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Ghost Town shootout puts RV campgrounds in the crosshairs

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Through the latter part of the 20th century, one of the biggest tourist attractions in western North Carolina was Ghost Town in the Sky, a Wild West-themed amusement park that at its peak drew half a million visitors each year. Shuttling visitors two-thirds of a mile uphill from the town of Maggie Valley via a chairlift and an incline car, the attraction featured live music, faux cowboy shoot-outs (one of which resulted in an accidental real-live shooting, decades before the recent movie-set shooting death in New Mexico) and amusement park rides, including a loop-de-loop roller coaster with breathtaking views over the mountains.

For the past two decades, however, the Ghost Town in the Sky has lived up to its name in unintended fashion. As Dollywood, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, just 30 miles to the west, became tourist juggernauts and cut into Ghost Town’s traffic, declining revenues led to corner-cutting and penny-pinching on maintenance. Equipment started breaking down, culminating in 2002 in park visitors being stranded for hours when the chairlift died. The park subsequently shut down altogether.

Millions of dollars in renovations later, the park reopened in 2007 – just ahead of the Great Recession. A massive mudslide in 2010 was merely figurative icing on the cake, as several other reopening efforts also sputtered out.

But as in any traditional Western, just when things looked darkest, a stranger packing some mighty big guns rode into town – although whether he’s hero or villain will depend on who’s telling the tale. Frankie Wood, a Myrtle Beach-based developer who’d already done some work in Maggie Valley, first started poking around Ghost Town a couple of years ago, talking with local civic leaders and lining up support among key businessmen.

This past August, Wood finally went public, telling a record-breaking turnout at a Chamber of Commerce meeting about a $200-million blockbuster plan that in addition to revitalizing Ghost Town would seed Maggie Valley with a plethora of supporting businesses: a grocery store, live music venues, restaurants, a hotel, a health clinic – even, possibly, an RV manufacturing plant to provide affordable housing for the area.

It was a lot to take in. Some of those in attendance voiced reservations about Wood’s many references to the work he’d done in Myrtle Beach, which could be seen as a bit much for a small mountain community of 1,700 or so. At just over three square miles jammed between steep mountainsides, Maggie Valley already has at least a dozen campgrounds and not a whole lot of flat land. But as Wood also made clear, revitalizing an amusement park perched on top of a mountain wouldn’t be easy. There were logistical issues, such as figuring out how to move people and water hundreds of feet uphill. There were staffing challenges, such as finding skilled workers and enough housing for more than 200 year-round employees, both in short supply.

And, as it turned out, there was backlash.

Just three months after Wood made his pitch, a biennial election for two of the town’s five-member governing board resulted in Maggie Valley’s biggest turnout in recent history, with more than 900 voters casting their ballots. The results weren’t even close, with John Hinton, who’d campaigned vociferously against any new campgrounds in the area, emerging as the top vote-getter, followed closely by Jim Owens. Together they corralled more than two-thirds of the vote, handily defeating an incumbent running for reelection and a former planning board chairman who had supported Wood’s proposals.

“I want to see smart growth, smart investment,” Hinton told the Smoky Mountain News. “Campgrounds are not smart growth. We want to see homes built. I’d love to see Ghost Town redeveloped … but I’ve yet to see a comprehensive plan of how that would work, a comprehensive plan that would not include a burden on the taxpayers of Maggie Valley.”

Owens, telling local reporters that “we heard, over and over, please no more campgrounds in Maggie Valley,” promptly submitted an agenda item for a mid-December board meeting that would have done just that, calling for a public hearing to prohibit any new campgrounds, RV parks or RV planned unit developments (essentially, member-owned RV parks) in the town. And so, on Dec. 14, the valley’s residents turned out yet again in record numbers, this time joined by two North Carolina representatives, for the Tar Heel state’s version of a contemporary range war.

Not one to be caught with his pants down, Wood had already rallied his supporters the previous night. What was at stake, he told local business owners, was nothing less than the preservation of their property and livelihoods. “They’re trying now to restrict everybody’s property rights,” he declaimed, in a speech quoted by the Smoky Mountain News that might have been made by a cattle rancher about a group of sodbusters. “They can’t just target me like they’ve been doing, so they gotta get all local folks, business owners in this town and go and more or less put a restriction on their properties and devalue your property. The new aldermen come in, they’re gonna take over, the mayor’s gonna take over, bottom line, they’re gonna tell us what we’re going to do with our properties.”

The mayor and two new aldermen in fact voted, in a 3-2 decision, to hold a public hearing Jan. 11 – not to prohibit more RV parks and campgrounds, but to debate a 61-day moratorium on such projects while the town completes work on a unified development ordinance, the town’s first. If approved, the moratorium could be extended up to six months. The unified development ordinance, meanwhile, is expected to more specifically address whether and where future campgrounds might be allowed, and under what conditions.

Expect more shooting.

****


Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park. The fascinating book, recently published, is available at many large bookstores and at Amazon.com.

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33 Comments
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James Sullivan
11 months ago

We are Sullivan Harbor on Facebook

James Sullivan
11 months ago

The City of New Johnsonville Tennessee voted that our campground that has been opened since 1950 is not zoned for a campground and should close. The campground name is New Johnsonville Harbor campground . I wish you could do a story about us

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  James Sullivan

RV campgrounds bring family and sales to your community, why oppose growth, try to make Hotels illegal!

Kris
11 months ago

Change your headline! There’s no “shoot out”.. your sensationalism falls deader than your prose in the piece.

As for the venue.. screw business! Let someone with a love for the mountains and the location buy it and live there. If there’s enough RV campgrounds in the area, the city’s right, you don’t need more.

Terry A. Torres
11 months ago

Just reopen Ghost town see what it brings then move up as revenue allows. Allow the investment to speak for itself. Allow the income generated to lower property taxes. But ofcourse we cant expect a local government to giveup money. But it could be a start to show other struggling small town how to revise to survive. I know, I live in a small town looking for a revision.

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago

Like!

Chet
11 months ago

Having lived in WNC for 30 years local folks fall into two groups…those that make a living through tourism (a significant number but still a minority) and those who dread the thought of more tourists.

Travis
11 months ago
Reply to  Chet

Pretty much every tourist town falls into that category. Same thing where I am from in Gettysburg. In the summer I avoid town at all cost. LOL

cbpitt
11 months ago

“As Dollywood, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, just 30 miles to the west,…”
This is misleading – it’s 30 miles to the west AS THE CROW FLIES; driving time is 1-1/2+ hours.

Bryan Strang
11 months ago

That’s the most misleading headline you ever did see.

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  Bryan Strang

Like!

Charles Parker
11 months ago

We rv in Maggie Valley every summer, and resent the views of the so called council members. We bring to Maggie Valley hundreds of thousands of dollars to an otherwise poor town. For the most part, we are good people, and do no harm. We are not the BLM rioters who were bussed in to stir up trouble, nor do we care for the liberal rag Smokey Mountain News. If not for us, the tax base would be much lower. We take our rv back to Louisiana every fall so that we are not charged with high taxes, but many leave them in MV and pay taxes.
I would advise the town leaders to welcome us rather than try go prevent more of us to visit.

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  Charles Parker

Let the Cherokee manage them!

Fred Moseley
11 months ago

Just get rid of all the rv campgrounds and forget about ghost town. The residents there do not care about tourist so just move on. Let the town die peaceful death.

Buddy
11 months ago
Reply to  Fred Moseley

Exactly!! Leave them alone

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  Fred Moseley

Won’t be peaceful!

William Anthony
11 months ago

Sounds like “socialism” vs. “capitalism”. Oops I said it again.

Tim
11 months ago

The voters let their feelings be known in the election.
Democracy is “One person, one vote” not “One dollar, one vote”.

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  Tim

Yes but I vote for freedom!

Bama Holloway
11 months ago

Ghost town needs to be back open

Linda Jackson
11 months ago

Time to reopen Ghost Town —

pursuits712
11 months ago

As a frequent visitor to Maggie Valley, the last thing it needs is more RV development…or development of any kind within that small 3 mile stretch. The condo builds have already turned the beautiful valley into a congested tourist blight. The traffic is a nightmare.

Ghost Town was a great little amusement part. Let it rest in peace.

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  pursuits712

RV services are not Blight, they are income just like hotels!

Lynn Webb
11 months ago

Not a very good title for this article! I agree with the people of Maggie Valley no more RV developments. Developers do not care about the people or the land. It is about the money, period.

Slocurve25.
11 months ago

A bird in the hand…… Sure you can go for housing but do you have the money to back a hospital system that will be desired for older people moving there? That is a lot when one goes to funding that! Hospital systems are as important as school systems are to young families. BTW older folks property taxes are not only way less than commercial campground taxes they’re homesteaded and virtually non existent. Be careful what you ask for. You could get it.

Jake
11 months ago

Well that was a doozy of a misleading title.

Ted Jones
11 months ago

Just when Mark & Digger find a spot to age their whisky, the rug gets pulled out from under them.

FerlinG
11 months ago
Reply to  Ted Jones

Love it! More money could be made from MoonShine than camp grounds. They could open up an illegal still site and give secret tours of it.

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  FerlinG

Rather have secret samples!

Michael L Wallace
10 months ago
Reply to  Ted Jones

Ha, Ha Let them make a joyful sound!

Richard Davidson
11 months ago

Remember going to Maggie Valley’s Ghost Town in the Sky with my family as an 8 yr old kid and riding up the sky lift. Tommy Norden of the Flipper show fame was appearing there and as I followed him behind the scenes I came across him smoking a cigarette. I know; no big deal but to an 8yr old kid it was a eye opening event. Never saw Flipper in the same way again.

James W Farlow
11 months ago

Hi.. Very similar experience but it was Jay North…..Dennis the Menace. Life changed…just a little.

Sandy
11 months ago

I have nothing to add about the current situation but I also remember going to Ghost Town as a kid. It was a lot of fun when we were visiting relatives in the area. I do remember the lift and the gunfights.