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For Canton, challenges are opportunities

Canton will soon hold its first municipal election ever without the iconic paper mill in operation. Max Cooper photo Canton will soon hold its first municipal election ever without the iconic paper mill in operation. Max Cooper photo

Despite all the important elections taking place in Western North Carolina this fall, there’s probably no other town with more on the line than Canton. 

In early August 2021, everything was humming along nicely in Haywood County’s easternmost municipality. The nation was emerging from the Coronavirus Pandemic, Canton’s downtown was continuing to blossom after a decade of decline and the massive paper mill at the heart of town was still pumping out product, much as it had for the preceding hundred years.

That all changed on Aug. 17, when heavy rains associated with a weakening tropical storm pounded the headwaters of the Pigeon River, releasing a torrent that would end up killing six on its way to devastating Canton’s downtown business core for the second time in less than 20 years.

Flood recovery became a full-time job for Town Manager Nick Scheuer and his staff, guided by the town’s elected board.

Before the town could fully recover, another catastrophe — this one, human-caused — threatened not only the town’s viability, but also its identity.

Pactiv Evergreen shocked the region when on March 6 company officials told workers that the mill, one of the area’s largest and best-paying employers, would close forever  in less than four months.

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The closure has already demonstrated an economic ripple effect across the mountains, all the way into Canton’s municipal coffers; tax revenue will go down, unemployment will go up and the elected board, led by Mayor Zeb Smathers, has to figure out a path for long-term sustainability.

These challenges, however, are opportunities for Canton to remake itself in a number of ways, not the least of which involves the future of the 185-acre mill site, which is still privately owned, prone to flooding and likely riddled with pollution.

Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull and Alderman Ralph Hamlett, both longtime members of the board, are up for reelection this year. As with the post-flood election in 2021, when incumbents Tim Shepard and Kristina Proctor won reelection over a lone challenger, Mull and Hamlett face opposition this year.

The Challenger

Adam Hatton moved to Canton from Buncombe County when he was in seventh grade, graduated from Pisgah High School, worked his way up in the Center Pigeon Fire Department and began towing cars in 2004. In July 2018, Hatton launched his own towing company. 

“It takes a lot of hard work and long hours and caring about your people,” Hatton said. “My opinion is if you call Hatton’s towing, you’re just like family.”

Hatton said he first learned about politics at his grandfather’s knee, listening to him argue with the people on television. About a decade ago, he rekindled his interest in politics by watching debates.

“Now I understand why he was yelling and cussing,” Hatton laughed.

Hatton decided this would be the year he would finally get involved because he wants to help with post-flood and post-mill recovery. But he’s also concerned about the town’s identity and wants to see it more closely resemble what he remembers from his youth.

“I think it’s just a lack of us as a community pulling together in making sports what they used to be,” Hatton said. “I remember playing little league [baseball] for Canton and it seemed like when we had tryouts in front of the middle school, it was just a packed, and it’s not there anymore.”

While youth sports leagues aren’t typically the domain of municipal governments, Hatton insists that there’s not a lot for young people in town to do, aside from the new splash pad, the pool, the trails at Chestnut Mountain and the facilities at Recreation Park.

The larger issue of the mill site’s future, however, also presents an identity crisis for Canton, says Hatton.

“I would love to see us stay some kind of mill town, because that’s who we are. We are a mill town. You take that away, then what we’ve grown for and what’s been there for a hundred years, it’s a waste,” he said. “I really hope we don’t make it a housing area. We don’t need to become a housing department for Asheville, we don’t need to be like the surrounding counties of Atlanta or Charlotte. We need to make sure that we stay our own little town and focus on bringing stuff in this area for revenue.”

The housing crisis, nationally as well as locally, can be an impediment to economic development. Businesses are reluctant to relocate to an area where housing is unavailable, or unaffordable.

“Affordable housing, I think, is a thing of the past,” Hatton said. “But at some point, we’ve got to stop looking at the profit and start worrying about our people and if our housing people in our governments would look at that as well, we could stop this price increase. “Making downtown Canton a little Biltmore Park area is not going to do us no justice. Yes, it’s going to bring in revenue from taxes. But what’s it going to do for our communities?”

Hatton called a recent industrial development moratorium, passed by the town in July  to ensure the town has a say in the future of the parcel, “strong arming,” although he said he wouldn’t argue against it at this time because admittedly, he’s at a disadvantage — per state statutes, the real meat of the discussions on Canton’s most consequential issues have been taking place in closed sessions, so only current board members and staff really know what’s happening.

The same goes for flood recovery, which Scheuer said is about 50% complete. Hatton lost his house in Clyde during the 2004 floods, and said he’s satisfied with how the town has responded to the most recent inundation.

Now, the town is looking for a site for its new wastewater treatment plant after a massive appropriation from the General Assembly at the behest of Sen. Kevin Corbin (R-Macon) and Rep. Mark Pless (R-Haywood). Hatton wants to be part of the decision-making process. 

“I would love to say I am the guy that can fix the problem, but I think with a team effort and great minds and open hearts, we could find the right location,” he said.

Another less-apparent issue looming in Canton is the town’s transportation network. As the town grew up around the mill, roads and rails were laid down without much thought for the townspeople. Instead, the ceaseless transit of raw materials into the mill, and finished product out of the mill, were paramount.

Canton now has the opportunity to reimagine not only what its core looks like, but also how people get there and get around once they are there.

“Let’s start with the pedestrians and the bicyclers. If you want [pedestrian-friendly paths and bicycle lanes], come show us in the town you want it, because there’s not enough [pedestrian and bicycle traffic] there to justify spending all this money to make it for you,” he said. “If you come use our town, then I’m down for it. I would love to see our town full with people walking and bicycles coming and stopping and going to that nice little park we got. But do it first, and then come talk to us about it.”

Amid the coming change, Hatton reiterated his desire to see Canton look more the way it did when he was growing up there.

“Something that’s important to me is parks and recreation. The mill, I’m not saying it’s not important, but I think we need to stop focusing on that for a few minutes and start focusing on our town,” he said. “I’m here hoping for a change for our community to the good. By no means do I think I’m the best man for the job, but I’m hoping I can make good changes and a big difference for not just me, but our younger generations, and make our town stay the small town that we are.”

The Incumbents

Hamlett and Mull have both been on the board for 10 years. Hamlett, a retired university professor focusing on American government, grew up the son of the town’s police chief. Mull is retired from the mill and most recently served as the union’s secretary. Although they do have minor disagreements, they’re running as a team and running on their mutual experience in planning for the town’s future after the twin calamities of the last two years.

Hamlett explained the reasoning behind the development moratorium, which expires next July but could be lifted by the board at any time.

“What we want to do is, whatever happens on that property, we want to make sure that it is safe, it is clean, it is sustainable and it provides opportunity for Canton’s citizens, the area, the region,” he said. “We would like to have a place at the table, and that’s what the moratorium does.”

The moratorium came at least partially in response to complaints over a grainy white substance that was eventually traced to the paper mill, falling from the sky, coating cars, homes, lawns and gardens. It’s also in place to ensure that nothing more troublesome — a cryptocurrency mine, a tire incinerator or some other extractive industry — doesn’t curse the town with unanticipated consequences. 

In short, it’s about controlling the developmental destiny of the site, which Mull called “a toxic dump.” Environmental samplings and studies are underway, but the now-shuttered mill continues to rack up environmental violations from regulatory authorities.

“We didn’t pass the moratorium to keep industry out of Canton,” she said. “We passed it in order to get businesses in. Something sustainable, something that will be long lasting, something besides a salvage company that’s just going to go in and wreck it and leave it.”

Again, Hamlett and Mull likely know more about the future of the site than they’re legally allowed to reveal, but there’s been much speculation about what could come to be. Some mixed-use development may be possible on different parts of the sprawling site but resiliency is key, leaders say, because the river will flood again.

Given Canton’s recent push toward outdoor recreation and taking into consideration the housing crisis, developers could end up killing several birds with one stone.

A number of smaller housing developments have begun to appear in and around Canton, and the closing of the mill — the sickly-sweet stench of paper production didn’t exactly smell like “money” to every visitor who passed through town — is expected to produce a flood of its own, with new residents streaming in from across the region.

The governing board has taken steps to balance desperately needed growth with the desire to maintain the town’s character.

“What we’re doing with our ordinances is to make sure that our communities have the roads, and the sidewalks, but more importantly, water and sewer, because if you have a property and you can’t get water to it,” Hamlett said, “you don’t have anything.”

Mull added that the identity of Canton is not jeopardized by new people coming in; indeed, the mill itself — responsible for generations of economic prosperity — sprang up in the early 1900s because of some Yankees from Ohio. 

“I had different bosses from New York, Arizona, wherever, who moved here,” Mull said. “To be threatened by that is just paranoia. You can’t live your life that way.”

That said, Hamlett doesn’t want Canton to become Asheville. He doesn’t even want it to become Waynesville. Mayor Smathers has said that he doesn’t mind being west of Asheville, but he doesn’t want to be West Asheville.

Leading the recovery and restoration of town assets destroyed in the flood remains a priority, which means that the board and town staff are now consumed with managing multiple processes with multiple stages — site selection, engineering, design, grading, bids, construction and completion — all paid for from multiple state and federal funding streams.

So far, buildings have been procured for the new police station and the new town hall. They’ll need extensive renovation, as will two historic gems, the Armory and the Colonial Theater. Sites still need to be selected for the wastewater treatment plant and the new fire department.

Consequently, much of that area on Park Street will come to resemble Sorrells Street Park in at least a metaphoric way. The downtown green space now home to concerts and festivals only exists because of previous flooding. 

The old town hall and fire station will eventually be torn down, opening up those parcels. There’s even been talk of buying out nearby Bethel Christian Academy.

Including the town parking lot, Sorrells Street Park and some nearby plots still owned by the mill, that’s another dozen acres of downtown opportunity, regardless of what happens at the mill site.

Hamlett said that as people become more environmentally conscious, accommodating bicyclists needs to be a focus when the town makes decisions on the fate of its downtown. Mull, however, was enthusiastic about an overlooked transportation option that would provide an economic boost to another major industry affected by the mill shutdown.

Mull remembers taking the train from Asheville to Greensboro in the 1960s. Freight operations were always central to the mill’s success, but the short-line Blue Ridge Southern Railroad lost 70% of its business when the mill closed, according to Mull. The railroad recently received a $12 million federal grant for infrastructure improvements to ensure it can still service other customers further west down the line, but it won’t help much in terms of long-range operating expenses.

Despite the mill’s demise, Canton still has more significant rail infrastructure than most small Western North Carolina towns. Passenger traffic from points east would be a game-changer for the region’s tourist-driven economy, from Canton to Bryson City.

It’s but one of many possibilities; however, Canton can’t afford to dismiss anything at this point. The clock is ticking on Pactiv Evergreen’s wastewater treatment plant operation and an additional $4 million in state funding from Pless won’t plug the town’s substantial budget hole for long. As buyout parcels leave the town’s tax rolls forever, expanding the tax base has become critical.

“We have to look forward. Looking back, you know, the good old days, we can’t dwell on that. We still have to be innovative,” Mull said. “We still have to have new ideas, and we have to move forward. Some of the old ideas, we’re never bringing them back. It worked fine then, but what are the chances of it working again?” 

Early voting in North Carolina is already underway and ends on Saturday, Nov. 4. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

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