“I think it really needs to be open. I think the community needs it, and I think it’s better for the theatre,” the 72-year-old said. “Things tend to depreciate sitting dormant. Though we’ve kept everything well manicured, the building is better opened than closed.”
Located on Soco Road in the heart of Maggie Valley’s commercial district, the $3.5 million, 18-acre property has loomed empty, almost a lost opportunity of what could have been. Behind the building, there’s also a natural outdoor amphitheatre able to hold upwards of 2,000 people. Simply put, if run properly, it could be a game-changer for the town’s economy.
“I didn’t do this to just spend a lot of money, I built this to help the community,” Lackey said. “Most people might not believe that, but I do love this town and this area.”
Head for the hills
Growing up on his family’s tobacco farm in Alexander County (near Taylorsville), Lackey ventured out into the world, ultimately entering the manufacturing industry. He started his own business, Taylor Togs, which once was a national manufacturer of Levi Strauss jeans. And all his life, Lackey’s father had a deep love for bluegrass music. His dad befriended legendary banjoist and Maggie Valley resident Raymond Fairchild.
“Dad and Raymond became real close,” Lackey said. “So, if I wanted to spend time with my father, I’d head up to Maggie Valley and go to the Stompin’ Ground.”
Lackey found a deep connection to the Haywood County mountain town. He soon partnered in running a hotel, then owned a home there for years. And as he became more and more involved with the community and its business sector, Lackey heard about another opportunity — Thunder Ridge was up for sale.
A once notorious dance club, Thunder Ridge gained a reputation as an oasis for alcohol and mischief in a region, at the time, which had much more stringent beer and liquor laws compared to nowadays. On Dec. 7, 2001, Corey Matthews of Asheville was shot and killed in the Thunder Ridge parking lot by Toren Gordon, a Western Carolina University football player.
The club eventually decided to shut down and was put on the market. Though tragedy had occurred on the property, Lackey looked at the space as something that could be transformed, molded into a positive symbol of business within the community.
“It used to be chicken coop wire and sheet metal in here,” Lackey recalled. “We renovated completely. I spent a lot of money renovating it inside and out.”
In 2003, Eaglenest opened. It saw success in the early years, with musical acts like Percy Sledge and Pam Tillis gracing the stage. But with the construction of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin, competition and getting people in the seats became difficult. And with the economic downturn of 2008, Lackey saw the writing on the wall — it was time to close up shop.
“When the casino came in and the economy got bad, it changed a lot of things,” Lackey said. “And I had some health issues then, so did the couple that ran Eaglenest, so we decided to close.”
A new day
But, 2014 is not 2011. With an improving economy and health, Lackey felt the timing was right to bring Eaglenest back into the spotlight.
“We hope things will continue to grow,” he said. “And I’d be misrepresenting myself if I said this place wasn’t still for sale. It’s not an easy place to sell, but with the right person or persons, it could really do something.”
To signal their return, Eaglenest will hold a soft opening on New Year’s Eve with a special performance by Fairchild, who will be joined by an array of entertainers. Plans are already in the works for an official grand opening in the spring.
“We’re really hoping to get support for the community,” Lackey said.
Lackey noted that though he’s never taken county money, he does feel to make the business work he’d need help from the town, county and beyond — a group effort to ensure the future of Eaglenest.
“It can be difficult to get support,” Lackey said. “The county and community has not been willing to invest, and I’ve approached them many times. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers, but if you take the other big towns in this area that are going well, they invest in business, even if it’s private.”
So, with the Eaglenest ready to open, and the ball rolling, what about offering alcohol sales on-site? What about the idea of being able to offer craft beer and wine, two booming independent industries in Western North Carolina, to get folks not only in the door, but connected with local products?
“I’m not opposed to drinking, but I’m not a drinking man. We have considered it, but right now it’s not on the agenda,” Lackey said. “From a profitability standpoint, people see money, but it costs a lot for liability and proper training. We could get a wine and beer permit, but we’ll have to look into it more, to see if it could work.”
Stepping outside the Eaglenest, a bluebird sky shines over Maggie Valley. Lackey looks out over the property, a man ready for a second chance at making a spark in the community surrounding him.
“They say entrepreneurs never die, but I’m smart enough to know someday I will,” he chuckled. “I enjoy seeing things built and seeing things happening. I get a real kick out of it — it’s a great feeling.”
Want to go?
To celebrate the soft opening of the Eaglenest, there will be a special performance by legendary banjoist Raymond Fairchild & Friends at 7 p.m. Dec. 31 at 2701 Soco Road in Maggie Valley.
Fairchild will be joined by an array of television entertainers including Leroy Troy (“Marty Stuart Show”), Roni Stoneman (“Hee Haw”), Mark & Ray Grooms (“Moonshiners”), Cowboy Caward (from the film “Deliverance”), The Hatcher Boys, the Southern Appalachian Cloggers, and more.