Canton can rebrand itself, but it won’t be easy
With the right leadership, it can happen. If the national and regional economy continues chugging along for another few years without a stumble, it can happen.
I’m talking about a rejuvenation of the small east Haywood County town of Canton, where elected leaders are saying they want business growth and new residents. That’s the town dominated by the giant paper mill that sits unabashedly in the town center, the mill that still occasionally emits a smell that envelops the town, the mill that still discolors the Pigeon River.
I wanted to get those negatives out of the way right from the beginning. They are real and they are part of the challenge for the town’s leaders; but they are also responsible for the town’s unique character. Here’s how Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss put it: “The spirit of Canton can be summed up in one word — grit. Today, our challenge is to reinvent ourselves to capture the imagination of a growing economy around us, and there is no doubt in my mind we will succeed if we are willing to stretch ourselves.”
The town just held its 109th Labor Day Festival, which is thought to be the longest-running event of its kind in the Southeast. Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, which means there have been 121 observances. I’d say Canton’s got a pretty good hold on some kind of record.
This year Canton revamped the celebration, infusing it with more events geared toward visitors instead of merely trying to entertain town residents. In an earlier era, the mill was the catalyst — and the financier — for Labor Day events. Now, the town and civic groups have taken over. The change is worth noting: in bygone days, the mill dominated the town both from a physical and leadership perspective. Former Mayor Bob Phillips, now deceased, was mayor in the 1990s and was a former mill engineer who served when many on the town board were mill retirees and the mill was a player in many town nonprofits.
Now that’s just not the case. Times have changed. Though the jobs are vital to Haywood’s economic well-being and the sewer infrastructure the mill provides the town is a necessity, it’s not the only game in town. The revamped Labor Day celebration was a nod toward both the past and a new future.
For most of the two and half decades I’ve been editing newspapers in the mountains, I was skeptical of Canton’s ability to succeed in attracting new businesses and new residents as long as Evergreen Packaging was still parked in the middle of town. But then a terrible thing happened: manufacturing plants began closing all across America, turning parts of many Midwestern and New England cities into urban wastelands.
In the South, textile mills fled overseas and left many small towns without their major employer. In July I drove across North Carolina from New Bern to Waynesville, and the trip revealed dozens of old brick factories that are now shuttered with parking lots overgrown with weeds. It’s a sad sight.
For me — and I suspect for many others — a personal distaste for factories has been turned on its head. I now like to see working manufacturing plants. They still make things in Canton. They provide good jobs for friends and neighbors. That’s rare and valuable in America these days, and so keeping Evergreen in Canton — as long as it continues to make environmental upgrades to its air and water discharges, which is happening — becomes more of a positive than a negative.
Among the other positives in Canton — and one that I think sets it apart from nearly every other mill town in the region — is the unique architecture of its neighborhoods. These aren’t row houses but individual architectural gems, hundreds of them, and all valued at prices well below homes of similar character in other towns. That’s real potential savings for young couples looking to own a home.
I was in Asheville Sunday and drove past the New Belgium Brewery that’s rising on the banks of the French Broad River. It’s a huge beer factory and it’s cool. It is new and shiny and the beer is great, but it is a factory nonetheless and looks like one.
Attitudes are changing, and if ever the timing was right for Canton to rebrand, that time is now.