Canton incumbents want continued progress: Challengers say more can be done
The town of Canton elected a whole new board two years ago when all four aldermen decided not to run for another term.
The new board ran on promises of meaningful change and growth for the mill town, and it has been chipping away at those promises little by little — revamping the town’s longstanding Labor Day Celebration, making recreation improvements, creating a plan to replace the community swimming pool, creating an economic development plan and improving the appearance of the downtown.
Staggered terms in Canton began with the 2013 election, and Aldermen Ralph Hamlett and Gail Mull were both elected to two-year terms. Now they are seeking a four-year term to see those projects through to completion.
“We’ve got momentum going right now, and if we stand still we’re going to go backward,” Mull said. “We’re never going to get back to Canton’s glory days and that’s OK because our kids and grandkids don’t want that — they want something different.”
Mull and Hamlett say they are not running against each other. They have made it clear at several public appearances that they want the voters of Canton to re-elect both of them so they can continue their agenda for the town. Hamlett said the work the current board is doing will provide for long-term success that will hopefully carry forward to future boards.
“I hope the trust that I have earned from the voters will give me, Gail Mull and the board the opportunity to continue the positive direction we have begun,” Hamlett said.
The two incumbents face competition from two newcomers to Canton politics — Kate Brown and Neal McCracken. Even though this is the first time the two candidates have run for office, they are no strangers to Canton and the issues facing the town.
McCracken was one of the founding members of FOCUS of Canton, the volunteer group that started the popular MaterFest in Canton more than 10 years ago. As a downtown Canton building owner, he knows many of the downtown merchants and understands the challenges they are up against.
“I’ve done quite a bit for the town,” McCracken said. “I try to go to all the board meetings and keep up with the issues.”
Kate Brown has lived in Canton for more than 50 years. It’s where she raised her own three children and also helped raise everyone else’s children during her 39 years as a teacher assistant in elementary school classrooms. She still teaches sewing at Haywood Community College and fits uniforms for the school athletic programs. Brown already serves as a member of two of Canton’s advisory committees, including the Community Appearance Commission and the Historical Commission.
“I don’t know much about politics, but I can learn,” she said. “I walk 4 miles around town every morning so I see what’s going on in Canton.”
Mull said Canton’s problems are the same problems facing many small town governments. While Canton does have Evergreen Packaging that employees 1,000 people, the town has had a hard time attracting people and businesses to set up deep roots in town. Small towns often deal with small budgets, limited resources and aging infrastructure. At the same time, the town wants to provide its residents with the services they’ve come to expect — road and pothole repairs, garbage and brush curbside pick up and recreational opportunities for all ages.
“Every small town wants to think their problems are unique, but they’re not — we have the same problems every little town has,” Mull said. “People are moving away, we need more foot traffic downtown, we’re trying to replace aging infrastructure like our water meters, but there’s always a shortage of money and we have to work within our budget.”
Mull and Hamlett say they’ve made great progress in addressing many of these concerns.
The current board adopted a downtown commercial maintenance ordinance to hold commercial property owners accountable for the appearance of their buildings. With Assistant Town Manager and Economic Development Director Jason Burrell leading the charge, the board approved an economic development initiative that lays the groundwork for recruiting, retaining and expanding business.
“Two years ago, I promised positive change for Canton in areas of economic development, revitalization of downtown and new businesses to Canton,” Hamlett said. “We have witnessed seven new businesses locating to Canton on our watch.”
Mull said there is no reason why businesses can’t prosper in Canton. With 1,000 employees at the mill, she said they all need places to buy clothes, eat lunch or dinner and make other purchases at local merchants. Mull said the town board has been trying to not only give the town a facelift to attract businesses but also do a better job of marketing what the town has to offer.
“In another four years I hope Canton will be a place where people can buy things and where there will be more businesses,” Mull said. “I hope downtown will be viable in the future.”
Brown said she remembers the days when she could do all her shopping without leaving Canton. Now all she sees is empty buildings and more businesses closing down.
“I don’t know what the problem is — other small towns like Bryson City are booming,” she said.
Brown said one thing the town could do to retain businesses is to be appreciative of the few that are opening in downtown. She said she personally sent flower arrangements to Kobe Express and a new tattoo parlor that opened recently downtown to welcome them to the community.
“Any time a new business comes to town we should recognize them and thank them — it’s just the right thing to do,” Brown said. “If we recognize new businesses, the word of mouth spreads.”
McCracken said he could see things starting to pick up downtown. With the town’s new ordinance in place, he hopes commercial property owners will invest more in their properties to attract more businesses. More businesses will translate into more pedestrian traffic and slower vehicle traffic through downtown, he said.
“We need to fix the buildings up and get good businesses in there that want to stay there,” McCracken said. “I’d like for our kids to be able to stay here and have work to do.”
McCracken applauded the current board for working with the economic development group at the North Carolina School of Government to advise the town on how to find businesses that are a good fit for Canton.
Labor Day Celebration
Providing residents with entertainment and recreational opportunities was an important issue in the last election and continues to be on the minds of candidates and residents.
Attendance at the town’s Labor Day Celebration has been declining for many years. Many thought the town knew it needed to make drastic changes after seeing the dismal attendance at the 2014 festivities. It took a lot of public input, planning, marketing and money to pull it off, but the 2015 Labor Day Celebration brought in an estimated 13,000 people to Canton.
Some weren’t happy that the town made certain changes to the traditional celebration, including expanding the live music choices and holding events at Sorrells Street Park in downtown. While all the events are usually held at the recreation park, the town board voted to move some events to the Sorrells Street Park because it would expose more people to downtown Canton.
The town also decided not to have carnival rides this year because of the high cost for rides that weren’t high quality. The money went toward booking more bands, offering more quality food trucks and arts and crafts vendors.
Mull said it was the best Labor Day she can remember in Canton and it only cost the town about $10,000 because of sponsorships.
“It was worth every dime and then some,” she said.
Hamlett said the revamped Labor Day was about more than providing entertainment for residents — it was part of the town’s marketing strategy to promote the new Canton brand. The event pulled in people from surrounding areas outside of Haywood County and it gave Canton some great publicity.
“This was an investment to let people know — to steal a line from (Alderman) Zeb Smathers — ‘Canton is open for business,’” Hamlett said. “The investment was well worth it and for the most part we met our budget.”
McCracken said some people weren’t happy with the changes made to Labor Day but agreed it was the best he has seen in years.
“The town spent a lot of money, but I think it was well worth it,” he said. “I understand we had to make some changes to attract the younger folks — it’s just hard for the older folks to get out of the same routine.”
Brown said the biggest complaint she heard about Labor Day was from the younger generations. She said she spoke to many college-aged students who returned home from school to attend the event but were disappointed that the carnival rides weren’t there anymore. She said they also didn’t like that things were spread out in different locations.
“I’m all for change if it works,” Brown said. “But people have themselves programmed a certain way and when it doesn’t work, they are disappointed.”
What’s at stake?
What will voters really be deciding when they vote in the Canton election? The incumbents say it’s simple — voters will have to decide whether they like the direction the current board is moving.
Hamlett said changing the board makeup now might slow the pace of change or even alter the direction and undo the progress the board has made.
“In this election, the voters will decide if the direction that the board has set is one that the people want to follow. The question for the voter is, is Canton better off than it was two years ago?” Hamlett said. “If that answer is ‘yes,’ the people should keep the current board by returning Gail and I to office for four more years.”
Mull can rattle off a long list of accomplishments that the board has initiated in the last two years — giving employees a raise while not increasing taxes, restructuring the town’s health care plan to save $200,000, installing new water meters, hiring a design consultant team and applying for funds to replace the community swimming pool, adopting an economic development initiative, making Labor Day a success and fighting legal battles to keep ownership of Camp Hope.
“Ralph and I offer hope that we can do this — we have a proven record of hard work and we’re moving Canton forward,” Mull said. “There’s a spirit of optimism right now. I don’t promise things I can’t deliver — we’ve put things in place for the future but it’s a long process.”
McCracken said he thinks the current board has accomplished a lot but also thinks more could be done to develop the U.S. 19/23 corridor and improve the appearance of the I-40 accesses to town. He would also like to see more funding go toward road and pothole repairs in town.
Brown said the town board needed to do a better job of listening to what the people in Canton want. Listening to constituents would be one of the skills Brown said she would bring to the office if elected.
“People want the board to listen to them — it doesn’t mean you can do everything, but the citizens should be heard,” she said.
There have been several instances where the aldermen and the mayor have disagreed on issues and at times board meetings have become contentious. Brown said she wants to see the board and mayor work together without arguing or holding grudges.
“It shouldn’t be a contest,” she said. “We have to work together to make things happen.”
McCracken echoes Brown’s statement.
“I want to listen to the people and see what they want and need,” he said. “I hope I can bring a lot of common sense to the town.”
Hamlett said the board members and the mayor might disagree with each other but they are not disagreeable. When disagreements arise, Hamlett said he tries to keep his comments based on possible solutions instead of differences in personalities.
“Gail and I have not always agreed, nor have we always voted the same, but we are friends. We use the disagreements as opportunities to reach solutions together,” he said. “And after the vote, even if we do vote differently, we support the majority vote and embrace it. We do not harbor ill feeling but are ready to move on to the next issue.”
• Age: 67
• Profession: Retired after 30 years working as an executive assistant at Evergreen Packaging, currently a part-time administrative assistant at the local union hall.
• Political experience: Two years as a Canton alderman
• Why are you running? “I have had a two-year term and I think we’ve started so many projects and so many things that need to be finished.”
• Age: 64
• Profession: Tenured professor of political communication at Brevard College
• Political experience: Two-year term as alderman; political consultant; political analyst for local, regional, national and international news organizations; elected chair of the Faculty Council for two terms at Brevard College.
• Why are you running? “I am running for re-election because of what this board — and I as a member of it — have been able to accomplish: initiatives for economic development, revitalization of the downtown and bringing businesses to Canton. I want to continue to fulfill the vision that we have set.”
• Age: 68
• Profession: Retired after 30 years as a millwright at Dayco, a now-closed rubber goods plant that was in Hazelwood
• Political experience: Serves on Canton ABC Board
• Why are you running? “I love the town and I have a passion to see it grow.”
• Age: 79
• Profession: Retired after 39 years as a teacher assistant in Canton schools, currently teaches continuing education sewing classes at Haywood Community College.
• Political experience: None
• Why are you running? “A lot of people have asked me to run, and I care about the town.”