Ghost Town in the Sky has no hope of pulling itself out of bankruptcy, according to a federal bankruptcy administrator.
The court will decide this week whether to let the amusement park continue to languish in bankruptcy, where it has been stuck for two years now, or simply dismiss the case.
When a company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it buys time from debt collectors while it attempts to get back on its feet. A company is not allowed to remain under bankruptcy protection indefinitely, however.
It must reorganize and present a viable plan for how it plans to pay off debt and continue operating. Or, it is forced into a liquidation, known as Chapter 7, where the assets of the company are sold off by the court and the money used to pay off the debts.
In this case, however, the bankruptcy administrator has recommended simply dismissing the case.
“The debtor has been totally inactive since June 2010 and there appears to be no chance of reorganization,” Linda W. Simpson United States Bankruptcy Administrator, wrote in court filings.
Two bankruptcy court hearings — one on reorganization and one on liquidation — have been on the docket for a year now. Each month, they have been continued.
Ghost Town has failed to file monthly reports as required by the bankruptcy court for the past year, nor has it paid quarterly bankruptcy court fees for the past 12 months. Meanwhile, Ghost Town’s bankruptcy attorney withdrew from the case in February after months of not being paid.
Once a tourism magnet in Maggie Valley, Ghost Town has been in bankruptcy limbo for two years now with debt topping $13 million. The park is also on the brink of foreclosure.
BB&T is owed $10.5 million dating back to the purchase of the park by new owners in 2007 and for subsequent repairs and upgrades.
The bank has initiated foreclosure against Ghost Town, and could auction off the property on the courthouse steps at any point in order to recoup what it is owed.
BB&T has held off on doing so at the urging of Ghost Town principals who want to save the park and have claimed for the past year that a financing deal is just around the corner.
The 288-acre mountain top property won’t fetch enough at auction to pay off all that BB&T is owed, which is likely why BB&T has stopped short of going through with foreclosure.
Meanwhile, the 200 small businesses collectively owed $2.5 million by Ghost Town — including dozens of local businesses left hanging after providing services or products — are out of luck. BB&T is first in line to get paid, and only if there is money left over after its $10.5 million is paid off does anyone else get money.
And that’s precisely why the bankruptcy court is poised to simply dismiss the case rather than go through the hassle of liquidating the company in a formal Chapter 7 proceeding.
“The liquidation value of the property is arguably less than what is owed the bank,” surmised David Gray, Ghost Town’s former bankruptcy attorney.
In the trail of bad debt left by Ghost Town, there is someone who has been paid. Haywood County recently got a $142,000 check to cover three years of back taxes on the 288-acre property. Maggie Valley got one for $110,000.
But it was BB&T — not Ghost Town — that paid the bill.
“We just know that we got it, and we are pleased with that,” said Tim Barth, Maggie Valley town manager, when asked why BB&T would have paid off Ghost Town’s back property taxes.
Whoever buys property at foreclosure inherits the unpaid property taxes. If the bank resumes title to the property, the bank bears the burden of paying the property taxes.
But BB&T hasn’t pulled the trigger on foreclosure yet — so why jump the gun and pay off those taxes before it has to?
BB&T is most likely looking out for number one. Since counties can foreclose on a property owner who has failed to pay their taxes, Haywood County could do an end-run around BB&T and foreclose on Ghost Town itself in order to get the tax money it’s owed.
The only thing keeping the county at bay for now is Ghost Town’s bankruptcy status: bankruptcy halts debt collectors in their tracks. But once Ghost Town gets the boot from bankruptcy court it will lose that protection.
By paying off the taxes, BB&T is buying time. It can continue to sit on the brink of foreclosure — continuing to give Ghost Town’s owners more time to pull off a financing deal — for as long as it wants. It remains first in line should money ever materialize without the threat of being displaced by a foreclosure from the county’s end.
In an interview with WLOS, Ghost Town General Manager and partner Steve Shiver alluded that Ghost Town may open in some capacity this year.
“We would like to have the park open for its 50th anniversary at some level. It may not be full scale. It’s just too early to tell,” Shiver said on television last month.
Following the broadcast, Shiver sent out a mass email to “clarify” the situation.
“Although we have no definitive information about our opening date for the 2011 season if any, we continue to make significant progress and are currently awaiting a decision by a third party regarding the disposition of the property. All indications are for a favorable resolution within the next month,” Shiver wrote in the email.
The latest filing in a lawsuit over the massive landslide in Maggie Valley last winter claims the collapse of the mountainside was triggered by a broken waterline at Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park. Until now, accusations centered on a failed retaining wall intended to shore up the slipping mountainside.
Stabilization of the landslide below Ghost Town in Maggie Valley will begin in two weeks, finally bringing comfort to downslope residents who have lived below the looming threat of another slide for half a year.
The slide last February scoured nearly a mile-long path down the mountainside with a wall of debris 30-feet high and 90-feet wide in places. Only three homes were damaged, but several others suffered destruction to their yards.
The slide initially forced an evacuation of a couple of dozen homes for fear more of the mountainside might collapse. To date, all but one homeowner, whose home suffered the most damage, has returned.
The $1.37 million job will take five months and was awarded this week to Phillips and Jordan, a construction company that specializes in major earth moving. The same company did the rockslide cleanup and stabilization on Interstate 40 last winter.
In addition to recontouring and shoring up the mountainside, the job includes road repairs and returning a dislocated creek to its original course down the mountain.
Al Hill, a seasonal resident with a second home below the slide, said he is pleased stabilization work will be done before the worst of winter. The freeze-thaw cycle can exacerbate erosion and act as a trigger for more landslides.
Engineers and slide specialists who have inspected the site cautioned that the slope remains unstable and another slide is still not out of the question. In fact, a slide could be triggered in the process of stabilizing the slope if the contractor isn’t careful.
As a result, a geotechnical engineer will work on-site each day with the Phillips and Jordan crew.
“It is extraordinarily sensitive,” said Randy Hintz, project manager with McGill Associates, an engineering and planning firm in Asheville overseeing the contract.
The geotech engineer will dictate the final outcome, but not necessarily the approach.
“There is a fine line in telling the contractor how to do his job,” Hintz said. “We tell them how the slope needs to be, and they figure out how to make that happen.”
If things start to look dicey, it might be necessary to send an alert to homeowners to leave the area, Hintz said. The engineer will not always be able to predict how the unstable slope will respond to a particular strategy when the contractors begin moving dirt.
Landslide experts and engineers believe the slide was triggered by a collapsed retaining wall on Ghost Town’s property. Ghost Town had struggled to shore up the unstable and nearly vertical slope on and off over the years.
When the mountaintop was leveled off to make way for the amusement park in the 1960s, loose dirt was pushed over the side of the mountain without being properly compacted. It must now be peeled back to reveal the original contour and compacted as it is put back. Portions of the slope, especially at the top, will be permanently recontoured at a gentler grade that mirrors the original mountainside, Hintz said.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver originally objected to the stabilization plan and demanded an alternative design, but he did not get the engineering specifications done in time to go out to bid. Shiver said he is simply pleased work is getting underway.
“I am extremely happy,” Shiver said after the contract was awarded.
The total project, including engineering, will cost $1.47 million. Federal and state taxpayers will foot most of the bill. Maggie Valley taxpayers will contribute $25,000, and Ghost Town has pledged to contribute $25,000 as well.
Ghost Town has been in bankruptcy the past 18 months. Time is running out for the amusement park, which is being threatened with both foreclosure and liquidation. But Shiver remains hopeful a loan will come through allowing the park’s principal owner to regain title.
Meanwhile, Ray and Cookie Dye are tired of looking at a mud-filled pond that was buried when the slide moved across their yard. They want the pond dug out and their landscaping repaired, but it’s not clear who is accountable.
“We can’t prove it is [Ghost Town’s] fault,” Cookie Dye said.
Town Manager Tim Barth said town crews would try to dig out their pond for them.
Ghost Town in the Sky is staring down the barrel of foreclosure.
BB&T has filed for foreclosure against the amusement park, which owes BB&T $9.5 million dating back to 2007. Of that amount, $6.5 million was to purchase of the 288-acre mountaintop property in Maggie Valley and the rest was for improvements.
A foreclosure hearing is scheduled for Sept. 20, which will set the wheels in motion for Ghost Town to be auctioned off to the highest bidder on the courthouse steps. If Ghost Town is unable to stall it, and if BB&T really goes through with it, Ghost Town could be auctioned off before the end of October. Once the ball is rolling, however, BB&T can set a later date or delay it at will.
Ghost Town has been running from BB&T for almost two years. It filed for bankruptcy in early 2009 primarily to shelter itself from BB&T’s demands to pay up. Bankruptcy was the only way to keep BB&T at bay, according to court testimony early in the bankruptcy process.
Ghost Town also owes $2.5 million to more than 200 small businesses left hanging after providing services or products to Ghost Town, from local electricians and plumbing supply stores to advertising firms and souvenir vendors. These are last in line, however, and it is unlikely the property would bring in enough for them to see any of the money they are owed.
Companies cannot hide from their debts in bankruptcy court forever and must eventually emerge from bankruptcy with a plan to pay off what they owe or face liquidation. After 18 months in bankruptcy, Ghost Town has not produced a viable reorganization plan, according to the bankruptcy administrator.
BB&T got permission from the bankruptcy judge in May to begin foreclosure proceedings. But BB&T was dissuaded from pulling the trigger by the promise of a payoff by one of the park’s primary owners, Al Harper, who also owns the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Harper staved off the foreclosure for four months with an offer to buy the park out of bankruptcy for $7 million. It was less than what BB&T was owed, but the bank was willing to take it.
Harper said upfront the deal was contingent on financing, and so far that hasn’t come through. The looming foreclosure now brings additional pressure to bear on Harper to produce the money to consummate the deal or lose the amusement park.
BB&T has other outlets to recoup the full cost of what it loaned Ghost Town. Several early investors put up personal guarantees to back the BB&T loan. The loan was also partially backed by a federal rural development loan, placing taxpayers on the hook for a potion of it. BB&T could go after either if a sale of the amusement park on the courthouse steps or to Harper directly failed to bring in the full amount it’s owed.
The clock is ticking for stabilization work on a landslide in Maggie Valley to get underway or a federal grant to pay for the work will be lost.
A $1.3 million grant to recontour the precarious mountainside near Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park was secured months ago from the Emergency Watershed Protection Program. But developing engineering plans, securing environmental permits and navigating the various state and federal agencies overseeing pieces of the work has taken months. The Emergency Watershed program has now granted a third — and final — extension for the stabilization work and set a deadline of Oct. 16.
“We need to be under construction by then,” said Town Manager Tim Barth. “They indicated this would be the last extension.”
The town is ready to go out to bid on the stabilization work, but Ghost Town does not like the design and instead has suggested an alternate plan. Engineering for the alternate plan is not yet finished, however.
Barth said the town cannot wait beyond Aug. 22 to go out to bid, or it will jeopardize getting construction underway by mid-October and in turn jeopardize the grant.
Without the grant, there is no source of money Barth knows of to stabilize the mountain. The town can’t afford the work, and the county has said it won’t put up money to fix a landslide on private property for fear of setting a bad precedent. Ghost Town, meanwhile, has been in bankruptcy for a year and a half and its ability to pay for the work is unclear.
The engineering firm, Bunnell-Lammons, has been waiting on some basic schematics from Ghost Town for several weeks in order to draw up a detailed engineering design for the alternate design. It will take two months for the project to be bid out, have a contractor selected, and for work to get underway.
“That’s why we are saying Ghost Town needs to really get it to them quickly,” Barth said.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said that there is “no problem” meeting the deadline to go out to bid. Ghost Town is delivering schematics on the alternate plan to the engineering firm this week. Shiver blames the town for plowing ahead with a plan that was “unacceptable” to Ghost Town.
“They composed the plan without any input from any property owners,” Shiver said. “If Mr. Barth would have engaged Ghost Town in the repair planning, we would already be under construction. I am frustrated that we are even put in this position by the city.”
The emergency federal grant requires support of the property owner. But Shiver said he would not agree to the first plan that was developed.
“Absolutely not,” Shiver said. Shiver said he told town officials so at the beginning of the process.
“He wasted two months worth of time. Why I have no idea why,” Shiver said. “The [engineering firm] was directed to come up with the plan absent any input from us.”
If the issue of dueling plans isn’t solved, it is unclear whether the town can compel Ghost Town to agree to the stabilization work. A state statute does allow towns to intervene if there is a threat to public safety.
“A city shall have authority to summarily remove, abate, or remedy everything in the city limits, or within one mile thereof, that is dangerous or prejudicial to the public health or public safety,” according to G.S. 160A-193.
The slide qualifies as a threat to public safety for the dozens of people living below the mountainside who would be in the path of another slide, according to N.C. Geologist Rick Wooten, who has assessed the destabilized mountainside.
“In my professional judgment, unstable slopes remain in the vicinity of the slope failure, and these unstable slopes present an imminent threat to public safety,” Wooten wrote in a letter to the Town of Maggie Valley following the slide.
Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said the statute is most commonly used to force property owners to clean up junk cars, keep their lawns mowed or seal off old swimming pools.
But, “It is a fairly broadly written statute,” said Hibbard. Typically, the town would get a court order giving it permission to take charge of the public safety threat.
If the statute was used, the work could be billed to the property owner, in this case, Ghost Town. Although Ghost Town is in bankruptcy, the work carried out under the statute would have priority status, carrying the same weight as back property taxes, and would be the first thing to get paid off if the amusement park is either sold or liquidated.
Shiver said there are flaws in the original plan proffered by the town. For a start, it was unclear if there was enough grant money to cover the cost of the stabilization.
“There were too many variables in that plan. It had an open-ended checkbook,” Shiver said.
In addition, the original plan would claim a small flat area tucked into the side of the mountain that Shiver says is critical to the amusement park’s future plans. As the only level spot on an otherwise extremely steep slope, it’s one of the few places Ghost Town could add attractions in the future.
No one is more intimate with the highs and lows of amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky than the people of Maggie Valley.
In its heyday, the mountaintop theme park routinely drew 400,000 visitors a year to the small town. Families on vacation could be counted on to pack into Maggie’s motels and restaurants each summer.
Throughout the years, the park’s Western theme and rides grew outdated. The amusement park fell into disrepair and ultimately succumbed to bankruptcy.
The recession struck the town hard, as did natural disaster. A massive rockslide on Interstate 40 routed traffic away from Maggie all winter long. On top of that, a major mudslide that originated from Ghost Town took out a road to the park earlier this year.
The slide, which remains destabilized, has dampened any hopes of the amusement park reopening this summer.
Business owners in the valley have felt the painful economic impact of Ghost Town’s closure. Vacancy signs linger over the town’s commercial corridor, while vacant buildings for sale have become an all too common sight.
“That park needs to be open,” said Phillip Wight, owner of the Clarketon Motel. “Weekly business has dropped off tremendously.”
“There’s still people coming into the valley just to go to Ghost Town,” said Teresa Smith, manager at Maggie Valley Inn. “Once they know it’s closed, they leave.”
Mayor Roger McElroy estimates that most motels are experiencing a steep 30 to 40 percent drop in business since Ghost Town shut down operations.
Maggie’s town government hasn’t taken the major economic blow sitting down.
It purchased land to create its own festival grounds, a rare move for municipalities anywhere. A full-time festival director now works round the clock talking to promoters who might hold events there.
Maggie’s leaders have also charged a newly-formed economic development commission to study ways to bring prosperity to the valley.
Meanwhile, the planning board is crafting a set of controversial design standards to spruce up the town’s outmoded appearance that harkens back to the ‘60s. Another option being explored is a 1 percent restaurant tax to be used on tourism promotion and projects within town limits.
Town leaders as well are setting their hopes on a $6 million sports complex planned for Jonathan Creek one day. Tournaments there hold the promise of bringing thousands of new visitors each year.
Not forgetting Ghost Town, however, the town has taken the lead in obtaining funding to clean up the mudslide below the amusement park.
Not every resident supports every direction the town has taken. Many have their own ideas on how best to proceed — with or without Ghost Town.
“The biggest summer tourism market that is underfunded is motorcycles,” said Wight. “It’s not about the [motorcycle] rallies, it’s about keeping traffic flow.”
The already popular Wheels Thru Time museum, which houses rare vintage motorcycles, recently earned its own brown highway sign, which will likely draw more curious visitors to town.
Lynda Bennett, member of the Maggie Valley’s economic development commission, would like to see tax incentives for remodeling old businesses rather than have the town set design guidelines.
“People don’t want to go in and plow under businesses, even though they’re dated,” said Bennett, who is also a Realtor. “Their building has value.”
Bennett very much likes the idea of small businesses opening up “micro-offices” in some of Maggie’s many vacant motel rooms. A computer repair business could start up next to an insurance salesman, for example.
Bennett sees a dire need for fresh ideas.
“We’re trying to change the shape of our box a little bit,” said Bennett. “If we don’t get outside of where we’ve been thinking, then Maggie could continue on the same path it’s been going on.”
Wight, too, understands the gravity of the situation.
“Without a Ghost Town, we’re somewhat doomed,” said Wight. “Ghost Town made this town.”
In Mayor McElroy’s view, Maggie Valley needs to focus on the basics.
“I think we need to get back to some of the things that put Maggie Valley on the map to start with, which is the beauty of the mountains,” said McElroy.
Bennett can rattle off the benefits of visiting and living in Maggie Valley: close proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, the cool mountain temperature and incredible views. Maggie Valley also caters to those with a more adventurous state of mind, Bennett said.
“We have a little more challenging winters; we don’t have a grocery store,” said Bennett. “It’s not like we’re convenience oriented. We have other things to offer.”
Whether it’s mountain biking, ziplining, kayaking or skiing, emphasizing nature is key to revitalizing Maggie’s tourist economy in Bennett’s opinion.
Another key might be the festival grounds, which cost the town almost $500,000. A 1 percent lodging tax devoted to Maggie Valley helped bring electric lighting and other improvements to the festival grounds.
“We’re looking at everything and any way to use that facility to the fullest,” said McElroy. “Because we have a large investment in it.”
The town hired a festival director to help promote the venue after much prodding from some business owners.
Audrey Hagar, who recently went full-time as festival director, has created a promotional DVD to sell the venue to potential clients. She’s exhausted many of her connections from previous jobs to find appropriate events for the venue, which can fit up to 40,000 people.
“I’ve planted a lot of seeds, and now I’m watering,” said Hagar.
One new event Hagar recently helped bring is a vintage Volkswagen show. The town will soon vote on whethe attendees can camp overnight at the festival grounds.
Hagar is also looking at bringing back the popular Maggie Valley Moonlight Race, which once garnered ESPN coverage.
“We’re in uncharted waters,” said Hagar, pointing out few other festival grounds are run by a single municipality.
Town Manager Tim Barth said while it’s a difficult time for everybody in Maggie Valley, he urged them not to give up.
“It’s important to continue to try and find what’ll work,” said Barth.
For decades Maggie Valley and Dillsboro were two of the mountain’s most iconic tourist towns. Sadly, both relied heavily — too heavily — on a single cash-cow. When Ghost Town shut down in Maggie and the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad pulled out of Dillsboro, both lost tens of thousands of visitors once delivered to their doorsteps. Both towns are now struggling to find new identities.
The amusement park is still mired in bankruptcy and remains in a holding pattern until a major landslide blocking access to the park is cleaned up and stabilized.
A proposal by one of the park’s main owners to buy Ghost Town out of bankruptcy failed to go through as planned. Al Harper, owner of Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and a principal investor in Ghost Town, hoped to buy the park for $7 million. That price tag would fall $6 million short of covering the park’s debts, but it would have allowed the park to emerge from bankruptcy. Harper hoped to put the amusement park back in operation, but the deal was contingent on a loan from an offshore lender.
Maggie Valley business owners that rely on tourist traffic from the theme park had been hoping the deal would go through. But even if it had, the challenge of getting rides in working order to pass state inspections and hiring a seasonal staff to get the park open for the summer would have proved challenging, according to park officials.
Meanwhile, stabilization of a massive landslide that originated from the mountaintop amusement park is months away from completion. Until then, the risk of another even more massive slide is possible.
The work is estimated at $1.3 million, a tab being picked up by federal and state grants.
The town of Maggie is contributing $25,000 in matching funds and is coordinating the work. Ghost Town made a verbal promise to pitch in $25,000 as well. Maggie Town Manager Tim Barth said he won’t authorize work to start until the money from Ghost Town is in hand.
The town is still waiting on state environmental permits before the project can go out to bid. However, a debate has now emerged concerning competing plans.
Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver is not satisfied with initial engineering plans to fix the slide.
“We thought there was a better way,” Shiver said.
The plan to recontour the mountainside on a gentler grade would claim a small flat area Shiver says may be critical to the amusement park’s future plans. As the only level spot on an otherwise extremely steep slope, it’s one of the few places Ghost Town could add attractions in the future.
As a result, Ghost Town asked for a second stabilization plan to be formulated. A slightly steeper grade, bolstered by a retaining wall, would preserve the level area.
Barth said Ghost Town must pick up the tab for engineering work required for the alternative plan, which is still in development. A cost estimate for the competing plan is not known yet, Barth said.
“If that option is significantly more expensive, that’s where more money might be necessary from Ghost Town,” Barth said.
Once one of the two plans is chosen, more detailed plans must be prepared before the project can go to bid.
Once repair work is complete, a precarious Maggie Valley mountainside destabilized by a major mudslide will be returned to its natural state.
The hard part will be getting to that point.
Last Wednesday, anxious residents downslope of the slide along with town leaders gathered to hear the plan of attack. Three engineers from McGill Associates and Bunnell-Lammons presented their preliminary reports, which recommend methods for both stabilizing the slope and restoring a displaced stream to its original path.
The top of the mountain was leveled more than 40 years ago to make way for Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park. Unwanted dirt was pushed over the side of the mountain in the process.
Engineers want to remove that fill soil and re-grade the slope to its natural state, peeling back the layers until they reach the contour of the original mountainside.
For now, it is unclear how exactly contractors will go about their work without setting off another slide, however. Town Manager Tim Barth said he is not sure who would be liable if another slide were to occur.
Without repair, however, a slide of the same or even greater magnitude than the last one could occur, according to Bunnell-Lammon, which is in charge of the slope stabilization part.
The state geologist earlier said up to 16,000 tons of loose material threatens the mountainside. Homes below have been left endangered ever since February’s slide, which left a 3,000 feet wake of destruction down the mountainside.
In engineering terms, a “factor of safety” of 1.0 or less indicates an “impending or active slope failure.” The upper portion of the slope now has a factor of safety of 0.6. Bunnell-Lammons recommends a minimum a factor of safety of 1.3, but preferably 1.5.
While the “how” of the plan is still being formulated, one thing is clear, use of major equipment will be minimal.
“Some of those jobs, it’s shovels and wheelbarrows,” said J.P. Johns, an engineer with McGill.
“This is not going to be a scenario where we get large pieces of equipment up there working around,” said Randy Hintz, project manager with McGill. “This is more likely going to be a situation where we have bobcats (small graders) and mini-excavators up there working.”
The primary source of funding for the approximately $1.4 million project will come from a federal grant, while N.C. Department of Transportation will fund much of the rest. Meanwhile, Ghost Town and the Town of Maggie Valley say they will contribute $25,000 each.
All work will be supervised by qualified field specialists, who will be on site to approve even the most minor changes to the official plan. Contractors must be certified by the DOT and demonstrate a minimum of three similar jobs completed successfully.
Barth says he is hopeful it will take no longer than two to three months for the work to be completed once it begins.
McGill is waiting to receive necessary permits before it can hire a contractor to start work. The firm anticipates that a permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources could take up to 30 days.
Even after that, the DOT will require engineers to put the job out to bid for a minimum of 21 days.
That announcement left the crowd stunned at Wednesday’s meeting.
“That’s ridiculous,” someone whispered.
“Is there no way to expedite the 51 days you were talking about?” asked Mayor Roger McElroy. “That seems to me like an unreasonable time.”
Hintz responded that since North Carolina has not declared a state of emergency — like the town of Maggie Valley and Haywood County did in February — his firm has little choice but to follow the normal protocol for publicly-funded jobs.
“In order to get the state funds to participate in this project, it must go through all the same channels,” said Hintz, while reassuring residents that the project has moved forward since February. “We’ve accomplished an awful lot at this point.”
Resident Kurt Biedler asked specifically if debris would be removed from his house, one of the five worst damaged by the slide.
“I mean these are things that are very important to me right now: trees, rocks, guardrails, timber,” said Biedler, who has moved to Arden for now.
Hintz said he would have to check with the funding agency before he could answer. “We have been given a very narrow focus on the types of things we can spend this money on,” said Hintz.
As part of the stabilization process, a road on Ghost Town’s property that sits on top of the fill dirt will be dismantled. The road is key to getting from one part of the amusement park to another. It will not be rebuilt by contractors working on the project.
According to Bunnell-Lammons, it appears the landslide started at Ghost Town’ retaining wall, where the fill soil placed with the MSE walls met underlying residual soil. Those MSE walls will be removed as part of the repair process.
Bunnell-Lammons stated in its report that it had been specifically directed not to determine the cause of the slide or evaluate the parties responsible for the slide.
“Our scope of work is how to immediately repair it,” said Will Gentry, a Bunnell-Lammons engineer. “We have not gone into why did it fail and how did it fail.”
Meanwhile, mud, downed trees, and other debris have stopped up culverts where the creek crossed Rich Cove Road three times on its way down the mountain. The landslide also created a wide, long swath now prone to erosion.
To restore the stream, McGill’s plan recommends removing mud, downed trees, and other debris from three culvert crossings along Rich Cove Road. Currently, the blocked up culverts are forcing the stream to divert from its natural path.
Contractors will work upstream to downstream in the upper section, then downstream to upstream in the lower portion in order to work “dry.”
The removed trees would be ground up into wood mulch, which will be spread out on the mountain slope. This will minimize how much material contractors have to deliver up the steep slope.
“We’re going to try to limit the hauling out and the hauling in,” said Johns.
“Speed bumps,” made of mulch will be installed to slow down water as it flows down the slope.
Vegetation will be re-established with native species as much as possible, though a true restoration will be difficult to accomplish with the limited funding that’s available.
The first priority, however, will be to address the unstable slope at the top of the mountain.
“We don’t want to do any work down below until we get the top stabilized,” said J.P. Johns, an engineer with McGill.
As Al Harper watched the national recession undermine ticket sales at Ghost Town amusement park over the past two years, he faced a tough choice: pump more money into the faltering theme park or throw in the towel?
Walking away would mean losing the millions he already invested. But investing more could mean throwing good money after bad, with no hope of recouping any of it at the end of the day.
Harper ultimately drew his inspiration from a favorite historical visionary.
“It is kind of fun to do the impossible,” Harper said, quoting the words of Walt Disney, which are inscribed on a plaque he keeps on his desk.
Harper, the 65-year-old owner of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and scenic rail lines in Colorado and Texas, wants to revive the bankrupt and beleaguered Maggie Valley theme park.
Harper has been a major backer of Ghost Town since 2006, but he shared ownership with other partners and investors. Under Harper’s rescue plan, he will pay off $7 million of the park’s $13 million in debt — and emerge as the sole owner of the park in exchange.
The host of other investors will be cut out and their equity in the park simply evaporate.
“I have lost a lot of money. You have no idea,” said Steve Nichols, an investor from Orlando. “It totally ruined my life.”
Harper will also walk away from more than $5 million in back debt — including hundreds of thousands owed to local businesses, from electricians and plumbers to gas companies and media outlets — which will be wiped away by the bankruptcy court.
Despite the financial carnage in its wake, Ghost Town would avoid the uncertain fate of foreclosure and emerge from bankruptcy with a leader at the helm determined to resurrect the Old West theme park.
“I believe if there is anybody that can pull it off and can keep it as a theme park it is me,” Harper said.
To fund the deal, Harper has lined up a loan with an offshore lender. He said he is “90 percent positive” the loan will come through, hopefully by early June. The Greek financial crisis has come at a bad time, however, and Harper hopes it doesn’t make the lenders nervous.
Harper is putting up the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad as collateral, pledging 100 percent of the railroad’s ownership in exchange for a $15 million loan.
“I am gambling my railroad,” Harper said.
Half the money would be used to buy the park out of bankruptcy, and the other half would sustain operations and bankroll improvements to the park until it begins turning a profit. Harper has built in losses for the first three years, though he hopes to turn it around quicker.
The plan has been approved by the bankruptcy court. All the deal waits on now is the loan to close.
When Ghost Town was put up for sale several years ago, Harper was courted by tourism leaders in the region. Harper originally hoped to be a silent partner with a limited investment.
But the other two partners were unable to raise the cash they promised, and Harper was being pressured to put up more money, he said.
“Right at the beginning they were $2 million short. They said ‘Would you co-sign with us?’” Harper said.
The pattern continued over the next two years as the park struggled to get off the ground and stay afloat.
“I didn’t want to lose the $2 million, so I put in more,” Harper said.
Similar cash calls went out to all the shareholders and investors, but Harper’s deeper pockets left him as the last man standing when the need arose to pitch in more, he said.
Harper ultimately found himself in for more than $4.5 million in loan guarantees — which he is now on the hook for if the park goes under. It’s partly what motivated his plan to buy the park out of bankruptcy.
“Here are my choices. I can forget Ghost Town and write a check for $4.5 million and never look back. Or I can go in and try in this crazy economy to buy Ghost Town,” Harper said. “The easy way out is to walk.
“But this is a lot deeper than that,” said Harper. “My name got attached to it.”
A lot to lose
Several Maggie business leaders are among the ranks of those who will lose shares in the park, but those interviewed for an article last week don’t see their investments as being for naught. As long as Ghost Town continues to operate and bring in tourists, they believe their contribution helped the greater community, even if they personally have nothing to show for it.
A handful of investors from out of state who put up capital for the park’s purchase in 2006 are not feeling so rosy by what they see as an end-run by Harper. But they are helpless to do anything about it.
“I don’t think there is anything I can do other than write it off as a bad investment,” said Court Huish, an investor from California. “That’s just business.”
Jeff Anderson, an investor from Florida, will lose a substantial six-figure investment.
“I am not happy with what has transpired, but it is what it is. The bankruptcy court is the bankruptcy court,” Anderson said.
Nichols not only stands to lose his six-figure investment as a shareholder, but he is also on the hook for a portion of the park’s mortgage, a portion of which he personally guaranteed.
Ghost Town took out a loan of $9.5 million with BB&T in 2006. Harper’s deal will only pay off $7 million — leaving BB&T short by $2.5 million. Naturally, BB&T is coming after Nichols to make good on the portion he signed a personal guarantee for. Nichols wouldn’t say for just how much.
“The nail is in the coffin. They may as well throw the dirt on,” Nichols said.
Nichols said the owners kept returning to investors asking them to put up more to keep the park afloat, but he didn’t have any more.
“It’s not that we don’t care,” Nichols said. “I think Ghost Town is a wonderful place, but if you haven’t got the money you haven’t got the money.”
Besides, the shareholders weren’t given a say in park operations, like the large amount of the money spent on upgrades the first two years after reopening. The 1960s-era amusement park was plagued by crumbling infrastructure, from a jury-rigged electrical system to malfunctioning rides. Putting the park in order required a “big capital burn” and dug a hole it couldn’t emerge from, Nichols said.
“I think they tried to fix too many things too fast instead of little by little,” Nichols said.
Anderson agreed, to a point.
“To suggest the sole reason for the failure of the park to perform was because of the capital over-expenditure is ridiculous. As with everything that fails, there is not one reason, there is multiple,” Anderson said.
Nichols said the park has the potential to make money, but luring visitors was ultimately the main challenge.
“If you don’t have enough people coming, what are you going to do? It’s Business 101,” Nichols said.
Particularly in the days of Six Flags, Busch Gardens and Carowinds.
“That stuff wasn’t there back in the 1970s,” Nichols said.
Harper estimates it will take 150,000 visitors a year to make the park profitable. It brought in just 71,000 last year while suffering from the negative publicity of bankruptcy and spending no money on advertising.
As a sole owner, Harper said he will have the control he needs to make the park work — control he didn’t have under the old entity. Harper points to his success with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, even during the recession.
“My worst year ever I put 150,000 people on a train,” Harper said. Harper plans to cross-market with the railroad to send visitors Ghost Town’s way. He will also combine functions like payroll, accounting and ticket sales, saving hundreds of thousands, he said.
Huish, Nichols and Anderson say they were not properly kept apprised of unfolding events, like Harper’s bid to buy the park.
All three were all brought to the table as investors by Hank Woodburn, one of the lead buyers in 2006. Woodburn comes from the amusement industry, operating a network of 10 fun parks with water parks, mini golf, laser tag, go-carts and the like under the company Adventure Landing. Woodburn also recruited Harper to the deal.
Woodburn, who will lose substantially in the deal, did not return messages.
Harper doesn’t see his deal as ruthless. The alternative was foreclosure, and under that scenario, the investors would likewise lose all their money and the small businesses still would go unpaid. Under Harper’s plan, at least Ghost Town has a shot at staying an amusement park.
Harper could theoretically use part of the $15 million loan he is taking out to pay back those left holding the bag. But divesting the park of its old debt is key to Harper’s business plan.
“I can’t pay for all the mistakes that happened in the past,” Harper said. “It is a tragedy that it ended up like it ended up.”
Harper said he is not exactly a winner in whole deal. He’s taking on a major new venture at the age of 65 — a defensive but risky strategy to protect the investment he already sunk into the park. In addition to the $7 million Harper will pay for the BB&T bank mortgage, he is on the hook for $2 million on an outside loan to fund improvements at the park that he co-signed for — which must be paid separately.
“I could take the approach I was a victim. But the world is full of victims,” Harper said. “I made mistakes, so I am going to correct them. I am going to make this thing work. We have got to move forward and get this past behind us.”
Getting the park open
A deal to bail Ghost Town out of bankruptcy court is contingent on a loan from an offshore lender.
If it goes through, the park could be open by the beginning of July, according to Ghost Town’s CEO Steve Shiver. Shiver told a group of business owners last week that there is a lot to do to get the park open for the season. Once the loan comes through, work can begin.
Workers must be hired and trained to run the park, but the biggest challenge will be getting the grounds, rides and facilities ready. Shiver laid out a long list of needed repairs, including replacing water pipes that froze and broke over the winter and two broken water pumps that move water around the mountaintop. Winter even took its toll on the rides, some of which need retrofitting now, Shiver said. The major rollercoaster, which opened only for a short time last season, has inspection hurdles to pass once more.
One issue to contend with will be nearly $400,000 in debt from 2009. The long list includes paying off at least $30,000 in utility bills from 2009 to get water and power restored.
It is also unclear whether the park could reopen until the mountainside below, which was destabilized by a mudslide, is shored up.