Robotics gets an OK from Maggie

By Stina Sieg | Nov 20, 2012

MAGGIE VALLEY — After months of divided votes and some bitterly divided opinions, the Maggie Valley Board of Alderman came together last week to approve something most people never saw coming to the little town.


In a surprise turn, the board voted unanimously at its November meeting to approve a text amendment that would allow light manufacturing in town limits. That means that Automation Design Tech, the robotics company owned by new Maggie resident Mick Combs, can finally set up shop. The business is currently located in Ohio, but Combs has been looking to move it to Maggie — and specifically the back section of the old Carolina Nights building — for months. Except for a short-lived night club, the building has been vacant for nearly two years.

Though Combs could not be reached for comment by press time, just a month ago he vowed to keep pressing on in his quest to bring his business (and an estimated 10 jobs) to Maggie.

"If I had the building today, I would already be employing people," he had said, after an October zoning board of adjustment meeting.

That night, all of the members of the board had agreed on letting his business in but one, Marion Hamel, and her "no" vote had sunk the proposed change.

There was no such lone wolf at the board of alderman meeting, however, even though Alderman Saralyn Price did voice her ambivalence.

"I wish I knew how I felt," she said, toward the end of the meeting.

She didn't say much else, except that she sees both sides of the issue. She explained that on one hand, she does worry about "opening the door" to other, less desirable businesses. On the other, she sees how this business could help the town.

"I'm just kind of curious why he wants it on the main street in Maggie Valley," she said, with a bit of skepticism about Combs.

Despite this, when it came time to vote, she raised her hand in agreement.

That simple gesture brought an end to an emotionally charged issue, and an emotionally charged night, when a small but vocal handful of locals had spoken out against the change. In turn, Mayor Ron DeSimone and aldermen Phillip Wight and Mike Matthews had defended it.

Earlier, business owner Carol Burrell questioned the "due diligence" of the board, asking why it hadn't called up the chamber of commerce in its current location or sent a representative to Ohio to check up on it. She also worried out loud about the "irrevocable damage" she said such a business would cause to the property values in Maggie.

"Diversity is good. We're not opposed to diversity at all," Burrell said, speaking for a few other business owners. "What we are opposed to is putting manufacturing in our downtown, on our main street. That's what we're opposed to."

But other business owners, like Allen Allsbrook, had fervently cautioned the board in the opposite direction.

"Now, this guy's going to invest money in this town," he said of Combs. "There is going to be one fewer building that is empty. Let's not focus just on tourism."

While, like in most Maggie meetings, there had been a healthy amount of participation from the audience, no one had participated quite like Shirley Pinto, who is deeply opposed to manufacturing in town. At times, the meeting had even felt like a showdown between the longtime Maggie resident and members of the board.

At one point, she told them that if they let this robotics company in, Maggie's mystique would be "killed."

The economy and tourist trade "is going to go back," she said, "and Maggie has been in the tourist business since 1932."

She added that the Carolina Nights building has several people interested in buying it — and making it a tourist-based business — but they simply haven't acted yet. She continually implored the board to postpone their decision and talk to more business owners before making a choice.

"I know the people, and I know they have the money," she said, before Alderman Wight countered with a quick question.

"Well, why aren't they here?" he asked.

Speaking with a sense of urgency, he then spoke highly of Combs and his business, which Wight believes can only have a positive effect on the town he calls home.

"For him wanting to come into Maggie Valley, I think it's a blessing at this time," he said.