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Development a priority in Canton race

Canton Alderman Zeb Smathers isn’t quite mayor yet, but that didn’t stop one local brewery from releasing a “Mayor Smathers Victory Ale” over a month ago, nor has it stopped Smathers — who is running unopposed — from laying out an aggressive plan designed to make the last four years of Canton progress “pale in comparison.”

“I’m excited — as soon as November 30 rolls around — to call our first meeting and for us to set up a work session that is very ambitious,” Smathers told the crowd at the Oct. 19 candidate forum sponsored by The Smoky Mountain News at the Colonial Theater.

Two of Smathers’ fellow town board members — Mayor Mike Ray and Alderwoman Carole Edwards — declined to seek reelection this cycle, meaning that Alderman Ralph Hamlett and Alderwoman Gail Mull will be joined by two of four candidates currently seeking the seats of Edwards and Smathers.

“We’ve been part of a great team, because we’ve been bold,” Smathers said at the forum. “We had a lot of people say, ‘There’s no way you can change Labor Day.’ We changed it, and it’s great. ‘There’s no way you can put the pool back.’ We have. ‘There’s no way you will have economic incentives and fill buildings with soda shops and breweries and bakeries and restaurants.’ We did that.”

That progress has not come easy, he said, but he has confidence that the current slate of candidates would be welcome additions to the Smathers administration.

“I have no doubt every one of these fine individuals who will join us in that boardroom in just a few weeks are bold, and creative and they’re ready to get the job done,” he said.

Carl Cortright, James Markey and Kristina Smith spent the rest of the evening proving Smathers correct. A fourth candidate, Brent Holland, did not attend.

Regardless of which of the four claims those two seats, the composition of the board will see a dramatic shift in both demographics as well as mindset; none of the three candidates present was born in Canton, nor in North Carolina, nor are any of them over the age of 40.

Holland has ancient roots in Haywood County, is in his early 40s, and is a registered Democrat, like Smith. Cortright and Markey are unaffiliated.

The departing Edwards and Ray are both Democrats much older than Holland, and they leave for Smathers to shepherd an enviable situation, compared to other municipalities; Canton’s proximity to Asheville will likely continue to attract residents and businesses for the near future, as will its relatively low housing costs.

But Edwards and Ray take with them some of the most conservative opinions on the current board, especially in regards to alcohol.

The public comment process surrounding a proposed “Brunch Bill” ordinance allowing for the earlier sales of alcohol on Sundays in Canton has been lengthy and evenly divided.

With a brunch bill vote likely Oct. 26 — a meeting agenda hadn’t been released as of press time — the issue could conceivably drag out into the new board’s tenure.

“Overall, we do what’s best for the town,” said Smith. “If I was voting on it today, I would respectfully vote yes.”

Cortright acknowledged that it was a sensitive issue, but said that supporters he’d heard from were more interested in the economic development signal the ordinance sends.

“We have restaurants coming into town that operate on a very thin profit margin,” he said. “Any tools that you can get those businesses to succeed, that’s a good thing. My personal opinion – I’m for it.”

Markey noted that no candidate advocates public drunkenness, but that he had an eye on economic development as well.

“I don’t want this to be a deterrent for people looking at our town,” he said.

More importantly, the candidates’ attitudes signal a significant shift in board mentality that will carry over into the economic development realm.

When asked if he’d support the sales of alcohol in the town-owned Colonial Theater — a lucrative proposition that could help draw more prominent acts — Markey was succinct.

“I would,” he said, provided that events that didn’t want it didn’t have to have it. “I don’t think the town needs to get into the alcohol sale business, but having it as an ability if we’re going to lease the space out would be acceptable.”

Smith said that when talking about economic development, alcohol inevitably comes up, and that she’d support such an option; Cortright agreed.

All three candidates referenced what they said was another inevitable alcohol conversation that would be part of revitalizing the town-owned Camp Hope property, which they also agreed was among their top priorities were they to be elected.

“With my background in business marketing, one of the things I’d like to focus on is where can we maximize some of the tools we have in our toolbox,” Smith said. “We’re sitting in one right now. So one of the projects I would like to work on is how we can maximize recreational opportunities for Camp Hope and the Colonial.”

Aside from development, infrastructure is a chief concern, but both are important for good reason; Canton has the highest property taxes in Haywood County, but, astonishingly, hasn’t seen an increase in a decade – effectively declining versus inflation.

With lagging infrastructure needs — especially in water/sewer systems — crying out for attention, “the costs are never going to get any cheaper if we just continue to move it down the road,” said Markey.

Along those same lines, the town appears to have another infrastructure need, albeit of an entirely different sort.

Months ago, Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell was promoted to the position of town manager upon the departure of Seth Hendler-Voss.

Burrell’s former post remains vacant, which is a larger loss to the town than it seems; the talented Hendler-Voss utilized Burrell effectively in his assistant role, but Burrell also played a crucial economic development role for the town.

“The position of assistant town manager previously was also director of economic development. That is a huge job,” Smith said.

“We’re currently asking one person to do the job that was managed by two,” Cortright said. “That’s an unreasonable expectation. I work in I.T. [and] I’m familiar with unreasonable expectations.”

Markey agreed with both Cortright and Smith on the issue of an assistant town manager; despite the party affiliations, there aren’t many differences between Cortright the data architect, Markey the music teacher and Smith the marketer.

But in a tight election with a ballot full of mostly-unknowns who all want a hand in directing Canton’s future, the winners and losers will likely be separated by just handfuls of votes.

“All of us are built for service — to our families, to our communities, to each other,” Smith said. “We all need a community for support, and that place is Canton.”

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