The Maggie Valley, N.C. melodrama known as “Ghost Town in the Sky” continues to live up to its name, albeit with an ever more bitter story line. The latest developments include the death of its foremost champion, a subsequent land grab by the project’s Svengali, and now a lawsuit seeking to unwind the whole mess.
But first, a little context.
Ghost Town in the Sky, as I’ve written about here and here, is a now-defunct amusement park perched on a tall hill overlooking picturesque Maggie Valley, just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once a booming tourist attraction, it closed two decades ago, done in by too much deferred maintenance and insufficient room to expand enough to compete with bigger, flashier tourist magnets on the other side of the mountains.
For all that time, however, founder Alaska Presley never lost sight of her original vision. Having sold it years earlier so she could retire, Presley repurchased Ghost Town at auction in 2012 for $2.5 million–51 years after it started operating, and 10 years after its subsequent owners had closed it down. But Presley, then 88, was determined that her mothballed and undercapitalized creation would be revived. Someday. Somehow.
Several revival setbacks later, Myrtle Beach-based developer Frankie Wood swept into Maggie Valley–and, apparently, swept Alaska Presley off her feet. In fairly rapid order, the unlikely pair formed two corporations, Ghost Town in the Sky, LLC, and Maggie Valley RV Park LLC; tellingly, the only cash or real estate contributions to both partnerships came from Presley, including Ghost Town’s 250 acres and its buildings, as well as more than $100,000 for initial improvements. Presley also contributed another $275,000 for the purchase of land and engineering studies for an RV park. Wood’s ante? A claim that he owned $3 million in property he could sell to raise cash, as well as the claim that he had access to an additional $34 million in grant funds, to provide “for development of the real property.”
Actual cash on the barrel? Not so much.
But Presley was not the only Maggie Valley resident seduced by Wood’s promises. Despite his truly checkered history of broken contracts, foreclosures, bad debts and lawsuits, amply chronicled by The Mountaineer, Wood enthralled much of the area’s business community with tales of how much development a revived Ghost Town would require–new RV parks, stores, restaurants, a health clinic, even an RV manufacturing plant–and how all that wealth would flow through the town. He conjured up visions of Disney imagineering teams designing next-generation amusement park attractions, and of how the problem of inadequate mountain-top land would be solved by carving huge terraces into the mountainside, creating a ziggurat of tourist delights.
Then Presley died, this past April. And four months later her niece, Jill Holland McClure, has filed a lawsuit seeking to dissolve both partnerships. To date, McClure claims, Wood hasn’t spent anything for property development, there has been no accounting for the money provided by Presley, the grants never materialized–indeed, not a shovelful of dirt has been turned. As for the RV park, the plans Wood submitted to the town inexplicably call for a permanent housing development instead–although that, too, remains more of an idea than an actual thing.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit also contends that ongoing expenses for companies that “remain insolvent and illiquid,” including taxes, utilities and insurance, were paid exclusively by Presley before her death and now have fallen on McClure. According to the operating agreements both Presley and Wood signed, the corporations can be dissolved by mutual consent, by sale of the company from one partner to the other, or by judicial decree. And McClure, to whom all of Presley’s “interests, rights and duties” conveyed when she died, apparently hasn’t been as beguiled as her aunt by Wood’s fantastical ways. She wants out.
Wood, of course, recognizing the potential landgrab that has fallen into his lap, is having none of it. “Alaska Presley was my partner, not her,” he has insisted, disregarding the language that advances McClure’s interests. Or as his lawyer summed up, when interviewed by the Smoky Mountain News, “If a guy sits on a horse, he owns the horse”–which may be as fitting an epitaph for a western-themed mirage as any North Carolinian might dream up.