“Ghost Town” living up to its name

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.

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NIMBY part 2: Maggie Valley woes

Straddling a winding North Carolina road, halfway between Asheville and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the town of Maggie Valley is the kind of vacation spot that appeals to people looking for hiking trails, Appalachian vistas, wildflowers and black bears. No surprise, then, that despite a relative lack of flat ground it has at least nine campgrounds and RV parks along a two-mile stretch of the main drag, which seems like a fair number for a town of only 1,700 or so–but for some, there’s never enough.

Riding the same wave of pandemic-juiced development that is afflicting other naturally beautiful areas, Maggie Valley also has been contending with the grandiose plans of a Myrtle Beach-based developer, Frankie Wood, who for the past two years has been spinning tales of how he intends to revive a now-defunct tourist attraction, Ghost Town in the Sky. Ghost Town has been sitting in mothballs since 2002, and Wood–as reported by The Mountaineer–apparently hasn’t invested a penny of his own money in the mountain-top amusement park. But he does have a “trail of bad debts and court cases over the past 30 years,” including having his own home foreclosed on in 2019.

In best “Music Man” style, however, Wood has besotted much of the Maggie Valley business establishment with his grand designs, acquiring partners for other projects he insists must precede The Big One. Chief among these is a need for more housing for all the employees he’ll eventually need, which translates into planned unit developments, trailer courts and more RV parks, which–given Maggie Valley’s vertical geography–has meant a flurry of rezoning requests to allow increased building density. And, for a while, Wood was getting all that and more, receiving dozens of land-use designations consistent with high-density development.

But while much of the business community warmed up to Wood, a clear majority of Maggie Valley residents felt otherwise. Too much was going on, and what was going on was too helter-skelter, without a clear vision of how everything would fit together or how it would reshape the town. Last fall, with two of the town’s aldermen positions up for election, two of the four candidates campaigned on a “smart growth” platform–and were overwhelmingly propelled into office by the biggest voter turnout anyone in Maggie Valley can recall. “I want to see smart growth, smart investment,” top vote-getter John Hinton summarized for 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.”

Lacking such a plan, the town is now drafting its own and expects to have it finished by July. Until then, the Maggie Valley board of aldermen hit the “pause” button, approving on a 3-2 vote a moratorium on any new developments. Sounds smart, doesn’t it? A triumph for local control over zoning and planning decisions? A recognition that there has to be a balanced approach to land use, so that someone doesn’t plop a landfill next to a hospital, or a steel mill in the middle of a housing development?

Not to North Carolina Rep. Mark Pless, who recently told a Mountaineer reporter that a six-month moratorium “sends the wrong message about Haywood County, that we are closed for business.” Dismissing the new aldermen as “wet behind the ears,” Pless–who has just finished serving the first year of his freshman term in office–said he is thinking about introducing legislation to reverse the town’s decision. Such a local override bill doesn’t require the governor’s signature in North Carolina, only needing the approval of the state’s House and Senate–and as the Mountaineer pointed out, legislators from outside the area affected by a local bill typically bow to the wishes of their colleagues.

Home rule? Only a quaint idea when there’s money to be made, even in an area as politically conservative as western North Carolina. Pretty soon the Mountaineer may have to contemplate a name change to something a little less rugged and independent. Maybe the Profiteer. Or better yet, the River City Review.

Because yep, you’ve got trouble right there in River City.

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