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Maggie sees changes — and more of the same

2012 marked by drama and high hopes
By Stina Sieg | Dec 28, 2012

There's an expectation surrounding Maggie Valley that things are bound to be, well, unexpected. They certainly were in 2012, which started off with the board of alderman still fresh from the November election's shakeup. Billing themselves as a "package deal," mayor hopeful Ron DeSimone, alderman hopeful Phillip Wight and sitting alderman Phil Aldridge had campaigned together — and all won. Promising small government and sizable tax cuts, they talked about wanting to shake things up.

They certainly did, but whether that was a good thing or not depends on one's perspective. For sure, however, this was a year of feisty, full town meetings, often with passionate speeches from politicians and Maggie denizens alike.

Here's a rundown of some this year's biggest deals in the little town.

Not-so-decisive decisions

It became clear early on that not everyone on Maggie's board of aldermen was thinking alike. Though Aldridge had often been the odd man out in years past, that title went to Alderman Saralyn Price, the town's former police chief. While Mayor DeSimone and aldermen Mike Matthews, Wight and Aldridge were all for sweeping changes, Price stood firm, often fighting for the status quo.

The trend started in January, when the board decided to tweak a noise ordinance that had been implemented in late 2011. All but Price voted to address when outdoor music could be played in town, and she wanted to leave the ordinance as is. A little more famously, in June she alone fought long and hard against a budget that cut taxes while also cutting town employees' benefits and eliminating the town's festival director position. (Festival director Audrey Hager never actually left, however, and was eventually offered a chance to stay on full-time, which she took.) Price lost that round, but had several town employees back her up on record.

This four-to-one pattern continued through a March decision to lessen or eliminate sewer tap fees for new or expanding businesses. In August, the same thing happened when the board decided to allow high-density video sweepstakes in the valley. More than once, the board was criticized by some community members who thought they were leaving Price out. The mayor and other aldermen's response was often the same: Why would we include someone in the discussion who will never budge?

In a surprise turn this spring, however, Price and DeSimone did find common ground, agreeing that Joe Maniscalco, who lives on Maggie's outskirts and has been ever-present at town meetings for years, had been annexed fairly by the town 2008. The rest of the board disagreed, sending Maniscalco's request for de-annexation to the state, where it's still an on ongoing matter.

Another minor shock came in November, when the board (Price included), voted unanimously to approve a text amendment to allow light industry and therefore a robotics assembly plant — in downtown Maggie. Price had voiced her ambivalence about the idea but, when push came to shove, finally raised her hand in a "yes" vote.

Alderman headache

When Aldridge, a longtime alderman, surprised many by leaving town and his board seat in August, it seemed likely that filling his spot would be contentious. But this contentious? More than four months on, Maggie still does not have a new alderman — and probably won't until one is elected next November.

The problem is complex but at its core deals with the idea of transparency, one of the issues Mayor DeSimone and aldermen Wight and Matthews had been championing all year. Though the board received eight applications for the post, at one point it looked as though the board, excluding Price, was set to appoint local business owner Steve Hurley without having spoken to all those who had thrown their hat into the ring.

While perfectly legal, this sparked an outcry in the town, and public opinion pretty much forced the board into lengthy public interviews. By the time these talks were held, things two unwavering camps had formed, with Wight and Matthews still wanting Hurley, and Price and DeSimone seemingly joining forces against the idea. This change of heart on DeSimone's part became just one of many divisions between him and the remaining male aldermen, who had sounded very much on the same page just months before.

No one seems keen on saying uncle, which continues to keep the board at the awkward number of four, instead of five, making it that much more difficult for majority decisions to be handed down. The next election is still nearly a year away, but no one on the board has talked about the alderman issue in months, which seems telling.

Ghost Town resurrected?

After years of hoping and planning, Alaska Presley, long thought of as the grande dame of Maggie, bought Ghost Town in the Sky in February. When the news finally broke of the troubled, nostalgia-filled amusement park's purchase, the valley was buzzing, with business' marquees heaping praise on Presley. For at least a little while, it looked as though Maggie's financial woes were about to be sent packing. That, of course, was not the case, but cut-and-dry has never really been Maggie's thing.

Over the months, Presley made multiple appearances at town meetings, often obliquely requesting financial help after her hefty purchase. Whether she did get specific with the board members isn't known, but it's clear this project of hers is still moving ahead, while perhaps not at the pace she would like it.

Though she had been hoping to open in early summer, Ghost Town wasn't ready until the Fourth of July, and then was only offering rides on a zip line and its fabled chairlift. After a few months, it closed again, but this time only for the season. Presley plans for it to reemerge in spring, perhaps with its Wild West town up and running and maybe even the midway. After that, she sounds dedicated to a religious-themed addition to the park, though, as might be expected, its time frame isn't certain.

Moving forward?

Around here, many people take for granted Maggie's reputation of having a frontier feel or "Peyton Place" vibe, with its many dramas and frequently clashing factions. Mayor DeSimone is not the first town official to address the unwieldy issue, but he is the first to come up with this solution: a comprehensive, valley-wide business plan.

Dubbed "Moving Maggie Forward," the push is clearly more than just DeSimone's pet project. Thanks to a $20,000 grant (plus $5,000 from the town), the effort has snagged former Grove Park Inn CEO Craig Madison to help with the three-pronged approach. As DeSimone explained in a public meeting in November, the point is to create an identity, create a business plan and find a way to measure success. It all sounds well and good but, being that this is Maggie, of course it has its detractors. Some, including town aldermen, question the prudence of risking town funds on a project that might not go anywhere and hasn't yet fully taken off.

Hurley, who has clashed with DeSimone since the alderman debacle, has alleged that the mayor tried to get him to stop his own meeting of business people throughout the valley.

All of this drama aside, when Madison met with dozens of local businesspeople at town hall last month, he seemed to have them in the palm of his hand. Charismatic, funny and clearly determined, he sounded like a believer in the little town's ability to propel itself into the future. Who knows? In Maggie, it seems, anything is possible.