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Canton’s future at stake in upcoming election

BearWaters Brewing, located beside the Pigeon River in Canton, was decimated by flooding in August but has since reopened. Cory Vaillancourt photo BearWaters Brewing, located beside the Pigeon River in Canton, was decimated by flooding in August but has since reopened. Cory Vaillancourt photo

A scant three months ago, when candidates filed for the upcoming municipal elections, the Haywood County town of Canton was facing the usual set of local issues not much different from any other small-town Western North Carolina government. 

That all changed on Aug. 17, when the region awoke to receding floodwaters that had decimated Cruso, killing six, and inundated downtown Canton for the second time in 17 years. 

But the issues on Canton’s agenda can’t reasonably be separated into “pre-flood” and “post-flood.” As recovery continues amidst planning for the future, the legacy of Tropical Storm Fred will leave its watermark on nearly every item the mayor and board will consider in the coming years. 

“Before the flood, we had worked very hard on pushing the Canton comeback,” said Mayor Zeb Smathers. “The next step, for me, was how do we build a hometown of tomorrow, a place that you can live, go to school, have recreation opportunities and call your own, whether you’ve lived here your whole life, or just got here.”

Smathers again runs unopposed, practically guaranteeing him his second term as Canton’s mayor. 

Alderwoman Kristina Smith was the top vote-getter in 2017, beating James Markey by a wide margin. Smith and Markey joined the board, but Markey later resigned before moving outside town limits. Tim Shepard was elected to serve out the remainder of Markey’s term. 

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Both Smith and Shepard hope to retain their seats. Matt Langston, a music producer originally from Laurens, South Carolina, has also entered the race, setting up a crucial election where three candidates vie for two seats. 

The eventual winners will have plenty of issues to tackle, perhaps the most immediate being the future of the town’s most basic functions — routine government activity, and public safety. Town hall was flooded out, as was Canton’s police and fire services. All are now operating out of an ad-hoc assemblage of trailers, basements and donated office space. 

“The thinking right now that I support is evaluating not just how or when, but if we should put them right back where they were,” said Smith, a San Antonio, Texas native with a degree in communications from Lenoir-Rhyne. “I think the important thing to acknowledge is that just because we had it somewhere for a long period of time, doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way.”

Smith as well as Shepard both said they’d entertain rebuilding the facilities higher — atop a parking garage, maybe — or moving them to a different area of town altogether, but both cautioned that the amount of state and federal funding available would be an important factor. 

Langston said he was in downtown Canton after the flood, helping to clean up, and that the experience opened his eyes to the kind of destruction that can occur. Like Smith and Shepard, Langston thinks funding will eventually decide the issue. 

“I feel like I need a lot more information in front of me to be able to give a healthy response to that,” said Langston, who has a music business degree from Montreat College. “It all kind of depends on where money’s coming from and how all the FEMA stuff is going to play out.”

Bolstering the resiliency of town services is central to what Smathers called “the Canton comeback.” Over the past six or more years, the town has experienced a revitalization in terms of its downtown business sector. If Canton’s going to continue moving forward, the effects of the flood can’t be allowed to interfere. 

“I think that we continue to do the things that have been working for us,” said the Franklin native Shepard, a science teacher at Pisgah High School with an BSW from Western Carolina University. “That’s by offering the façade grants and those kinds of things for new businesses when they open and trying to incentivize and motivate business owners to improve their business fronts and their businesses as much as we can.”

For Smith, working on economic development remains one of her favorite parts of serving on the board. She’s also supportive of the town’s incentive program, but for Langston, it’s more about the attractions the town can offer. 

“I’m a big outdoors guy and this entire area is ripe with agritourism,” he said. “I would love to see Canton become a place that can benefit from that influx of tourism. I was just at a meeting this morning with all the small businesses in downtown corridor. They’re in the process of forming a 501(c)(3) and getting their ducks in a row.”

Langston was speaking specifically about Chestnut Mountain Park, a 400-something acre mountain biking preserve located at the edge of town. It’s expected to become a regional attraction once it opens, and will need more lodging, dining and entertainment resources to support it. 

“That’s something that we’re gonna need to step up and let people know what is available in Canton,” said Smith, a marketing strategist for a technology company. “So if people get as far as Chestnut Mountain, if they go five more minutes down the road we have a lot of economic development that has happened that they can enjoy.”

Although not town-owned, Chestnut Mountain plays into the town’s long-term outdoor recreation strategy as is now of heightened importance, since the town’s recreation park has basically been destroyed. 

All three candidates stressed the importance of making the park more flood-resilient, like River’s Edge Park in Clyde; the flood-prone area is now a park that’s not only expected to experience periodic flooding but is designed to withstand it. 

The final piece of the puzzle — one that has been and will continue to be a head-scratcher — is the town’s historic Colonial Theatre. Since 1932, the Colonial has occupied a prominent place in downtown Canton, but just like the municipal building across the street, it took on several feet of Pigeon River water. 

After coming under town ownership, the theatre served as a magnificent venue for weddings, parties and the occasional concert, but never really regained its full potential. Instead, it simply became a line-item in the town’s budget, neither flourishing nor failing but just kind of existing in a sort of municipal limbo. 

Consideration was even given to leasing or selling the property, but ultimately the town decided to redouble marketing efforts and look at other ways to make the venue profitable. 

Now, the future of the Colonial is even more uncertain. Unlike town hall, moving the Colonial or “building up” isn’t an option. 

“If we can keep it and figure out how to mitigate the flooding within it, if we have another flood like that, then I would like to keep it and proceed with the plan that we had in place, which is to look at getting a digital projector and a proper screen so that we can show movies and we can have organizations host larger events,” Smith said. 

Shepard is also supportive of finding ways to mitigate flood damage to the building. 

Langston, who spent years as part of a touring band, sees opportunity for the Colonial, and Canton as a whole. 

“I come from a world of live shows, live entertainment, bands and programming, and I absolutely love that kind of stuff,” he said. “It is an incredibly important and powerful community builder. In terms of how to move forward with that building, I’d love some more information or kind of what the ins-and-outs of that situation are. Obviously, we can’t stop floods from happening, but I think that having a building that’s that beautiful and historic and just having the town sit on it is an absolute waste. I think that it either needs to be used for something or repurposed, maybe with somebody who has the financial ability to sustain it.”

The Canton municipal election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Early voting begins Oct. 14. 

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