Waning tourism in Maggie Valley and what to do about it is dominating the town’s election this fall.
Four people are running for two seats on the town board, and there is also a contested race for mayor.
A slate of three candidates — Phil Aldridge, Phillip Wight and Ron DeSimone — say the current town leadership is a rudderless ship without a plan to bring back tourism.
“The town has been run off the hip. It really hasn’t followed a business plan,” said Ron DeSimone, a challenger for mayor.
“There is no game plan,” Aldridge said. “We want to sit down with the business people and come up with a plan. I don’t have the answers, and I don’t think any one person does. I think the town needs to be more willing to listen.”
Wight, a motel owner, has experienced declining tourism in Maggie first-hand.
“We are obviously suffering,” Wight said. “There are some people with good ideas out there that are not being heard.”
Maggie Valley was a kingpin of tourism in the mountains in the 1960s and ‘70s but has fallen from its former glory in recent years. The decline is blamed largely on the shuttered Ghost Town amusement park, which drew tens of thousands of people to the valley in its heyday.
Meanwhile, the rise of quaint downtowns like Waynesville and Bryson City and the burgeoning casino resort in Cherokee have proved tough competition for the older strip of mom and pop motels and restaurants that line Maggie Valley.
Candidate Danny Mitchell learned the ropes of tourism the hard way: a trial by fire after buying a motel and moving to Maggie Valley from Georgia 13 years ago as a mid-life career move.
Tourism has been decreasing steadily since then, Mitchell said, with motels losing up to 50 percent of their business when Ghost Town closed. The answer?
“Somebody with a lot of money to put Dollywood or Six Flags back on the mountain,” Mitchell said. “Look at Pigeon Forge. The main reason it has grown is Dollywood.”
Short of that, Mitchell didn’t have many ideas for how to improve Maggie’s tourism prospects. He also wasn’t sure what role the town could play in getting “somebody” to put in an amusement park where Ghost Town once was.
“Good question,” Mitchell said. “The economy is so bad right now as far the banks loaning money, it would take someone with a lot of money to buy Ghost Town.”
He suggested the town could offer them free sewer if they would come.
Wight said some guests at his motel check out early and spend the rest of their vacation in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg after running out of things to do in Maggie Valley.
Motorcycle tourism has become a brisk market for Maggie Valley, with the region’s myriad scenic roads at Maggie’s doorstep. Wheels Thru Time, a world-renowned motorcycle museum, is the crown jewel of Maggie’s motorcycle tourism scene.
The town has seen an outgrowth of bars catering to motorcyclists, while restaurants and motels go out of their way to advertise themselves as biker-friendly on their signs out front.
Wight and Aldridge said the town could hurt establishments catering to bikers if it goes through with a plan to tighten the noise ordinance.
Balancing tourism and residents
Striking a balance between tourism and year-round residents is a tough challenge for Maggie Valley leaders who find themselves trying to serve two masters.
Business interests want the town to double as a promotional arm and take an active role — including spending tax dollars — to help tourism. Residents, however, don’t want to see too many of their tax dollars plowed into aiding the struggling motels, shops and restaurants.
“It’s a fine line,” Aldridge said. “You try to make both sides comfortable or happy. The big picture of it is if the businesses continue to fail, taxes are going to go up for everyone else.”
Alderwoman Danya Vanhook said the town’s interests aren’t mutually exclusive.
“There is a difference in philosophy over whether the town should promote business and tourism at a loss or whether we should be fiscally conservative and better stewards of the taxpayers’ money — that is a false dichotomy,” Vanhook said.
In its current budget, the town didn’t lay anyone off, gave employees a cost-of-living increase, and didn’t raise taxes, Vanhook said.
The town in its early days consisted almost solely of businesses, the town limits drawn like a snake along the strip of motels, shops and restaurants lining Soco Road. But the snake began bulging over time, taking in a neighborhood here, a subdivision there, until the town gradually grew from a few dozen business owners to a population of more than 1,000 residents today.
Much of that growth has occurred in just the past decade, with the town nearly doubling its population since 2000 by annexing new subdivisions into the town limits.
DeSimone is one of those new town residents after the town’s forced annexation of the subdivision in which he resides, Brannon Forest.
“I’ve always been of the opinion they were paying attention to the businesses and not the residents,” DeSimone said.
But since his first run for office two years ago, DeSimone said even business owners are having a hard time getting the attention of town hall.
“I was surprised even the business people feel disenfranchised,” DeSimone said.
DeSimone said the town does have a responsibility to promote a friendly business environment.
“Let’s face it, the majority of the town is around that strip. We can’t ignore that fact,” DeSimone said. “It is in the town’s best interest for that business district to be thriving and active.”
DeSimone, Aldridge and Wight have questioned the town’s budget, calling it large for a town of Maggie’s size and questioning if there are items in the budget — such as the size of the police force — that could be cut.
The town’s tax base is split almost evenly between residential communities and businesses. The town provides services for residents that businesses don’t get, such as garbage and brush pick-up, McElroy said. So the way he sees it, it’s OK to spend town resources to help promote business sometimes.
McElroy said there are positive economic signs in the Valley. Around 10 new businesses have opened this year. The majority are bars or restaurants — four are new bars as a matter of fact, adding to at least that many already in Maggie.
But the list also includes an archery range and antique shop, plus a couple businesses that clearly cater to locals, like a hair salon and bakery.
“I think it is a good combination,” McElroy said, adding that he would like to see even more. “For us to continue to draw people, we need good restaurants and activities.”
Aldridge, however, pointed to the oft-used tally of 47 closed, vacant, ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ businesses along the roadside from Soco Gap to the stop light at Jonathan Creek.
As for the newly opened businesses?
“It sounds significant, but who is going to be here next year? Who is going to survive the winter?” Aldridge said.
Vanhook wants to see more businesses catering to residents. She also thinks the town could take a role in improving the quality of life by leasing Carolina Nights or Eagle’s Nest — performance venues that closed this year — to show movies, something locals and tourists would enjoy.
McElroy touted a new town park in the works, Parham Park. It will feature a picnic pavilion, public restrooms and other amenities.
The town has also taken steps to improve its appearance, requiring a “mountain vernacular” architectural style for new businesses being built or those undergoing major remodeling.
“We want to try to make it look like a mountain place,” McElroy said.
Festival ground drama
The town-owned festival grounds has emerged as a lightning rod for controversy as town leaders debate the best way to bring tourists to Maggie.
The town has latched on to its festival grounds as its best asset in the fight to increase tourism, attempting to pack the calendar with car shows, carnivals, craft fairs and motorcycle rallies to lure warm bodies to the Valley.
“We’ve tried hard to fill in the gap somewhat with more festival activity,” said Mayor Roger McElroy. “Other than sight seeing and visiting the stores, there is not much else to do. If there is nothing for them to do, they won’t come back.”
While the town won’t stop waiting and hoping for someone to open a major amusement park to replace Ghost Town, in the meantime, recruiting more festivals to fill the void has become the town’s top strategy.
The town pays half the salary for a festival director, who is tasked with recruiting events and festivals to the Maggie venue. The other half is paid out of a room tax on overnight lodging. The town also spent big bucks putting on two of its own festivals this year.
Critics have blasted the town for the expenses and claim the festival director is going about her job all wrong.
“I think the two events were grossly overspent,” Wight said. The town took on the risk associated with throwing the festivals, paying bands and ride operators up front and then collecting proceeds off ticket sales.
The net loss on the two taxpayer-funded festivals was around $50,000. The town spent just over $89,000 to throw the four-day Red, White and Boom but took in only about $47,000. The town lost $13,000 on the Americana Roots and Beer festival in the spring.
“I think there is a way to promote the festival ground without the town losing tons of money to do it,” DeSimone said.
DeSimone questioned what benefits businesses saw for the $40,000 cost to taxpayers for the July Fourth carnival.
“The results have been ethereal at best,” DeSimone said. “There is no discernable way to measure results.”
McElroy and Vanhook see it as an investment rather than an expense however.
Vanhook said she has heard rave reviews from people who came to Red, White and Boom. More importantly, they plan to come back next year and make Maggie Valley their annual July Fourth tradition. Vanhook sees the inaugural year of the festival as an investment that will pay off down the road.
Wight said there are more effective ways for the town to get a bigger bang for its buck, however. Instead of plowing so much in to two festivals, the town should put the money in a kitty and pay bonuses for festival organizers who bring a target number of people through the gate.
Wight also thinks it is a waste of money to send the town’s festival director to trade shows in Texas and California, a strategy to convince event organizers to look at Maggie as their next venue.
Candidate Danny Mitchell doesn’t like the town spending so much on the festival grounds, regardless of the strategy for how to spend it.
The town has recently debated whether waive fees for the festival ground as a recruitment tool to get organizers to hold events there.
Wight put the drama in perspective at least.
“It is nice to have the festival grounds to fight over,” Wight said.
Alderman: pick two
Phil Aldridge, 55, current alderman
Former owner of Phil’s Grocery for 12 years
Danya Vanhook, 33, current alderwoman
Danny Mitchell, 55
Owner of Laurel Park Inn and estimator for WNC Paving. Bought a motel and moved to Maggie Valley 13 years ago.
Phillip Wight, 42
Owner of Clarkton Motel
Mayor: pick one
Roger McElroy, 73, current mayor
General contractor and owner of Meadowlark Motel and Cottages.
Ron DeSimone, 58