to making improvements to the festival grounds, there has been a need all along for someone to market it to the public.

“It’s time to actually go after folks that have the ability to come in and put on an event,” Brown said. “The town is not in the business of putting on events and festivals. It’s time-intensive, labor-intensive ... There are folks out there that are promoters that do this for a living.”


Try, try again

Earlier this year, the outgoing festival director complained that cost charged for using the festival grounds was a deterrent in landing events. Brown said the festival advisory board asked the former director to do a study on costs at similar venues, but it was never completed.

When the festival grounds was just starting up, Brown’s board did research rents for similar-sized venues to ensure prices were fair.

Running an event at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds currently costs for-profit organizations $500 per day and non-profits $250 each day. In addition, there’s a $1,000 deposit and $250 per day charge for using the stage, water, electricity and lighting.

Earlier this year, Jeff Cody, sponsor for Rocky Mountain Events, cancelled a mini-truck show due to higher than anticipated fees. According to Cody, the additional fee for the use of electricity, the stage and the water was “ridiculous.” Cody said insurance costs were also more expensive in North Carolina than in Tennessee, where he eventually moved the event.

Regardless of the festival grounds’ somewhat lackluster revenues, there are still some who are optimistic about its future.

Joe Moody, who serves on the board of directors for the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the festival grounds is a great venue even if it isn’t a moneymaking venture. Moody said the grounds is successful in supporting local businesses.

In his opinion, a full-time festival director would be valuable for the entire county and could be pursued as a joint effort.

“It should be rolled together,” Moody said. “[The director] needs to be able to sell the whole county, not just Maggie Valley.

Ghost Town still in the red despite $1.53 million in revenue

Ghost Town in the Sky did not bring in enough revenue from its amusement park operations during the months of May, June and July to cover its overhead and operating expenses.

Ghost Town recently filed financial statements with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for May, June and July that show how much it made off ticket sales, concessions and souvenirs. For the three-month period, Ghost Town made $1.531 million in revenue off the park.

Meanwhile, the Maggie Valley amusement park paid out $1.845 million in operating costs, including salaries, utilities, insurance, taxes, advertising and equipment.

The operating loss was offset thanks to contributions from investors to the tune of $322,000. The financial statements do not say where or who the cash infusion came from. The cash infusion mostly came in May, when the park bore significant expenses to get the doors open for the season. Once open, the park began to break even and during the month of July, the park even made money.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver made a modest salary of $5,426 over the three-month period. However, a company Shiver is president of, Global Management Services, was paid $27,000 by Ghost Town for the period. Shiver’s company is billed as a professional services company and dates to Shiver’s former life in the Miami area. The services Shiver’s company provided were not spelled out in the financial filings, but the fee was listed under a section for payments to insiders.

The theme park has suffered a setback this summer by failing to get the Cliffhanger Roller Coaster open.

The Maggie Valley theme park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March in hopes of holding off bill collectors long enough to get back on its feet. 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.

Ghost Town has been granted an extension to file its reorganization plan under bankruptcy protection. In early July, days before the plan was due, Ghost Town asked the court for an extension. The bankruptcy court granted a three-month extension, making the plan now due in early October. The plan is supposed to spell out how the company plans to make money to pay back its myriad creditors.

Those owed money get to vote on whether to accept Ghost Town’s reorganization plan. The plan is supposed to be voted on by creditors within two months of being filed.

The bankruptcy court turned down a request by Ghost Town that would have paved the way for another $250,000 loan from a private investor, Alaska Pressley. The loan would have been used to help get the incline railway working. Ghost Town wanted to pay back the loan by dipping into proceeds from ticket sales, but the bankruptcy court ruled that this in effect would allow Pressley to jump in line ahead of others already owed money by Ghost Town.

Ghost Town still honing bankruptcy comeback plan

Ghost Town in the Sky wants more time to prepare its bankruptcy reorganization plan and is seeking an extension.

The Maggie Valley theme park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March in hopes of holding off bill collectors long enough to get back on its feet. Ghost Town was supposed to submit a reorganization plan in U.S Bankruptcy Court within four months, which would have been early July, but is seeking a three-month extension.

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, from electricians and contractors to marketing agents and souvenir vendors. Those owed money get to vote on whether to accept Ghost Town’s reorganization plan.

The court has not ruled on whether to grant the extension.

Meanwhile, Alaska Pressley, a longtime Maggie Valley resident and business owner, has offered a $250,000 loan to Ghost Town to help the beleaguered theme park on its road to recovery. The loan would be used to help get the incline railway working, according to the bankruptcy filing.

The incline railway was once used to transport visitors up the mountain to the amusement park, but it has not been operational for many years. Ghost Town owners began rebuilding the incline railway when they purchased the park, but ran out of money to finish.

Pressley has been a player in the Maggie tourism industry for more than 50 years and was friends with the founder of Ghost Town, R.B. Coburn. When new owners came on the scene and reopened the park after a five-year hiatus, Pressley was quick to join their side as a stalwart supporter.

Ghost Town proposes to pay back the loan over the course of five years, with $1 per customer this year and $2 per customer for the next four years.

The arrangement would allow Pressley to sidestep others who are owed money by Ghost Town by directly tapping Ghost Town’s revenue stream. BB&T, which holds a $9.5 mortgage on the property, objected to the proposal as it would funnel profits off the park to pay back a select lender. The fate of the loan and payment arrangement will ultimately be up to the bankruptcy judge.

Ghost Town coaster an open-and-shut case

The much-anticipated roller coaster at Ghost Town opened amid fanfare last week, then was promptly shut down again.

The coaster is one of the primary attractions at the mountaintop amusement park in Maggie Valley, but has been plagued by a series of glitches in the two years since the park opened under new ownership. The new owners pledged to breathe life into the 1960s-era amusement park, including rebuilding the coaster that had been shut down due to safety issues under the former owner.

The park hired a ride manufacturer to build an all-new roller coaster train that could run on the existing track. The new train has been slow to pass state ride inspections, however — from the type of harnesses it used to the way the cars rode on the track.

All those hurdles were finally cleared, however, and the coaster debuted to the public for a single day last Wednesday (July 1). By Thursday, it was shut down again.

The latest glitch involves the way the seat frames are bolted to the cars, according to Jonathan Brooks, head of the N.C. Elevator & Amusement Device Bureau. The seats will have to be taken apart and the connections analyzed — all the way down to which forge and which batch the steel came from, Brooks said.

Brooks said the ball is now in the ride manufacturer’s court to do an evaluation and come up with a fix.

“Until their engineers come back to us with a suitable solution to the problem, there is where we are,” Brooks said.

Ghost Town characterized the issue as “fine-tuning” in a press release sent out last Friday announcing the set back.

“The maintenance of a coaster is an ongoing and continual thing. This is just part of a process,” said CEO Steve Shiver. Indeed, a roller coaster at Carowinds was shut down by the state over the weekend due to concerns that arose there.

Shiver said the ball is already rolling on a new design for the seat brackets. If the new design is approved by the state, it should not take long to make the modifications to each seat.

Shiver said issues like this aren’t unusual and in fact are to be expected as part of the process in launching a new roller coaster.

“If it were easy everybody would be doing it,” Shiver said. “Some of it is trial and error, particularly given the uniqueness of our location and the logistics of being on top of this mountain. That’s why we are excited about having one of the most unique roller coasters in the world.”


How it was discovered

The state signed off on the final round of lengthy and arduous inspections Tuesday afternoon, but Brooks asked one of his inspectors to hang around and keep a close eye on the first couple of days of the ride’s operation.

“This being a brand new coaster, it is not unusual to have the inspector hang around and make sure the operations are running properly,” Brooks said.

In fact, ride inspectors make both surprise and announced inspections of all amusement parks and fairs in the state. Sometimes inspectors will pay the admission price at Carowinds and go in undercover as a tourist. Brooks said the repeated monitoring goes with the territory.

“You are taking people and turning them upside down and flipping them and spinning them, so there is a constant oversight that happens,” Brooks said.

The Cliffhanger roller coaster was open to the public all day on Wednesday. But Thursday morning, a Ghost Town ride operator detected something that didn’t seem quite right. He noticed what seemed to be abnormal movement of one of the seats in a car at the back of the train. The movement was most likely imperceptible to most, but not for an attuned ride operator.

“You get to know every little clink. They know when they see some abnormal movement,” Brooks said.

The ride operator in turn called the state inspector over who was still on the grounds. The inspector examined the seat fastenings, which wasn’t an easy task in itself.

“You have to get on your belly, standing on your head with a flashlight and mirror, to be honest,” Brooks said.

The inspector called Brooks and told him something didn’t look right in there. Brooks’ response: shut down the coaster and take the seat apart. The ride inspector found a hairline crack in the seat frame near the bolt that fastened it to the car.

“I took some heat for shutting it down, which I was willing to take. I don’t have an issue with that. My family may be on it and I certainly want it safe for my family, your family, everyone else,” Brooks said, reciting the rule of thumb behind his decisions.

Shiver said that while the setback is “absolutely frustrating” he, too, puts safety first.

“We want a safe and enjoyable experience for all our patrons,” Shiver said. “We have waited this long to open the coaster and because of our false starts in the past, we want to make sure that all of our theming and the complete Cliffhanger experience is satisfactory according to the high standards I personally set when we embarked upon the renovations and remaking of Ghost Town in the Sky.”


Inspection process works

The closure is a testimony to the state’s inspection system working properly, Brooks said. Brooks said his inspectors had been all over the roller coaster train examining every bolt and the crack wasn’t there. Brooks surmised it is a stress crack that developed during operation. It’s one reason the state requires a roller coaster to make 1,000 runs loaded with 170-pound sand bags in each seat before it can pass inspection.

The test runs not only familiarized ride operators with the coaster enough so they would detect any abnormality, but also meant the stress crack appeared early in the coaster’s debut while an inspector was still on site and not back in Raleigh already.

“We crossed all our T’s and dotted all our I’s,” Brooks said.

Shiver agreed.

“The process worked like it should,” Shiver said. “That’s why we have daily inspections and well-trained ride operators. It worked.”

Brooks’ expertise in ride operations helped the amusement park overcome a problem that had been stumping them for months. The roller coaster was repeatedly getting stuck on the track in certain places. The ride manufacturer, Rotational Motion, was unable to diagnose the problem that seemed potentially insurmountable without either rebuilding the cars or making serious alterations to the track itself.

Ghost Town had hired Brooks’ former counterpart with the state ride inspection bureau, Clyde Wagner. The two were on site at Ghost Town one day trying to troubleshoot the confounding problem.

“He and I were just talking one day and I said something ain’t square here,” Brooks recounted.

It turned out the neoprene wheels weren’t quite hard enough. Using an instrument to taking readings on the softness of the wheels, they tested the old wheels from the original roller coaster cars and discovered they were slightly harder than the ones on the rebuilt cars. New, harder wheels solved the problem.

There was another issue as well. The park has greased down the track with cooking oil. Lubricants aren’t uncommon to reduce friction since roller coasters operate on gravity.

The cooking oil left a residue, however, and sand sifting out of the bags placed in the seats during test runs had stuck to the track and even gotten in the bearings. Brooks had the maintenance crews strip the tracks of the build-up.

The ride manufacturer suggested switching to baby oil as a lubricant, which is applied to the wheels of the cars by hand every morning.


The Cliffhanger

Ghost Town’s Cliffhanger roller coaster is truly amazing. The track perches on the side of a 4,700-foot mountaintop, offering sweeping vistas of distance mountain ranges in every direction and the valley floor visible far below. See footage of the short-lived opening of the coaster filmed by a tourist, including footage of the ride from the front seat of the coaster train at www.ghosttowninthesky.com/Special/cliffhanger.html.

Maggie festival embraces all things trout

Maggie Valley will celebrate the trout heritage of the Smoky Mountain region with its annual Trout Festival, held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 20, at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds.

One of the integral aspects of the trout festival is environmental education, and a tent will house exhibits from such groups such as the N.C. Division of Inland Fisheries, Haywood Community Alliance, Haywood Waterways, Friends of the Smokies, the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education, NCSARDA (Rescue Dogs), Appalachian Bear Rescue, Haywood Community College, Haywood EMC and the Girl Scouts, who will be doing face paintings. The North Carolina Forest Service will be represented by their fire line plow and the personnel with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park will also participate.

This year’s stage entertainment list the Elk & Bugle Corp from Cataloochee Valley, the Dixie Darlin’ Cloggers, Rob Gudger, a wolf habitat show, Doris Mager’s bird of prey show, Lonesome Mountain Band from Pigeon Forge, Tenn., the Rafe Hollister Band, from Waynesville and Priscilla and the Jerusalem Cruisers, from Maggie Valley.

The entertainment will include chain saw carving demonstrations, casting demonstrations and fly tying demonstrations throughout the day. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, is scheduled to speak around 11:45 a.m.

The WNC Sportsmans Club will have an Air Gun Range for youths ages 8-18, and the Maggie Valley Police Department will have a “Beer Goggle” driving course for all ages.

As always, trout dinners will be for sale to all participants.

Also the annual CATCH (Caring For Aquatics Through Conservation Habits) fishing clinic sponsored by Haywood Community College will take place at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the creek. Children need to sign up early for the clinics as space is limited.

The Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce will sell Trout Race tickets for the 4:15 p.m. event at the creek with $800 in prize money to be given away by the Town of Maggie Valley.

For more information visit www.gsmtroutfestival.org or call 828.926.0866, ext. 117.


Maggie Valley Trout Festival

When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., June 20

Where: Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, U.S. 10 (Soco Road) in Maggie Valley

Includes: Festival celebrating mountain trout with food, entertainment, crafts, and activities for children.

Ghost Town CEO preaches cohesive marketing

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver told players in the Haywood County tourism community they need to pull together if they want to effectively market and brand the region.

Shiver invited members of the tourism and business community to a breakfast meeting at the Maggie Valley theme park last week for what he called a tourism rally. Shiver appealed to the community to engage in cross-marketing, partnering and co-branding. Shiver said Ghost Town could use its pull to market the region as a whole, and alluded that other business could help drive traffic to Ghost Town.

Shiver has said visitation will be what gets the park through its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. If enough people come through the gates, it can make the money it needs to stay open and reorganize. Without Ghost Town, Maggie Valley will lose a major player in tourism and suffer economically, Shiver said.

Shiver said the tourism community has had trouble working collectively in the past.

“Being an outsider and coming in relatively new, looking at the tussle that I have sometimes seen in the past, that does nothing but hurt us all,” Shiver said. Shiver named at least half a dozen tourism entities that all play a role in marketing the region.

“The different groups out there all want the same end results,” Shiver said, but sometimes end up competing.

Shiver came to Haywood County from Florida less than 18 months ago.

The tourism community in Haywood County has been known for its factions over the years. Some tourism entities have historically been at odds, often pitted in a tug of war over the best way to spend tourism promotional dollars.

That division has subsided over the past two years, however. The money tug-of-war was largely solved when Haywood County Tourism Development Authority increased its tax on overnight lodging from 3 percent to 4 percent. That created more money to spread around. The extra money was earmarked for niche tourism initiatives that didn’t fit with the big picture marketing of the countywide tourism authority.

But Shiver questioned whether money could be used more effectively if pooled to make a bigger marketing splash rather than dispersed to myriad smaller entities.

“If we are not on the same page, it dilutes our affect,” Shiver said.

Shiver said Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge continue to claim a bigger piece of the market share “because they had their act together and we were fractionalized,” he said. “If we don’t pool our resources and leverage our resources we are going to lose it.”

Miracle opening

Shiver said he proved hundreds of people wrong by opening the park in the face of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

“We have done what many said we could not do,” Shiver said.

Shiver also addressed the question everyone wants to know: when will the roller coaster open?

“Everybody, the roller coaster is on the way,” Shiver said. Shiver said he couldn’t say when, but that it would open one day soon. Shiver has been promising the public that the roller coaster would open soon for over a year now. Many in Maggie Valley feel Ghost Town’s success hinges on whether the roller coaster opens.

Ghost Town is in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. Shiver said the park is committed to pulling through and paying off its debts, which total some $2.5 million in unpaid bills to businesses, many of them local.

“I apologize on behalf of Ghost Town and its owners. We are going to do everything we can,” Shiver said. “We don’t take it lightly. The position we are in right now we don’t like to be in. But we are going to reorganize and move through.”

Ghost Town was forced into bankruptcy after defaulting on its $9.5 million mortgage. The 1960s-era theme park was rife with major infrastructure problems the owners weren’t privy to when they bought it more than two years ago, Shiver said. The park was also hit by a drop in tourism from the recession. Shiver thinks business will pick back up this year as families look for vacations close to home.

“We heard often Ghost Town is the thing of the past, that if it is not bullets and baggie pants kids don’t want it these days,” Shiver said, referring to the gangster and rap culture of today’s youth.

Shiver said he didn’t agree, however. Shiver said Ghost Town is built on a foundation of family values and that’s just what America needs today. That said, Shiver said the park hopes to expand its rides to increase its appeal for teen-agers. Another goal for next year will be to create an Appalachian heritage village with living history demonstrations.

Shiver has been raising money from investors any way he can to help overhaul the park. Shiver showed that he hasn’t lost his since of humor when thanking Marla Banta, the owner of Jude’s Coffee and Creamery, for giving out free ice cream scoops in exchange for donations to help Ghost Town.

“That million dollars you gave us really helped,” Shiver said.

Maggie grapples with best way to recruit new festivals

The town of Maggie Valley fired its part-time festival director after he failed to produce results a few months into the job.

The town hoped their new hire, Bill Cody, would lure more festivals to the town-owned festival grounds as a way to bolster Maggie’s tourism economy.

“We anticipated that the position would continue for a while, but it just wasn’t working out,” said Town Manager Tim Barth, who made the decision to terminate Cody two weeks ago.

Events are on tap at the venue on only about half the weekends during this year’s peak tourist season from May to October. The town brought Cody on in February in hopes of ramping up the schedule.

“It was something that we wanted to try to help get more tourism into Maggie,” said Alderman Colin Edwards of the position. “That’s why we hired Bill Cody. We talked about it for months off and on before it ever happened.”

But while Cody pitched several ideas and said he tried to recruit different events, he didn’t attract a single festival in his three and a half months on the job.

“He mentioned some possibilities, but he didn’t have any specific events that he was able to point to,” Barth said.

Among Cody’s ideas were a bluegrass festival, a Popcorn Sutton Day, and a storytelling festival.

Cody told the town’s Parks, Recreation, and Festival Advisory Committee that he wanted to add two to three new events to the Festival Grounds by 2010. He wasn’t in favor of one-day events, arguing that they didn’t encourage visitors to stay overnight and support local restaurants and motels. Cody also wanted to develop a DVD promotional packet to distribute to promoters, but never started the project.

Edwards doesn’t believe Cody necessarily failed to do his job, but rather, that he was put into a tight spot due to the difficulty of recruiting festivals in the current economy.

“I feel like it was a no-win situation,” Edwards said. “Everybody wanted results right now, and it takes a while to get new festivals.”

The cost of renting the Festival Grounds presented somewhat of an obstacle in marketing them. Renting the Grounds costs $1,500 for three days, including a $1,000 deposit, and additional fees of $250 per day for stage, water and electric.

Cody tried to lure one event sponsor back who cancelled a mini-truck show scheduled for May. The sponsor said he felt the extra fees were, “ridiculous.”

Cody told the Parks, Recreation and Festival Advisory Committee that it posed slight problem telling promoters that the rental fee is $1,500, then continuing to tack on charges.

Maggie Valley will likely hire a new festival director. Cody’s salary, equivalent to about $750 per week, was paid by tourism revenue, namely a 1 percent tax on overnight lodging earmarked for tourism initiatives in Maggie.

“I think that the town is going to continue the position, but I think that we’re going to sit down and talk about it probably after we have a chance to get through the budget,” said Barth.

The town is currently finalizing its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Edwards said he thinks the town’s first attempt at hiring the position was a learning experience.

“I think it’s a position that the town could benefit from having,” Edwards said. “We’re just going to have to rethink everything and I believe we need to set goals for a festival director.”

This isn’t the first time the Festival Grounds has had a person to promote it paid with money from the room tax. The Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce had a festival coordinator until recently. With the Chamber cutting back on the number of events it puts on, such as the BBQ Festival and the Trout Festival, there was no longer a point in having the position, said Jena Sowers, manager of the Maggie Valley Visitors Center.

Ghost Town makes opening deadline; roller coaster still not working

Ghost Town in the Sky drew around 2,500 people over Memorial Day weekend, despite the daunting challenges of getting the theme park up and running while grappling with Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

All eyes had been on the park to see if it would open for the season on May 22 as owners predicted, and if so, how many visitors it would rake in.

The Old West theme park opened to mixed reviews from visitors. Those interviewed with young children were delighted by the gunfights playing out in the mock western town and pleased by the line-up of rides, many of which are well suited to young children.

“It was great. We love it,” said Melinda Turner who brought her 9-year-old son and his friend to the park from Cumberland Gap, Tenn. “We love the gun shows especially.”

Families with older children and single couples said they were disappointed by the limited ride offerings, however. The park’s two main thrill rides — a roller coaster and a drop tower — weren’t working for opening weekend. Both hit glitches when being inspected the N.C. Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau in the run-up to opening day.

“We thought it was cool, but if there are going to be rides down, they should give us a discount,” said Jennifer Conley from Ohio, who was visiting without children. “We thought there would be a little more to do up there.”

Conley and her partner heard about the park on a whim, while eating lunch at Sagebrush in Waynesville, and decided to check it out. She said she probably wouldn’t come back.

“Of course, everyone wants the roller coaster to be open,” said Dorene Pauley, owner of Travelowe’s motel. “A lot stems on that roller coaster. They need to get it open.”

The park is now entering its third year without the roller coaster, which has undergone an extensive rehabilitation including brand-new train cars. Park owners say the key ride will be open soon.

Pauley said calls have been rolling in to their motel all week from visitors with questions about the park, most wanting to know if the roller coaster is open yet. Once it does, visitation will take off, attracting roller coaster enthusiasts from all over the country, said Pauley’s husband, Scott.

The Pauleys said tourism in Maggie depends on Ghost Town. When Ghost Town reopened under new ownership in 2007 after a five-year hiatus, it brought a 30 percent increase in business to their hotel, especially among families. Visitors love Ghost Town, they said, witnessed by the children donning cowboy hats, vests and gun belts while re-enacting gunfights in the motel parking lot after visiting the park during the day.

Whether the Old West theme of Ghost Town resonates with today’s youth has been questioned by critics of the park, but that wasn’t the case for Seth Rogers, 9, visiting from Tennessee. Rogers said he has watched Westerns and loved the gunfights, but admitted the chairlift clinging to the side of the mountain was his favorite part of the trip.

Rhonda Chism, who was on an annual vacation in Maggie with her kids and grandkids from south Georgia over Memorial Day, came back to Ghost Town for the second year in a row only to find the coaster still wasn’t working.

“We were disappointed they didn’t have everything going,” Chism said.

Chism said the gun fights and musical performances were very good, however, a theme echoed by several visitors. Several visitors also commented on how well they were treated by the friendly staff.

“Everyone was really, really, really nice, very accommodating,” said Tina Justus, who was visiting with her toddler and pre-schooler from Washington, D.C. The family was staying in Asheville, but ventured to Maggie for the day after Justus found Ghost Town on-line when hunting for kid-friendly attractions in the area.

“It was good for our age kids, but if they were much older they would have been disappointed,” Justus said.

Some visitors opted not to buy a ticket after learning the coaster wasn’t open, including Judy and Keith Parker of Greenville, S.C. The Parkers have a second-home in Maggie and opted to come back another day “once everything is working.”

“We are kind of holding off until then,” Judy said.

The cost of the ticket, with or without a functioning roller coaster, gave pause to one family visiting from Atlanta.

“It’s kind of high,” 13-year-old Nick Farmer said as his family stood in the parking lot discussing whether to go up. The family, who was staying in Cherokee for the week, picked up a brochure and said they might return later in the week.

“We are kind of limited on funds,” said Nick’s mom, Christi Farmer. “It will depend on what else we find that is comparable.”

The park operated at a loss last year, falling behind on its $9.5 million mortgage and racking up a backlog of $2.5 million in unpaid bills. The new owners inherited a host of problems lurking below the surface at the aging park, tapping their financial resources. The recession made loans impossible to get and put a dent in visitation, forcing the park to seeking bankruptcy protection while reorganizing.

The park will be submitting a business plan to the bankruptcy court this summer showing how it plans to get back in the black.

The park hopes to have the roller coaster and drop tower open by this coming weekend, pending the outcome of a second round of inspections this week.

The park had waited until the last minute to call for an inspection by the state. Inspectors were at the park all last week certifying rides up until opening day, including the chairlift that carries visitors to the mountain-top amusement park. The park ramped up its staff just days before the park was slated to open, with some workers reporting for work for the first time just two days before opening day.

The park was seeking a $200,000 loan from the town of Maggie Valley to help cover opening costs, but did not garner enough support among town leaders to pass.

The business community has rallied to help Ghost Town, with several business owners putting up money as investors. Others have offered in-kind services.

Maggie Valley Restaurant, Legends Sports Grill, Smackers Sports Grill and Joey’s Pancake House provided food for the employees over the week leading up to the park opening.

Free landscaping work was provided by Sheppard Landscaping Services and Caldwell Trucking and Excavating. Maggie Valley Excavating made parking lot repairs, filled potholes and cleaned streets for free. Brad Kuykendall provided gravel for roads in the theme town in exchange for a stack of tickets that Kuykendall will donate to the Broyhill Children’s Home.

“We are amazed how the town is really coming together and embracing Ghost Town’s continuing efforts and commitment to tourism and working with us to grow Maggie Valley into a southeast family vacation destination,” said Steve Shiver, President and CEO of Ghost Town. “With their support, we will be able to make it happen.”

Ghost Town withdraws loan request

By Becky Johnson & Julia Merchant

A surprising turn of events caused the Maggie Valley town board to call off its vote on whether to loan the struggling Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park $200,000.

Moments before aldermen were to cast their votes at a special called meeting Monday (May 18) — and after it became apparent the request was going to be turned down — Ghost Town President Steve Shiver stood up and told the board he didn’t need the town’s money. Shiver said a private business owner in the room, who did not want to be named, had stepped up with an offer of financial aid to help get the park open.

The board then rescinded its motion to vote on the matter.

Prior to Shiver’s announcement, the board had held an hour-long public comment session and was prepared to vote. After the public comment session, each board member stated their position.

Mayor Roger McElroy said he supported loaning the park the money. Alderman Colin Edwards in a last-minute decision asked to be recused from the vote. Alderwoman Saralyn Price said she was not willing to risk taxpayer money to provide the loan, a stance that aldermen Mark DeMeola and Phil Aldridge agreed with.

It became obvious that the loan would not be approved as the majority of the board members stated their positions against it.

Shiver would not speak to The Smoky Mountain News after the meeting. According to previous statements to this newspaper and other media, Ghost Town is still scheduled to open Friday, May 22, just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.


Public weighs in

The question of whether to loan Ghost Town $200,000 in taxpayer money proved to be a heated issue for residents and business owners in the town.

Two packed public hearings and dozens of written comments submitted to the town preceded the would-be vote.

Those who were against the loan fear Ghost Town will go under and the taxpayers will lose what they put in.

“It is throwing good money after bad,” said Roger Ferguson, who owns a mobile home park in Maggie Valley. “They owe everybody in the county. How do they expect to pay back Maggie Valley?”

Those in favor of the loan claim that Maggie Valley’s tourism economy hinges on Ghost Town’s success.

“Ghost Town has marketed Maggie Valley for years upon years,” said Joanne Martin, a local restaurant owner. “If we lose Ghost Town, what is Maggie Valley’s brand?”

The controversy has pitted the town’s business operators in the tourism trade against average residents, according to those on both sides.

“Please remember your obligation is not just to the businesses in Maggie, but also to its residents,” town resident Candace Way implored to aldermen Monday night.

Business owner Brenda O’Keefe said the “we” and “them” way of thinking isn’t new to Maggie Valley.

“I hope this will not happen over (the loan),” O’Keefe said. “I don’t want it to be the business people versus the local people.”

Shiver had said the amusement park would open its gates for the season regardless of how the town voted.

“We aren’t here to fold up our tent and walk out if we don’t get a loan from Maggie Valley,” Shiver told the town aldermen, acknowledging their difficult position. “We are committed, and we are not going anywhere.”

While Ghost Town billed its request as a loan, several speakers at the public hearing expressed reservations about the park’s ability to repay it.

“This it is a risky move and we shouldn’t be involved in this,” said Jim Casey, a town resident and voter.

Ron DeSimone, who lives in Brannon Forest, questioned the town’s ability to thoroughly evaluate Ghost Town’s business plan and finances to know whether the loan would have been on solid footing.

The town asked Shiver more than once to provide a business plan showing how the loan could be repaid. But the town was told such a business plan isn’t ready yet, Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth said. Ghost Town has to file a reorganization plan with the bankruptcy court later this summer, but until then, Shiver said the park won’t share it, Barth said.

The information Ghost Town has provided are one-page profit-and-loss summaries from 2007 and 2008.

“We asked for detailed information on revenues and expenditures, and that’s what they sent us,” said Barth. “They haven’t really volunteered anything. We had to ask for what we have received.”

Several speakers at the public comment session said the town should not be in the banking business, especially since Ghost Town has been turned down for a loan from financial institutions.

“Why should a local government lend money to a company that has filed banckruptcy?” asked Phyllis McClure, a property owner in Maggie Valley. “Elected and appointed officials are entrusted to be good stewards of public funds. Those funds should be handled more carefully than our personal funds. They are not ours to give away.”

“Your plan to invest tax money in a high-risk venture that most normal banks won’t touch seems to be a little iffy to me,” said resident Jack Ryan.


Tourism driver

Shiver said it is not uncommon for towns and counties to support economic development, whether it is through a revolving loan fund or outright grants to lure industry. In Maggie Valley, where tourism reigns, Ghost Town is proper investment for town tax dollars, he said.

“There is no denying that tourism and vacation home sales are driving your economy,” Shiver said. “There are many hoteliers in the audience and lodging partners that are here that truly depend on that.”

Maggie has a history of investing in its tourism economy, Shiver said, pointing out the town’s purchase in 2002 of the festival grounds. The town has spent more than $500,000 on the purchase, adding amenities and maintenance over the years.

Business owners say Maggie Valley’s tourism economy will wither up without Ghost Town.

“We gotta have it,” said Becky Ramey, owner of Smackers restaurant. “We’ll have a Ghost Town either way — either Ghost Town will open up, or if it doesn’t, Maggie Valley will be a Ghost Town.”

Dave Blankenship, owner of Alamo Motel and Cottages, said his business went up 30 percent in 2007 when Ghost Town reopened after a five-year hiatus.

“If Ghost Town closes, we would risk losing a lot more than ($200,000) for a long time to come,” said Tammy White, owner of the Clarkton Motel. White pointed out that the theme park draws in 130,000 visitors a year who then stay in the hotels and motels in the area. The local lodging facilities would have a hard time pulling in those numbers on their own.


Not on my dime

If Ghost Town is so important to the businesses in the Valley, let them put up the money, some speakers suggested.

“Maybe these businesses could form an alliance and lend the money to Ghost Town,” McClure said. McClure said residential property owners won’t see a direct benefit, yet will shoulder an increased tax burden if the loan isn’t paid back.

Dave Blankenship at the Alamo Motel argued that the money split among the town’s taxpayers doesn’t amount to much. The town has 1,600 individual taxpayers on its rolls. The loan is equivalent to just $125 a person.

“That ain’t nothing. You spend that going out to a good dinner somewhere,” Blankenship said.

Speakers in the “no” camp said the town would be better served to spend its economic development dollars elsewhere.

“If the town wants to increase the climate for business, there are certainly other things you can do that would be much more effective and less risky. I think this is very risky,” said DeSimone.

Roger Ferguson agreed the money could be put to a better use.

“If you have $200,000, put it in a trust fund for the kids of the Valley so they can go to college and don’t have to scratch and claw like a lot of us do,” Ferguson said. “Set up a scholarship fund so those who have the desire can get beyond what we have here.”


Support from within

Employees of Ghost Town joined business owners in speaking up for the loan.

“This is how I feed my family. I think we deserve a chance to prove ourselves,” said Michael Howard, the maintenance manager at the theme park. “You won’t find a group of harder working people in the county. I work my heart out at it every week.”

Howard said the park is on the right road and can pull through.

“We’ve gone through lows and we’ve gone through highs,” said Howard. “We are making strides in any and every way we can to support our community.”

Randy Bryant, an employee of Ghost Town, said he believes in Ghost Town so much he put $250,000 into the park since it filed bankruptcy.

“I took my hard-earned money, my retirement money, and invested it in Ghost Town because I love Maggie Valley,” Bryant said. “I put my money into that park to get it open this year so we can try to get everybody that’s owed that money you are talking about paid back. Without it being open, there is no way those people can ever get paid back.”

A gunfighter at Ghost Town who goes by Preacher said the theme park is a labor of love for many employees.

“There is a great number of us up there who aren’t on the clock,” Preacher said of the push to get the park ready for opening day.

Many local people have invested personal money in Ghost Town. Among them are Austin Pendley of Maggie Mountaineer Crafts, Brenda O’Keefe of Joey’s Pancake House, and Alaska Pressley, according to Shiver.

Verlin Edwards, a speaker in the “no” camp, said the investors should pony up the money themselves.

“I know they can dig a little deeper and come up with their $200,000,” Edwards said.

Shiver has said previously, however, that the investors are tapped out. They have already poured their savings and assets into the park to get it this far.

In the first two weeks after filing bankruptcy, Shiver paid $23,000 to a company he owns, Global Management Services, according to bankruptcy filings. That’s in addition to a salary of $1,600 that went straight to Shiver.

Ghost Town has to file quarterly financial reports with the bankruptcy court. The first quarter filing only contained financial transactions for a two-week period from when the company filed for bankruptcy in mid-March to the end of that month.


Going through the process

The town held two public hearings on the Ghost Town loan, although not by design. The town initially announced it would hold a public hearing on Thursday, May 14. The town had to run a legal notice in the newspaper at least two weeks before a public hearing, per state law.

There was a glitch in the notice being printed in The Mountaineer, forcing the town to push back the date of the “official” public hearing until Monday, May 18. Since May 14 had already been widely circulated among town residents as the date of the hearing, however, the town kept it on the calendar as well — thus the two public hearings.

The first public hearing drew a crowd of about 75, while the second public hearing drew a slightly smaller crowd.


Why the need for a loan?

Ghost Town filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-March. It has a mortgage of $9.5 million and outstanding bills of $2.5 million. Many locals are among the 200 companies owed money, including electricians, building supply stores, marketing outlets and suppliers of T-shirts and souvenirs.

The iconic park is deeply engrained in the collective memory of Haywood County, both as an economic driver since its debut in the 1960s and a family past-time holding fond memories through the generations.

But when new owners bought the aging park in 2007 from its long-time owner and founder, they inherited a crumbling and jerry-rigged infrastructure. It required far more of a capital investment than they bargained for. Coupled with the economic downturn and credit crunch, the park was forced into bankruptcy, according to Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver.


Maggie flush with extra cash?

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver argued that town has the money readily available for a loan, pointing to its substantial fund balance. Shiver said the town has plenty to spare without affecting residents’ property tax rate.

The fund balance, equivalent to the town’s savings account, is 51 percent of its general budget. Maggie Valley’s fund balance is actually below the state average of 64 percent for towns of its size.

“I am not saying our fund balance is in bad shape, but it is not where the average town is at,” Town Manager Tim Barth said. “Over time, I think we need to work toward getting our fund balance up so we are much closer to the average.”

Shiver said Maggie has far more than the 8 percent fund balance required of local governments by the state. But Barth explained that the 8 percent minimum fund balance is geared toward larger governments.

“If you have a $100 million budget, 8 percent of that is $8 million,” Barth said. But for Maggie, with a general budget of $2.5 million, reserves of 8 percent would be a mere $200,000.

The fund balance is the town’s fall back for emergencies, should a storm wreak havoc, a road collapse or sewer line explode. Any government needs a certain amount of cash on hand to cover such contingencies. The smaller the town, the larger those savings will appear as a percentage of its overall budget.

The state average for towns with a population between 500 and 1,000 is a fund balance of 86 percent, and 112 percent for towns under 500.

“There’s a reason that it is that way,” Barth said. “The Local Government Commission would not wait until we got to 8 percent until they sent letter and made phone calls and said, ‘What are you doing?’”

Ghost Town owes Maggie Valley $30,000 in back property taxes.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.