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Mill town riddle: Bearing the burden and reaping the rewards

fr millCanton exists against the backdrop of the paper mill. Both literally and figuratively. 

For generations, the paper mill — currently run by Evergreen Packaging — has helped to define the community of Canton. Its billowing factory by the railroad tracks are as much a part of Canton’s horizon and landscape as the setting sun. 

“The mill is a part of Canton and it’s a part of our legacy,” said Alderman Ralph Hamlet. “It’s a part of who we are, so we embrace the mill and what it has done for Canton.”

“The mill in and of itself is such an important part of Canton,” agreed Jason Burrell, Canton’s assistant town manager and economic development director. “It’s probably safe to say that without the mill, there wouldn’t have been a Canton.”

But the mill, Burrell said, shouldn’t be seen as defining or limiting the town.

“I don’t think it necessarily defines us as only being a mill town,” he said. 

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Canton Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss said that the town recognizes perspectives on the mill have evolved over the years. While there is still gushing appreciation for the contributions the mill makes to the community, there is also a growing awareness of the environmental stresses created by its very existence. 

“The mill took a beating,” Hendler-Voss said, acknowledging the “negative stigma” sometimes attached to it.

Burrell labeled such a stigma as “perception.” He said that if anything related to the mill were to stifle Canton’s future, it would be that perception — as opposed to the reality of a paper mill being located in the downtown area.

“The mill doesn’t impact us,” Burrell said, “as much as it impacts people’s perception of Canton.”

Hendler-Voss said that instead of deterring people from venturing into Canton, the mill could be viewed as a drawing card.

“It all depends on how we look at the mill,” he said. “And how we essentially tie the mill to our identity.”

Hendler-Voss drew parallels to Asheville’s River Arts District, a one-time industrial hub that has been reimagined.  And while the River Arts District is a former site of industrial dreams and Canton’s mill is still humming along, the town manager believes that the air of industry could still be framed as a positive.

“There’s a romanticism that urban pioneers have with industry — it’s exciting,” Hendler-Voss said. “We’ve got living history right here, it’s all right here. And there’s so much to celebrate. It’s native America right here in the flesh.”

That’s a good way for Canton to look at the mill. Because it’s there to stay — thank God, goes the general consensus — for the foreseeable future.

And for all the jobs and security it offers Canton, that’s probably a good thing. Besides, it’d be a challenge to grow into the future without nurturing the roots of the past.

“I’d rather deal with economic development with the mill there than doing it without the mill there,” said Alderman Zeb Smathers.

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