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.