No robots for MaggieRobotics venture shot down at zoning board
MAGGIE VALLEY — Robots and Maggie don't mix — at least not in the eyes of Marion Hamel. Hers was the lone vote against allowing a robotics manufacturer to set up shop on the little town's main drag during Wednesday night's zoning board of adjustment meeting.
After several impassioned speeches from attendees on both sides of the issue, the board voted three to one in favor of allowing Automation Design Tech to move into the old Carolina Nights building on Soco Road. The motion failed to carry, however, because in this circumstance, a fourth-fifths majority was required. With brand-new board member Ted Jendry absent, that meant the decision would have to be unanimous — something that looked less and less likely as the night went on.
Though board members Caroline Edwards, Candice Way and Bill Banks all spoke in favor of the move, the jobs and business it could bring to town, Hamel stuck to her guns. Throughout the meeting, she worried out loud that bringing light industry into Maggie Valley would change the face of the place, in addition to bringing in more noise and traffic.
"We're going to have to make a decision that is going to change the tenor of the town," she said to her fellow board members and the small, but extremely vocal, audience.
The robotics idea isn't necessarily dead, but it has been put on ice. New Maggie resident Mick Combs, who has based his business in Ohio for years, has the option of going through the town planning board and board of alderman in search of a different outcome, but he admitted the possible 45- to 60-day process is "scaring" him. He wants to pursue this, he said, but with clients waiting for projects, he's in danger of losing business if he doesn't act quickly. At this point, that might mean his business — and an estimated 10 jobs — will head to Asheville or one of the other cities in the area.
"If I find something else, I'm going to move on," he said, after the meeting. "I can't wait too long."
On the other end of the spectrum, Hamel seems worried about jumping into anything too quickly. While she didn't shoot down the idea of Combs' business forever at the meeting, she did stress that she wasn't about to disregard the town's five-year-old land use plan. The plan makes no mention of industry, even light industry like Combs' business.
Though the town's planning board had wholeheartedly endorsed the venture, Hamel stressed she wanted to wait to see what the majority of business owners in town felt about the idea. She also looked unmoved, and more than a bit suspicious, of Combs' plan to allow the front area of the building be dedicated to tourism — and possibly even become the home of the visitors center. While Combs had not come up with this idea, he had expressed support for it after it was mentioned by others.
Hamel, however, was having none of it.
"I feel it's a bribe," she said, point blank, during the meeting. "Excuse me, but I feel it's a bribe."
From the board to the audience, most people in the meeting room seemed split between those welcoming and those worrying over industry in Maggie. On the pro side, Carol Dennis stressed that if this move makes the town more prosperous, she's "all for it." She also compared Maggie to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, which has few services and no industry to speak of. She doubted whether the same approach could work in Maggie.
"That's a tourist town," she said. "And we are a town that is just trying to survive."
On the other hand, fellow business owner worried Shirley Pinto that bringing in industry for survival's sake could hurt the town irrevocably. People have always come to Maggie for tourism, she explained, adding that this move could invite even bigger, more disruptive industry.
"That could really open up a huge pandora's box," she said.
Logan Miller, a resident who lives behind the building being eyed by Combs, seemed in agreement and claimed that allowing such a business would devalue his home by 25 percent. He also sounded unworried about the time it might take to come to a decision.
"This might take three months, this might take four months, this might take five months," he said, "but it is the future of the town."
Mayor Ron DeSimone seemed more in the middle of the argument and made the case that the days of having several entertainment venues in town might be over. Instead of searching for a way to replace Carolina Nights, a former dinner theater venue, it might be better to have a different kind of business in that building, he explained, so it doesn't dilute the success of other venues.
"It's going to put someone in that building rather than having it being empty," DeSimone said. "Certainly it's better to have something in that building than nothing."
And that was the tone from the majority of the board. While most of the members didn't sound ecstatic about robotics in particular, they seemed to like the idea, even though they admitted it wouldn't bring in much-needed tourist dollars.
"It's hard for me to say to turn away a business that wants to come in the valley," said Banks, who stressed that the company would bring in tax revenue.
Way added that she liked the idea of adding economic diversity to the valley. Robotics don't scare her, she explained, because she knew the board would be making future decisions on industry on a case-by-case basis.
"I think it's important that we save our town," she said.
Edwards agreed, saying that she was saddened by the amount of closed businesses and buildings for sale in town.
"To me, when I go to a town like that, it concerns me," she said. "It makes me think, 'These poor people don't have anything going on. Let's go somewhere where they do.'"
The next step
After the meeting, a handful of people walked up to Hamel to congratulate her on her "nay" vote. On man shook her hand and declared what she did took "guts."
"It took conviction," she said, smiling.
It's conviction that Combs said he respects, adding that he knows she's entitled to her opinion.
"I'm not angry," he said after the meeting. "I just thought it was going to be a really positive thing, and I was really surprised that one person was negative about it."
Despite this, he's still moving forward — for now. In addition to bringing jobs to town, he stressed that it would have occasionally brought clients, as well. Having the backdrop of Maggie would have allowed them to take a "mini vacation" while doing business, he explained. But now all that is up in the air.
"I think it would have been a win-win situation," he said.
Adding a text amendment for light industry, such as Combs', will be discussed at the next planning board meeting, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct., 24. If approved, it could be added to the agenda at the next board of alderman meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15. All meetings are open to the public and held at Maggie Valley Town Hall.