“We can’t fill his shoes, but are sure going to try,” said Becky Ramey, the owner of Smackers and close friend to Reece. “It will take all of us together to be Wade Reece.”
Reece, the owner/manager of the Quality Inn in Maggie Valley, died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Reece, 59, was on a Saturday morning ride with a friend earlier this month. He was traveling at a low speed when he hit loose gravel on the road, causing the bike to wreck. He was hospitalized for two weeks before passing away.
Reece worked tirelessly to promote Maggie Valley as a tourist destination. He offered hope, vision and a spirit of community during a period of declining tourism in Maggie.
“He only had one speed and that was full speed ahead. He was a mover and shaker. While other people were thinking about things, he did them,” said Austin Pendley, owner of Maggie Mountaineer Crafts. “It was just his nature. He was a leader.”
“Wade could see the bigger picture,” said Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie Valley.
Reece was motivated by a love for Maggie Valley.
“We all love our businesses, but he loved his business and everybody else’s. He wanted everybody to do good. He wanted to see them all full,” Ramey said.
Maggie was one of the first true tourist towns in the mountains and led the pack in tourism for decades. Maggie was already in the midst of a tourism decline when a bombshell dropped in 2003 with the closure Ghost Town — a mountaintop amusement park with an Old West Theme that had attracted tens of thousands of visitors a year to Maggie since the 1960s. Motels that once flipped on the vacancy sign and watched the tourists roll in suddenly found the majority of their rooms empty for all but the busiest weekends.
After two tourist seasons without Ghost Town, Reece started a non-profit group to promote the amusement park in hopes of attracting a buyer. Ghost Town’s elderly owner did not specifically solicit Reece’s help selling the park, but Reece began courting buyers anyway. His reason: it was time to stop complaining about the lack of tourism in Maggie and be proactive about getting Ghost Town open again.
Reece was instrumental in securing a festival grounds for the town by buying a large field in the middle of Maggie and transferring the property to the town at cost rather than for a profit.
“Wade was a deal maker,” O’Keefe said. “People think that’s a bad thing, but you have to have people who see that. How do you think Disney World got to Florida? Someone had to be out there putting that together.”
That attitude made an impression on others.
“He got people to thinking we could do more promoting the Valley and supporting each other,” said James Carver, who owns the Maggie Valley Restaurant and served on the Tourism Development Authority with Reece.
Carver cited the hotel association Reece started as another example. One of the functions was to buy supplies that all hotels needed in bulk from vendors in hopes of getting a better deal.
Pendley said Reece was an idea man.
“He was always thinking. I never saw him just relaxing, even if he was hunting or fishing. He was always thinking ‘what if we did it this way or what it we did it that way,’” Pendley said. “Most all of us are devastated by it. We feel like we have lost a person who had an ability to see things we couldn’t see and had the courage to go do things — a lot of time knowing he would receive vast criticism.”
Reece was often depicted in the media as a controversial figure. But that is to be expected of someone who wouldn’t accept the status quo and instead believed things could and should be done better. Reece has been in the media spotlight lately as a critic of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. Reece was appointed to the tourism authority board 18 months ago and immediately began questioning almost everything about the entity, from the competence of the executive director to how tourism tax dollars were spent. Reece claimed the organization was not a good steward of tourism tax dollars and was not doing enough to promote tourism.
Reece was not alone in his call to overhaul the tourism authority, but he was the most vocal. Reece’s message was one some did not want to hear, however, and he was often attacked himself.
“He was willing to take that flack,” O’Keefe said. “How many people are not willing to stand up? Who wants to take that much criticism when it is so much easier to stay home?”
But Reece would not give up because he felt the future of tourism in Maggie Valley was at stake, according to friends.
“There was a misconception about Wade that he was bully,” O’Keefe said. “Wade didn’t back down. Sometimes he didn’t know when to back down.”
But his motives were in the right place, Pendley said.
“Everything he did was for the betterment of other people,” Pendley said. “He did not mind taking the abuse. All he wanted was it to be done correctly.”
Ramey said Reece was the victim of negative media publicity that only focused on controversies. Ramey said Reece had the strength to do what had to be done even if it meant sacrificing his own reputation in the process.
In addition to being a vocal critic of the tourism authority, Reece was also active in town politics. Reece backed candidates every election, promoting them up and down Maggie Valley and talking down their opponents. One year, Reece helped coordinate a write-in campaign for two candidates, paying the $100 deposit required by the town before they could stake out election signs. Reece rarely missed a town board meeting and many believed he played a large role in directing the town board’s agenda.
While some saw Reece as divisive, many in Maggie Valley say his larger-than-life presence created a sense of community others could rally around. He visited with the other business owners along Maggie’s commercial strip on a regular basis.
“He would go up to the top of the Valley and start down the road talking to everyone,” Ramey said. “He knew we all had to stick together for any of us to make it.”
Reece’s friends described him as a giver.
“There were so many times the (Maggie) chamber was out of money and Wade paid the bills,” O’Keefe said. “It was always coming out of Wade’s pocket.”
Whether it was potted mums for fall displays in the Valley or the electricity bill for Christmas lights and a nativity scene at the town festival grounds, Reece often picked up the tab.
“If you had Wade Reece as a friend, you had a true friend. He would give you the shirt off his back and never ask anything in return. Nobody will ever know the amount of money he contributed to different things,” Pendley said. “Often he would pull money out of his pocket when things couldn’t happen. He said ‘I’ll pay for it.’ I’ve seen him pay for full page ads out of his pocket when the chamber didn’t have advertising money.”
Reece also was charitable toward civic causes, whether it was helping children at Christmas or elderly who couldn’t heat their homes, and would instigate initiatives to help others in the community. Pendley recalled Reece providing all the food for a Partners of Education breakfast so more of the money raised could go toward a scholarship fund.
Reece’s funeral was held at Long’s Chapel on Sunday, June 25, and was standing room only. Following the funeral, more than 200 people came to a potluck dinner at the Quality Inn for a celebration of Reece’s life.
Reece grew up in Waynesville. He bought a hotel in Maggie Valley in the 1970s, and then left for many years, living in both Atlanta and Gatlinburg before returning to Maggie Valley.
O’Keefe said Reece had followed in the footsteps of her husband, Joey, and one of Maggie Valley’s founders, Carl Henry. All three were larger-than-life figures with a knack for evoking a sense of community.
“There won’t be anybody else coming along,” said O’Keefe. “Maggie Valley doesn’t have anyone else to step in.”