A new destination
I never went to Ghost Town to partake in its Old West mayhem. My family almost never traveled when I was a kid, except to visit relatives. We never came to the mountains. As an adult, crowds and lines too easily try my patience. I did ride the chairlift up to Ghost Town a few years ago to do a story on its impact on Maggie Valley, even as it was wheezing its last gasps. On that summer day about six years ago, I was reminded of a beach town after Labor Day, the boardwalk nearly deserted as tired merchants hoped for one last burst of business. Only a small handful of people were at Ghost Town.
The news last week surprised me. I doubted that high-dollar business types would take such a gamble on the aged theme park. Apparently those who crunch numbers see the opportunity to make some big money by rejuvenating the park and perhaps developing a few acres for high-end second homes or condos. Taken together — a federal loan, the support of the business community in Maggie Valley, and the booming real estate market in the region — several factors probably helped sweeten the prospect of re-opening the theme park.
More importantly, though, is what this could mean for Maggie Valley, Haywood County and the region. I’m not an economist or a mathematician, but I like to play with numbers. When I heard that Ghost Town buyers wanted to invest somewhere around $5 million to make the 40-plus-year-old attraction sparkle again, in addition to the $5.1 million purchase price, it became clear this is probably going to become a quality establishment.
Investors hope the new Ghost Town will attract 300,000 people a year by 2011. If ticket prices average $15, that’s $4.5 million a year just in the gate receipts. There’s little doubt proprietors would expect to take about the same dollar figure from sales of souvenirs and food, perhaps more. Suddenly you have a $10 million business, and that’s for just half a year.
If the theme park is open from Memorial Day until, say, Nov. 1, it will have a 150-day season. That’s 2,000 people per day — on average — in Maggie Valley. Some of those will already have been there, some won’t. Any way you slice it, the dozens of restaurants, hotels, and other attractions dependent on travelers will benefit.
Sales tax money, some of which is returned to municipalities, will increase. That will help the town pay for increased police and other infrastructure needed to accommodate these new visitors.
With Ghost Town expected to open in 2007, Maggie Valley will have two large destination tourist attractions. Cataloochee Ski Resort and Tony’s Tube World have had a couple of great years and bring about 135,000 people to the valley every winter. This means that those who rely on tourists will have a destination attraction open from Memorial Day until — if the weather holds — April 1. That’s just two months of down time.
Places like Wheels Through Time have also been added to the mix in recent years. Many in Haywood County have a love-hate relationship with proprietor Dale Walksler, but his museum is a unique attraction. It is a must-see for the growing number of motorcycle tourists who are seeking destinations. It is also a wonderful visit for children and adults who won’t ever ride a motorcycle but like machines, American history and the coolness of vintage bikes.
Throw in places like Eaglenest Entertainment and Carolina Nights, and Maggie Valley is a weekend trip unto itself. And of course there is Harrah’s Casino just over the mountain.
Is there a downside?
So if Ghost Town lives up to its new owners’ dreams, Maggie Valley becomes a boom town. With the theme park, Cataloochee Ski Area, and the normal tourists and second-home owners, more than half a million people will probably visit the town every year. Perhaps that is too conservative an estimate. Millions of dollars in construction will take place in the next few months. Hundreds of permanent and part-time workers will be needed.
People are ecstatic. Maggie Valley has turned a corner, and few want to even consider what some are touting as the downside to the news of Ghost Town’s revival. But here it is, in a nutshell: Maggie Valley was re-inventing itself as a more up-scale location for second-home owners. It was changing from a tourist town to a resort town, and some of the same players were a part of that metamorphosis. Cataloochee Ski Area brings in tourists, but it also makes the mountain town a great place for a second home. Maggie Valley Country Club’s improvements and its upscale condominiums were also a part of this transformation, along with everything else the Great Smoky Mountains offer to seasonal residents.
In this scenario, the trade-off was fewer tourists and part-time residents, but those who came spent more money. In the tourist town model, weekend visitors by the thousands spend less money but come in greater numbers. More tourists mean more traffic, more pollution and more wear and tear on infrastructure. Motel owners who invest little in their property will manage to survive because price will be the most important factor when the desire is to draw the most travelers.
The middle ground
I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. I can predict that dealing with traffic, crowds, noise, trash, pollution, and the need for increased law enforcement is about to become important for Maggie Valley. Finding the mix between economic success and quality of life will become an even more pressing challenge, especially as leaders will be torn between representing the sometimes conflicting needs of business owners and seasonal residents.
In a best-case scenario, a vibrant Maggie Valley will find a middle ground while it plays home to an ever-growing number of tourists. The news about Ghost Town is good. It will get better if town and county leaders spend some time planning for what’s about to come.