Arts + Entertainment

art southernporchHeading up the stairs at the historic Imperial Hotel, there’s an electricity in the air, a vibe that’s familiar, yet dearly missed in downtown Canton. With several people running around, attending to last minute details for a wedding party that evening, Nathan Lowe emerges from the depths of the enormous, beloved structure on Main Street.

fr imperialBy Katie Reeder • SMN Intern 

A great restaurant at a great location in a great town — it’s all part of The Imperial’s appeal, according to the restaurant’s assistant manager Monte Bumberknick.

fr sidsBy Paul Clark • Correspondent

In the old Imperial Hotel in Canton, Sid’s on Main is creating a little history of its own. 

Sid Truesdale, who owns the restaurant with his wife Page, is honoring the building’s place in local history by putting pecan pie on the menu. The original restaurant, which fed workers and executives at the then-new Champion paper plant nearby, served pecan pie, as well as the drop biscuits that Sid also offers.

The Imperial Hotel in Canton has become entangled in a legal battle as a result of unpaid bills by a contractor.

Haywood County Builders Supply has filed a civil suit and lien against the hotel, owned by outgoing Canton Mayor Pat Smathers. The claim states that Smathers and his contractor Gary Cochran failed to pay for $29,084.93 in building supplies, such as lumber, paint, flooring, doors and nails. The supplies were used to renovate the old Imperial Hotel, which was built in 1911.

“It is what it is. I don’t agree with it,” Smathers said, adding that he didn’t want to “lambast anybody.”

Smathers said that the problem is between the contractor and Haywood Builders. Smathers said he paid Cochran for the cost of all the materials.

“Everything has been paid to the contractor,” Smathers said.

However, Cochran said Smathers still owes him money, and as a result he hasn’t been able to pay his bill with Haywood Builders.

Haywood Builders fronted the supplies and materials to Cochran for the job. Cochran would then wait to get paid by Smathers before paying the invoice with Haywood Builders.

“I paid as I got reimbursed,” Cochran said. “There is still money outstanding.”

To help cover the cost of the renovations, Smathers got a $90,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center to renovate the Imperial Hotel. It was a one-to-one matching grant, requiring Smathers to spend $1 of his own money for every $1 he got in grant funds.

He’s spent most of the money, according to the Rural Center. As of Nov. 10, the remaining grant funds totaled about $4,000.

The Rural Center also awarded Smathers a previous $25,000 grant for architectural and engineering plans.

Cochran said the grant process created a cash flow quandary. Bills for labor or materials must be paid for first and only then could he be reimbursed for the costs.

The grant money came in “slower than I ever thought,” Cochran said.

The county, which had to sign off on the grant and act as the fiduciary manager, requires both invoices and cancelled checks from Smathers before submitting an application to the Rural Center for reimbursement from the grant funds. Then, the center must process the application prior to reimbursing the money. This procedure can take several weeks.

Haywood Builders has also filed a civil suit against Cochran and Smathers. According to the suit, Cochran owes the building supply company an additional $186,954.96, plus interest and fees, for other projects.

Cochran said he sat down with Haywood Builders and tried to work things out many times but was unable to work out a payment plan.

“It’s been a downturn in the economy,” Cochran said. “We’ve been down for the last couple years.”

Last year, Haywood County issued 172 building permits for privately owned housing units — compared to 366 in 2008, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The firm representing Haywood Builders declined to comment.

It’s anybody’s guess when the Imperial Hotel in Canton will open.

The deadline for finishing renovations to the hotel, owned by outgoing Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, has continually been pushed back. The initial opening date in May turned into July, then August, with the latest target now sometime in December.

“There is just very little left to do,” said Smathers, who expects to finish renovating the hotel by the first or second week in December. “It’s just taken time, but it’s an old building.”

The renovations have been progressing in fits and starts during the past decade. Piles of bricks and other tell-tale signs of construction have been a mainstay in the yard of the downtown property for years now.

This time, however, completion really is just around the corner. If Smathers doesn’t create 15 jobs in the renovated hotel by this time next year, he will have to repay a $90,000 state grant for the project from the N.C. Rural Center.

Smathers himself will only create one of the required 15 jobs directly, however. An independent restaurant leasing space from Smathers inside the hotel will create the other 14 jobs required under the grant.

Smathers must repay a portion of the grant for each job not created.

Plans for a restaurant inside the hotel have taken a turn last week, however, with one restaurateur stepping back and another stepping in. Originally, Greg Petty, owner of the Canton Lunch Box, was going to open a restaurant in the Imperial Hotel. He expected to open this summer and even closed his other restaurant to focus his efforts on the new location.

“We closed our Canton Lunch Box in anticipation of getting this place opening on Aug. 1,” Petty said. That’s after previously touting a June opening.

Petty said the prolonged renovations were not the main reason he opted out of the Imperial locale. He said he was still planning to open the restaurant when he was approached by Sid Truesdale, who wanted to buy him out.

Truesdale said he was looking for an opportunity locally.

The goal for opening a restaurant in the hotel is New Year’s Eve, said Truesdale, calling the timeline “pretty aggressive.”

The restaurant, called Sid’s on Main, will offer “a little bit of everything,” such as steak and soups, Truesdale said.

The renovation project was about 80 percent complete in June, according to a progress report submitted to the Rural Center as a requirement of the grant. The main items remaining were painting the interior and installing a sprinkler system, bathroom fixtures, HVAC units and lighting fixtures, according to the report.

Now, the sprinkler system has been installed, as well as the light fixtures. However, workers are still inspecting the hotel’s pipes and finishing several outdoor decks or walkways, among other things.

Smathers purchased the property in 1983 with several others. During the next 15 years or so, he bought out his partners and began renovating the historic building.

The mayor said he did not know “off the top of my head” how much he has spent on the project during the last decade. However, he said the final stages of the project should cost about $180,000.

Smathers, through the Haywood County government, has obtained a two-part grant from the N.C. Rural Center to renovate the Imperial Hotel. The center awarded Smathers a $25,000 pre-development grant for architectural and engineering plans and a $90,000 grant for construction.

Smathers had to match the grant with an equal level of spending. As of Nov. 10, the remaining grant funds totaled about $4,000.

To meet the terms of the grants, the hotel must create 15 new jobs — 14 in the restaurant and one in the hotel — before November 2012 or repay part of the grant.

Canton residents and business owners said the hotel will have a positive impact on the community but are wondering how much longer they will have to wait.

“Anything that brings people downtown will help businesses,” said Julie Spivey, an area resident. “It’s taking longer than anyone expected,” she added.

Charles Rathbone, owner of Sign World WNC, said he would like to see the hotel and restaurant open for the upcoming holiday season.

“There is a lot of anticipation waiting for the opening day,” Rathbone said.

A merger is afoot in Canton that will bring together two staples of the town’s downtown scene.

Soon, the Canton Lunch Box, a fixture of the town’s business community, will join forces with the Imperial Hotel, an equally prominent fixture in Canton’s history and heritage, with the opening of the Imperial Grill and Tavern.

The new venue is the brainchild of Mayor Pat Smathers, who owns the historic structure, and Greg Petty, the man behind the Lunch Box. It will bring to downtown Canton something it hasn’t seen since the heyday of the hotel itself, said Petty.

While the Lunch Box, a popular lunch spot for downtown workers and employees of the nearby paper mill, has now officially shut its doors to the public, the place will be reincarnated in July when the Imperial opens for business.

The idea, said Petty, is to offer the town not only a restaurant and bar — and eventually a few hotel rooms, which is Smathers’ side of the business — but also an event venue housed in the old hotel’s grand ballroom. It will be able to accommodate up to 125 people, and Petty’s hoping it will soon become a popular spot for wedding receptions and business meetings. The first phase of the project, the bar and restaurant, are slated for completion around July 10, while phase two, the event venue, will hopefully follow soon after.

But the historic renovation hasn’t been without its hurdles. The initial target date was sometime around Mothers’ Day, but May came and went sans opening, the project hamstrung by the difficulties inherent in tackling such an old and storied structure.

But that, said Petty, is part of its charm.

“The historical aspect of the building really intrigued me. That atmosphere and that venue is what really attracted us,” said Petty.

And the structure is, indeed, full of history.

Built in the late 19th century, it was originally a residence. Following a transformation into a hotel, it remained a lodging house into the 1930s. Later, storefront façades were erected, covering the ornate face of the building. In what will now be the outdoor dining courtyard, the intricate tile pattern that once lined the floor of a menswear store housed there can still be seen.

Gary Cochran, the contractor overseeing the Imperial’s restoration, said they’ve even found photos advertising the hotel as the best $2 rooms around.

Partially, it’s that historic character that makes the project slow going at times.

“We’re trying to put things back as original as we can,” said Cochran, though that’s sometimes hard, given all the incarnations the building has gone through in the intervening century since its construction.

And, said Cochran, the tiles aren’t the only remnants they’ve found of the building’s many past lives. During Prohibition, the place served as a local speakeasy. Cochran and his crew found the trap doors and old bottles used in the clandestine operation. Some of the contractors have even reported hearing voices and spying moving curtains in empty rooms.

The restoration of the storied structure was funded in part by a matching grant from the N.C. Rural Center, who kicked in 50 percent of the money. The other half was raised by Smathers, the building’s owner, along with Petty, its new tenant.

In its newest role, Petty hopes the Imperial will again serve as a gathering place for the county’s eastern end, the kind of place locals have long had to travel to Waynesville or Asheville to find.

And although his cuisine is likely going to step up a notch from down-home lunch fare to American dinner staples such as ribs, steak and chops, Petty said he’s not worried about losing his loyal lunchers.

“You’re still going to be able to get a chicken salad sandwich, you’re still going to be able to get a tuna melt. We’re going to have a lot more parking for people to come to, we’re going to have the outdoor dining, we’re going to be able to do a lot more with that building than we can’t do with the Lunch Box,” said Petty. “We’re not going to run away any of our guests; we’re not going to change.”

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers is determined to realize his dream of turning a historic house in downtown Canton into a hotel, restaurant and retail space— and he wants taxpayers to help fund it.

Smathers has sat on the 129-year-old building for 10 years, dabbling in its renovation here and there, waiting for the right people and opportunity. Finally, he has a plan in order, which includes a boutique hotel, “unique” restaurant run by a local couple, extended stay apartments and retail spaces. He hopes to pay for much of the project through two grants — one for $25,000 and one for $120,000 — from the North Carolina Rural Center. He’s also putting up $120,000 of his own money.

The grant pool, dubbed the Building Reuse and Restoration Program, is a pot of money dedicated to “spur economic and job activity and job creation by assisting in the productive reuse of vacant buildings in small towns.”

Smathers says he’s applying for the money because he needs capital; but also because he thinks his project fits the grant’s goal of spurring job creation. He says he can create 10 restaurant jobs, four hotel jobs and five retail jobs — assuming he can find shopkeepers willing to lease the retail spaces, which he hasn’t so far.

Smathers couldn’t apply for the money on his own, because it’s only awarded to local governments. He asked Haywood County commissioners to sign their name to the application, which they agreed to unanimously last week.

While most entrepreneurs seek loans from a bank, take out a second mortgage on their home or borrow from their nest egg to launch a business venture, Smathers isn’t sure whether he could get a loan from a bank for this project.

“Financial institutions aren’t doing much investment in small towns,” Smathers explained. “And if they’re not getting involved in the communities, then I do think it’s the role of government to sort of prime the pump.”

In this case, that means grants funded by state taxpayers. But Smathers said the project has more service industry jobs.

Downtown revitalization has been a major goal for the town of Canton, and Smathers hopes his project will spur other businesses to open in the area. Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development director, thinks Smathers’ project will do just that.

“I’m excited about this and I think it’s a great opportunity to help downtown Canton revitalize,” Clasby said.

Canton Alderman Troy Mann is a bit more hesitant in his optimism.

“If the project could ever be completed, it might help,” Mann said. “I think it could be an asset, but I’m not going to say it’s going to be as productive as some have said.”

It’s not that Mann doesn’t want the project to be a success — he does. It’s just that he’s seen too many businesses come and go downtown and questions Canton’s potential to chase a tourist-based economy.

“You don’t have enough of a population base to support some businesses, and that’s the reason the businesses don’t exist,” he said. “No matter what kind of business goes in there, if you don’t have the population, it doesn’t matter.”

Mann thinks there are steps Canton needs to take to lay the groundwork for a downtown revitalization, such as cleaning up the town to make it more attractive to families and establishing a chamber of commerce or merchants association.

In Clasby’s opinion, things like restaurants are a part of that groundwork, and that they help attract other businesses, like retail. He points to the success of downtown Waynesville as an example.

“You look at downtown Waynesville, and it used to be a disaster zone,” said Clasby. “Back in the early ‘90s, there was one restaurant or two. Then others came in, and now there’s a number of restaurants down there.”

Smathers may be taking a risk with his hotel, restaurant and retail project, but a stipulation of the Rural Center grant gives him extra motivation to succeed. If he can’t create the number of jobs he’s promised in two years, he’ll have to pay back the grant money to the Rural Center.

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