No movement, ‘no surprises’ on Canton’s proposed firing range

After a firestorm of public outcry over the prospect of a firing range being built in an African-American neighborhood in Canton, town board members appear to have the issue on hold.

“There has been no movement on the project,” said Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss, explaining that the town has no further action planned at this time.

Canton recently lost the use of its old firing range at a landfill site owned by Evergreen Packaging. On the prowl for a new site, the town eyed its old landfill on Dutch Cove Road, a busy thoroughfare for the Gibsontown community. 

That didn’t sit well with residents of the historically black neighborhood, who accused town leaders of discriminating against their community due to its lower socio-economic status and race makeup. An outpouring of Gibsontown residents appeared at the June 26 town board budget meeting and have mounted vocal opposition to the firing range.

“The ball is still rolling. It’s still brewing. There’s a buzz going on. We can’t really trust the town, it’s all kinds of little things,” Gibsontown resident Ken Davis said this week.

It appears for now, the shooting range is on the backburner, however, pending direct instructions from the town board to town staff to continue exploring the idea. Through all the controversy and hearsay, the town board has remained steadfast in their original mission: to find a place for the firing range, somewhere.

“We allocated the money to pursue looking at somewhere to build one and it’s certainly still active as to where it will be built,” said Alderwoman Gail Mull. “Our intent is what it always was, which was just to see if there was anywhere we could build it, whether it be somewhere else in Haywood County or near Canton.” 

Alderman Dr. Ralph Hamlett echoed similar sentiments.

“The vote was never to pit one community against another,” he said. The goal was only to ensure “the Canton Police Department has the equipment and services they need to protect our community.”

Vendler-Hoss said the police department would ultimately like a shooting range to call its own, instead of sharing the Waynesville range as it is in the interim. 

But, “We will find other options if that’s what we need to do,” Vendler-Hoss said.

Alderman Zeb Smathers also noted the board has yet to further discuss the issue since first hearing the grievances from Gibsontown residents at the June 26 budget meeting. The next board meeting is at 6:30 p.m. July 10. 

“We haven’t gotten to any point to look at the pros and cons. We have heard the sides against it, and there may be other sides,” Smathers said. “Our commitment to the police department is to build a firing range — where and when that will be? I don’t know.”

The next step for the town, should it decide to keep exploring the Gibsontown site for a shooting range, would be a public outreach process to gauge sentiment and input from the community. But the idea was only in its infancy, and the town simply hadn’t gotten to that step yet, they said.

“It was always our intention to make sure the community was aware of this and we could hear their concerns,” Smathers said. “The Gibsontown concerns were listened to, as will be the concerns of everyone else with this issue.”

Hamlett and Mull said the town always intended to reach out to the community and weigh their input before making any final decisions.

“We’ve got to make sure we communicate better and what we should do is encourage all members of our community to come to open meetings and address their concerns,” Hamlett said.

Mull made the same pledge.

“It is a community thing and it will be discussed in the community. We will have town and public meetings to discuss this. We are trying to have an open forum and involve the community moving forward — no surprises,” Mull said.

The residents of Gibsontown learned of the idea after a $3,500 earmark for a firing range showed up in the town’s annual budget that was passed at the June 26 meeting. 

The Canton board looked at the new proposed property as the most logical place for the range, since there’s not much else they could do with the old landfill property anyway.

The board reiterated that the proposed firing range is not a race issue. Both Mull and Hamlett also noted they are members of the newly formed Haywood County chapter of the National Association for the Advancemet of Colored People.

“I’m opposed to ‘isms’ of any sort — ageism, sexism and, yes, racism,” Hamlett said.

But residents of Gibsontown viewed it as another community problem again pushed onto their neighborhood — an area already buffered by two landfills.

“Our primary concern is the safety, noise concerns and traffic patterns with this range,” Gibsontown resident Wanda Walker told the town board at June 26 meeting. “Please consider our concerns, these people live a few steps from this proposed range.”

Davis said the next step for Gibsontown would be to look into getting an attorney involved and perhaps the Haywood County chapter of the NAACP, too. And, it seems, while Gibsontown is waiting to see the next move of the town, the NAACP is waiting to see the next move of Gibsontown.

“We have no plans to look into it until we hear anything more,” said Katherine Bartel, assistant secretary of the Haywood County NAACP. “They (Gibsontown) can file a grievance on the issue and we can go from there, but no one has yet to do so.”

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