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Canton grant empowers citizens to develop revitalization plan

Canton may be looking toward a new era of revitalization, thanks to a grant from the North Carolina Rural Center. The town was awarded $25,000 earlier this fall for the Step Up Canton program, which will formulate strategies for economic growth and development.

Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell says that the Rural Center program empowers citizens — not town officials — to take the helm in deciding what will be best for the community’s development.

“I see this as being about getting citizens involved,” said Burrell. “This is really a way to engage them, to say ‘you’ve got an active stake, you are the decision-makers in this.’”

Rhonda Shandoval, a member of the program’s citizen steering committee, agrees.

“I think the residents need to get involved to give us any ideas,” she said. “This isn’t my community, it’s our community. We’re going to have to dig our heels in, roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty and make Canton what it can be.”

The committee is still in the planning phase, taking citizen input and looking at options for economic growth before putting together several strategies to submit back to the Rural Center for more funding.

Burrell said that is one of the unique features of this grant opportunity — not only does the town receive $25,000 for front-end costs such as studies, surveys and analyses, but it can also ask for up to $100,000 to put its ideas into place.

Charles Rathbone, another member of the steering committee and a downtown business owner, said he’s keen to use this program to bring as much economic stimulation to the area as possible.

“The ultimate goal is to try to retain as many of the business dollars we can maintain within the city limits while also bringing in other dollars from the outside area,” he said.

To do that, the group is relying on the help of a coach provided by the N.C. Rural Center as well as ideas from residents at events such as last Saturday’s (Oct. 9) kick-off meeting. Rathbone says the committee got feedback surveys from around 100 local people, and it will be publicizing other events well in advance to encourage community involvement.

Burrell hopes the committee will be able to put a finger on what — exactly — would be best for Canton, whether it’s downtown renewal, creative job creation or building up Canton’s image in the region and beyond.

“The question is what does Canton have? What does Canton need? What’s missing?” said Burrell. “We’re looking at it for the entire Canton area.”

Citizens in downtown have their own ideas about what would make Canton better, and many think that starts with addressing the empty buildings that surround them.

“When people drive through, there’s so many empty buildings,” said Kelley Messer, who works at A Creative Edge salon on Park Street. “People go through and they think it’s a hole-in-the-wall town, when there’s really nice places that people could get into. When you drive through, everything looks so rundown.”

Dawn Smathers, who also works at the salon, echoed that sentiment.

Dwight Holcombe and Larry Stout, who run a daily, seasonal tailgate market by the town hall, also think that downtown needs a boost — especially if it can help them get a dedicated market space.

“They could put us up a shed for the tailgate market,” said Holcombe, who’s currently peddling his jams, jellies and fresh fruit from the bed of his truck.

Rathbone said they’re currently in the early planning stages of the process, but they welcome ideas from every citizen.

“What we seem to have come up with at his point is that Canton is not, will never be, a tourist town, but they [the citizens] do want us to tend to go to more of a retail location,” said Rathbone. “Our main concern is Canton and its continued growth, and we as a group are here to see if we can make that happen. No, we will make that happen.”

The committee will be taking input over the next two stages of the process from business-owners and residents alike.

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