The university has officially partnered with the town of Canton in a project called Canton Connections. WCU students from five departments within the university are offering to perform a variety of community services as part of a service-learning component to their college education.
The project initially started with a grant to look at how small businesses in Canton recovered after the 2004 floods. Originally, the focus was on economic development and involved students from the college of business and entrepreneurship program. Over time, though, Canton Connections morphed into something much larger.
“In my view, economic development should not be divorced from social development,” explained Glenn Bowen, director of the service-learning program at the university. This idea came to define the project, and it expanded to include students from fine and performing arts, arts and sciences, and education and allied professions.
Economic development was the cornerstone of the Canton Connections project, and it is still playing a big role. It’s something the university hasn’t necessarily explored before.
“This provides a significant opportunity for us to have an impact on economic development. Traditionally, the focus has been on social services,” Bowen said. “From an economic development perspective, students will create businesses and marketing plans and work with small businesses.”
But because of the all-encompassing nature of the project, students will do much more than work with businesses. Canton officials have come up with a diverse wish list of suggestions for the university. Theater students could serve as interns to book and produce theatrical productions at the historic Colonial Theater. Landscaping classes could design town parks and planting areas. Hospitality and tourism majors could conduct a study for potential new businesses needed in town.
Best of all, “the research and the leg work is all free,” said Dr. William Richmond, an associate professor of business computer information systems at WCU. “The idea is to provide the manpower and the expertise.”
This is the first project of its kind for the university. WCU has partnered with a town before, most recently when construction management students worked with Maggie Valley on the design for the town’s new police department. But working with an individual town “has not been done at this magnitude,” Bowen said.
“We’re really excited to have WCU take an interest in Canton,” said newly elected alderman Eric Dills. “At this point, the university is asking the people and the town, what do you need from us?”
To gain community input, Canton Connections held an information fair Dec. 10 for community members to come and learn about the project and give suggestions. About 25 WCU representatives, town leaders and community residents attended.
“We thought it was important to get out and listen to the voices and views of the people we’re going to help,” Bowen said.
WCU hopes the project will be the start of an ongoing relationship between the university and the Canton community.
“We place a great deal of emphasis on long-term civic engagement. We’re seeing this as the start of a long-term relationship with Canton and a model for other places,” Bowen said.
“You have to plant the seed,” alderman Mike Ray agreed.
How students can help
Here’s a list of suggestions that Canton officials have said Western Carolina University projects students could participate in with the town:
• Historical Museum
• Colonial Theatre brochure update
• Computerize inspection records for building inspections
• Help with production of concerts, i.e. choral, orchestra, jazz band, etc. at Colonial Theatre
• Energy audit of municipal buildings
• Layout and format for Water Quality Report
• Routes, maps and signs on bicycle trails
• Advertising and marketing plan for Canton
• Traffic calming on Main and Park streets
• Refurbishing or painting new downtown murals