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Throughout the years, the park’s Western theme and rides grew outdated.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.”
Counting on nature
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.