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Residents weigh in on Ghost Town loan

Written by Beth Pleming Sunday, 17 May 2009 23:04

MAGGIE VALLEY "” Maggie Valley residents and business owners packed into town hall Thursday evening to voice and hear public comment about Ghost Town in the Sky's request for a $200,000 short-term loan from the town. The special called meeting was the first of two hearings planned to allow the community to weigh in on the request. A second hearing will be held tonight at 5:30 p.m. Written comments are also being accepted by e-mail at bestclerk@charter.net. Ghost Town officials said the park will open Friday regardless of the town's decision. Thursday's preliminary hearing was standing room only, with about 40 in attendance, but only 10 individuals addressed the board. Of those, six were opposed to the request, claiming the move is too risky and asserting that government entities are not in the banking business. Two others showed support for the loan and two spoke but did not take a stance either in favor or opposition. "I'm not unsympathetic to business owners here who depend on Ghost Town, nor unsympathetic to Ghost Town. But I don't see that the town should be in the loan business," said Maggie resident and business owner John Simone. Full-time Maggie resident Jim Casey was also against the proposition. "The city should not be in the banking business," he said. "Outside investors need to handle this." Ghost Town employees Mike Howard and Randy Bryan urged leaders to consider the 250 county residents who will be out of jobs if the park closes and vendors will likely never see the money they are owed. Bryan said he loaned $250,000 to Ghost Town out of pocket to see the park open. "Unless we get open there is no way we will ever pay those people back," he said. "All we need is a bridge. It's just a loan." Those in opposition argue leaders should consider the loan a "gift," but park CEO Steve Shiver has assured the board he will be repay the money with in six months. Maggie Mayor Roger McElroy, who supports the request, said if the town board doesn't approve the loan, and at worst the park were to close, Maggie has a lot to lose. "I'd rather take the chance of losing the $200,000 than to risk losing Ghost Town," he said. "It is a risk, but I think it's a risk worth taking in order to keep Maggie alive and to continue to grow." Losing Ghost Town could mean $100,000 less tax revenue for Maggie, said McElroy, not to mention the commerce that would be lost by local businesses. "Maggie's portion of the one percent occupancy tax collected by the TDA is around $160,000, and a great deal of that tax is generated by Ghost Town guests who spend the night and pay the tax," he said. "So, if we lose Ghost Town, we will lose a significant portion of that tax "” I would estimate 30 to 40 percent. We would also lose the $40,000 per year Ghost Town pays in taxes if they were to close. So, right off the bat we're going to lose close to $100,000, not including what local businesses will lose, if they are able to survive ." Clarketon Motel owner Tammy Wight pointed out, town leaders have a responsibility to taxpayers, which includes Ghost Town as a taxpaying entity. Furthermore, leaders have a responsibility to promote economic development, which in Maggie is largely dependent upon tourism. "To me it's not about going into the banking business. With Wheels Through Time now closed, why would the town not to want to support Ghost Town for economic development? Ghost Town has been a tourist destination for 130,000 to 150,000 people per year. That supports the tax base as well as local commerce in a significant way," said Wight. "The town has spent as much as Steve is asking for, or more, to buy the festival grounds, property for Parham Park and the J Creek recreation complex in hopes of drawing tourists. But Ghost Town is already here and has a proven success rate." Furthermore, when Maggie leaders agreed to spend around $115,000 of taxpayer funds to help county leaders pay for the Jonathan Creek property, aldermen at that time cited the need to do something "for the children," said McElroy. Plans for the complex are still in the drafting process, while Ghost Town is readily available and would no less meet the need for child-friendly recreation. "Without Ghost Town what will I take my grandbabies to do when they come to visit?" asked Terry Frady. "I'll have to take to Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg." Following the hearing McElroy refuted statements offered Thursday in opposition to Ghost Town's request by a Waynesville resident who said "If the loan is not paid back, my taxes will be increased." "That's not true," said McElroy. "If we were to loan Ghost $200,000, we will still have a fund balance well above what the state requires. In the worst case scenario, if the money were to not be paid back, taxes will not go up due to Ghost Town. "¦In July, we will actually be increasing our tax base when annexation goes into effect and those (now in-town) residents will begin paying taxes."

Alderman Colin Edwards who has been against the loan request since it was first mention, said Maggie's unreserved fund balance may be needed to finance other projects, like construction of the new police department. But McElroy refuted that, also.

"We financed those projects with long term loans because we got really good interest rates. Money in our unreserved fund balance has not been earmarked for those projects," he said, later adding "You can call it banking business, but it's actually economic development and most cities across the state who have the funds, like we do, have contributed to economic development projects. That's what this is."

Alamo motel owner Dave Blakenship said he calculates the cost of the loan per taxpayer to be about $125 per person.

"With an average of nearly 1,600 full time, taxpaying residents, divided into $200,000 would cost roughly $125 per person," he said. "When you factor in the part-time residents who pay taxes, the figure would be even less. Then consider what the business is worth that we will lose if the park closes. The first year the park opened, I sold 500 park tickets right out of my motel to people staying here. My business was up 30 percent that year. I check my Web sites every day to see how people are finding me and every day there are five to 10 hits that found me through Ghost Town's Web site. "¦ Without the park, we will lose a lot of that business because we will have nothing for children to do."

Shiver spoke briefly during Thursday's hearing, but said he is planning an official presentation for the official public hearing, tonight at 5:30 p.m.

If town leaders deny the request, "we're not going to fold up and go home," he said, later adding "we have a five-year capital plan that will take this park to the next level. We're here. We're not going anywhere. We're committed to the park and to the town of Maggie Valley."

Last Updated on Sunday, 17 May 2009 23:12

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