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Can bold proposals remake Canton?

fr cantonThe Canton Town Board is considering proposals that could boost Canton’s appeal to residents and tourists alike — especially those interested in festivals and fishing.

The first concerns a section of the East Fork of the Pigeon River adjacent to Camp Hope in Cruso that the Cataloochee chapter of Trout Unlimited wants to adopt.

“We’re trying to make this stretch of water a sustainable, productive one, that will hopefully become a destination of sorts,” said John Davis, president of the chapter. 

Begun in Michigan in 1959, Trout Unlimited — or TU, as it is commonly known — is a nonprofit organization committed to the conservation of freshwater rivers, streams, and other habitats that are home to trout and salmon.

The proposed agreement between TU and the Town of Canton would make official TU’s proposal to conduct stream cleanup, fish stocking and monitoring, river channel and bank stabilization, the erection of signage, the creation of informational displays, water quality monitoring, and recreational programming such as fly fishing, tying, and casting classes.

Mark Taylor, eastern region communications director of TU, stressed the importance and feasibility of the initiative. 

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“Our ultimate goal is colder, cleaner water. We prioritize project locations based on whether the work we do will make a difference,” he said. “Nobody knows the land like these guys, on the ground level.”

The hook is that in addition to the services they’re angling to provide, TU is requesting that the proposed section of the river it monitors would be designated as catch-and-release only. While children would be able to keep their catch during programming and other special events, the general public would not. 

As written, the agreement would not bind Canton to the catch-and-release policy, but does commit the town to making an effort to do so; the town would only grant the designation upon “obtaining adequate public input to the satisfaction of the Governing Board,” according to the memo. 

The headwaters of the Pigeon River rise more than 5,000 feet above sea level; clear, cold, and clean, the waters spill down the Balsams and then wind lethargically through Canton, where pollution has been a historical concern. 

The Pigeon River was ranked the 45th most polluted river in the country and the most polluted river in North Carolina in 1996, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but has made recent progress. A waterway conservation stewardship agreement with TU would go a long way in washing away Canton’s murky legacy of dirty water.

Another legacy that may be rapidly eroding is that of Canton as a place where there’s little to do. 

The off-again, on-again “BoojumFest” was finally given a special use permit to close a section of sidewalk and several on-street parking spaces in front of the Southern Porch on June 10 and 11, but not without a fight from Canton Alderwoman Carole Edwards, who opposed alcohol being allowed outside of the bar. 

BoojumFest — not associated with Waynesville-based Boojum Brewing Company — is a new three-day festival and fundraiser for the Pisgah High School Marching Band. The festival showcases Canton’s “legends, lore, and lies” while also spotlighting Canton-area businesses featuring arts, crafts, musicians, storytellers, and a scavenger hunt that awards a diamond garnet necklace valued at more than $2,000 as first prize. It takes its name from Boojum, a Sasquatchesque humanoid said to inhabit Haywood County hinterlands. 

First, Edwards questioned the timing of the request, given that the board was hearing it just two days before the festival was supposed to take place. Town Attorney William C. Morgan said that wasn’t an issue. 

Thus stymied on the attempted procedural technicality, Edwards was the lone opposition to the vote, exchanging words with festival supporter and fellow Canton Alderwoman Gail Mull during the discussion. 

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the festival itself or the people that are putting it on, it’s just that I’m not a fan of alcohol on the sidewalk,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with anybody personally, I just feel like they have an area down there, an outside area in front of the restaurant where they can have that. I don’t think it’s necessary to have it out on the sidewalk. Plus, it blocks the sidewalk for foot traffic, for people that want to travel through there.”

Alderman Zeb Smathers abstained from the vote; his father Pat Smathers, who was Canton’s mayor from 1999 to 2011, owns the Imperial complex where Southern Porch is housed, is an active member of the Lions Club that submitted the application for the special permit, and has been a strong promoter of BoojumFest.

Although Zeb Smathers has no explicit interest in either the property or the festival, he said he felt like abstaining was “the right thing to do.”

Pat Smathers called the event a success.

“I thought it went pretty well, for the first time,” he said. “We accomplished what we set out to do.” Smathers said revenue figures from the festival weren’t immediately available, but he added, “I do anticipate doing it again [next year].” 

What remains to be seen is if Canton’s partnerships with BoojumFest and TU — in conjunction with the ongoing downtown streetscaping and paving improvements — can make Canton a more competitive player in the regional tourism market.

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