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Canton economic initiative strives to hold on to past while looking to the future

fr cantonHanging out at the confluence of crossroads that embraces downtown Canton, two young skateboarders while away a lazy afternoon. They’re leaping stairs against the backdrop of a mural depicting the town’s glory days — a ball team from the 1950s, the Labor Day parade and, as ever, the mill.

It’s pretty quiet around town. Slow streets and green lights wanting for traffic. Jason Burrell would like to see that change — he’d like to see more action. More energy.

“We want our buildings with businesses in them,” Burrell said plainly.

It’s a simplistic but accurate summation of Canton’s new economic development initiative. Adopted this month by the town board of aldermen, the initiative is a plan “focused on growing a sustainable, vibrant and thriving economy throughout Canton.”

The plan is a loose roadmap, with hopes that it will set the town on its path from “surviving” to “thriving.”

“We’re not putting ourselves in a category, like we want to be like Waynesville, or we want to be like Brevard, or we want to be like Black Mountain,” said Burrell. “But at the same time, those municipalities don’t have anything that we don’t.”

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Burrell is Canton’s assistant town manager. And now he is also Canton’s economic development director. 

He is the person charged with enacting the town’s new economic initiative. It’s a pretty daunting task, but Burrell thinks he can already feel the energy building — a push towards something better than the status quo.

“I think it’s just a general energy,” Burrell said. “I think there’s a realization that Canton has a potential that until you put the full effort forward you’re not going to reach.”


The plan

Canton’s new initiative is pretty straightforward. Standard economic development fare.

It lays out a plan that focuses on business retention, expansion and recruitment. It hits on workforce and entrepreneurial development. There’s an emphasis on the downtown area and something called “quality of place.”

Like Burrell, Canton Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss sums the effort up in a word: “energy.”

“We want to create a new energy and let that radiate beyond its boundaries, to have people give us a second look,” Hendler-Voss said. “We want to capture people’s attention, and their imagination.”

Revitalizing and reimagining Canton is no small order. It’s a mill town. Always has been, and, one could easily assume, always will be.

How can Canton evolve? How can the town retain its roots and at the same time spread its wings?

“We’re gonna have to be really creative and work really, really hard, and we’re gonna have to get out there and enlighten people,” Hendler-Voss said. “That’s why this plan is so broad and bold. We’re going to try everything we can and see what sticks.”

Within five years, Hendler-Voss expects the initiative and efforts to pay off in the form of “significant growth.” No one is quite sure exactly what that growth will look like, but they seem ready to find out.


What’s to come?

Standing in downtown, Burrell motioned across Canton’s Main Street. A brown brick building with blue accents stands out along the block. 

It’s the new home of RNM Engineers. The firm recently moved in, renovated a building and set up shop.

“It had sat vacant for some time,” Burrell said, looking at the building. “That’s kind of the latest and greatest. They brought in about 18 jobs.”

The property serves as an example of what the town would like to see happen throughout the community. It represents a piece of Canton being refurbished and refashioned for the new age.

As he prepares to get to work on Canton’s new economic development initiative, Burrell isn’t sure exactly what success should look like. It might look something like RNM’s new digs. Or it might take the form of new industry moving to town. Or a brewery settling into downtown, or a solar farm taking root on available land.

“We’re up for anything,” Burrell said “We’re very open to anything, but at the same time we don’t have to take everything that comes our way. We’re looking at sustainability.”

The future of Canton could also rest partly in the growth of Asheville. It borders Buncombe County, and some wonder if it’s ripe to become a bedroom community for the ever expanding city to its east.

Alderman Zeb Smathers would like to see a bit of Asheville’s vibe seep into Canton. He sees the bedroom theory as viable and dreams of “shoe shops, record shops and bike stores.”

“For me, personally, West Asheville is a good model,” Smathers said. “But at the same time, not lose our identity.”

Whatever Canton evolves into, its current leadership — both on the board and in administration — appears ready to lead the charge. Moreover, they appear to be excited about the challenge.

“We’re in a good place, and we’ve got a board that’s willing to push that and hopefully make something happen,” Burrell said.



The plan in Canton

Canton officials have embarked on a journey into the town’s future. They intend to figure out how Canton can best grow and evolve while still holding onto its roots. 

To that end, the town board of aldermen recently approved The Town of Canton Economic Development Initiative. 

“The need for economic development is not a new idea in Canton, or in Haywood County or in Western North Carolina,” said Jason Burrell, assistant town manager and economic development director.

Indeed, Canton has embarked on this journey before, has made attempts to better its economic development front in the past. But Burrell is thinking this time might be different.

He points to the fact that the town recently brought on a new town manager with new enthusiasm. And the town board is made up of fresh faces that appear excited about the task.

“We have a board that is very energized and very energetic and determined to commit the time to economic development that we think it needs to be successful,” Burrell said. 

“I’ve believed for some time that economic development is something you have to focus like a laser beam on,” said Alderman Zeb Smathers. “We’re all excited. This is not going to be a 12-page document that’s put on a shelf somewhere. We’ve got enough of those.”

Canton’s new economic development initiative lays out a broad plan. Its planks consist of job development, retention and recruitment; workforce development; downtown development; entrepreneurial development; branding and marketing and financing potentials.

Initially, the effort will entail getting a handle on the landscape. Burrell will compile a database of available properties that might serve some interest. He will be venturing out into the community to find out what Canton residents and business owners want and need. He intends to find out what they think and how they feel.

Just as Burrell is getting a better read on the community, he will also be, hopefully, generating energy within that community. He will be generating buy-in. Sewing seeds, laying a foundation.

“Economic development is only as successful as the people you have around you, jazzed up about what you’re trying to do,” Burrell said. 

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