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Canton eyes Bethel Christian Academy for flood project

Drawings show a radical rethinking of how the parcel home to Bethel Christian Academy  in Canton will soon look, if the town is selected for a FEMA grant. Town of Canton photo Drawings show a radical rethinking of how the parcel home to Bethel Christian Academy in Canton will soon look, if the town is selected for a FEMA grant. Town of Canton photo

The Town of Canton has taken a major step toward long-term flood recovery with an economic development project at a downtown parcel that could soon serve as the capstone to a broader resiliency effort all along the Park Street corridor. 

“I think it shows you that you don’t have to choose between flood resiliency and economic development. Any project in our river district has to have a mitigation component to it, and it can be done,” said Zeb Smathers, Canton’s Mayor. “I applaud the cooperation between all the parties involved.”

When the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred hit Haywood County’s Pigeon River on Aug. 17, 2021, rural areas upriver were flooded out, killing six people. Once the water finally reached Canton, a significant portion of downtown took on several feet of water, which gutted businesses, homes, government facilities and a 25-year-old school in a 58-year-old building — Bethel Christian Academy.

It was the second 500-year flood in less than 20 years. Local leaders haven’t been shy in voicing their opinion that it will happen again, maybe soon.

Built in 1965, the 39,000 square-foot school sits on a 6.5-acre parcel on the west bank of the Pigeon River — squarely in the river’s floodway — and has been repeatedly damaged by flooding in the past. The lowest floor of the school is actually more than 13 feet below the 100-year flood level.

The Milltown Strong Pigeon River Floodway Acquisition and Park Conversion project will result in the acquisition and demolition of the school and put a flood-resistant park in its place.

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Preliminary drawings show the eastern half of the parcel nearest the river, about 3.6 acres, with a boardwalk and terraced overlook near a recreational lawn.

Ecological restoration throughout and reforestation along the border the parcel shares with Pactiv Evergreen’s 185-acre site will cut down on the 2.5 acres of impervious ground cover — the school, and the large, paved area surrounding it — that currently serves solely as a source of runoff and pollution instead of as a floodplain like nature intended.

A playground is planned near the 34-space parking lot and its adjoining overhead shelter. No immediate changes are expected for the baseball field, but the drawing does show plans for terraced grass stadium seating between the parking lot and the diamond. 

The entire project is slated for 36 months, with phase one planning beginning in summer 2025 and phase two — property transfer, site work and construction — beginning in March 2027.

The project is dependent on the successful award of a Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant from FEMA, and BCA’s acceptance.

Andy Fox, director and co-founder of the Coastal Dynamics Design Lab at N.C. State University said he’d worked with Canton Town Manager Nick Scheuer on the grant application.

The project budget is set at $6.7 million with a required local match of 10% of the cost if the project is selected.

“Our goal there is to eventually get to a point where not only do we have federal funds necessary for project implementation, but to also seek additional funds external to the community that act that serve as the matching portion,” Fox said.

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Bethel Christian Academy in Canton, seen here in 2021, is subject to regular flooding. File photo

Regularly working with communities on projects of this scale, the CDDL also tracks a variety of no-match state grants that can help those communities substantially reduce or completely eliminate the local match.

For example, phase one of the Canton project, which is $128,000 in design, engineering and permitting costs, requires a $12,800 match.

“In this case, we already have that in hand, so the town will be able to move forward with phase one without having to procure any additional resources,” said Travis Klondike, associate director of the CDDL.

The CDDL has met with success in the past, securing funding from the North Carolina Department of Justice, the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the Department of Emergency Services, philanthropic organizations and nonprofits like the Golden Leaf Foundation.

The deadline for local match funding is March 2027, but the project timeline could proceed more quickly if everything goes smoothly and local match funds materialize sooner than that.

On Jan. 25, Canton’s board of aldermen took the first step to phase one by approving a local match commitment letter that essentially promises the town will meet the local match amount if the project is selected. 

If it’s not selected, if local match funds aren’t available or if Canton officials simply change their minds, the town can pull out of the project at any point prior to construction, without penalty. Its only outlay, then, would be some staff time spent studying the project and applying for the grant.

Last year, North Carolina had 22 projects selected for the BRIC program. This year, the state has ranked Canton’s project as number five in the state — good odds for selection.

“It’s very likely to be selected in this year’s grant cycle,” said Klondike.

Bethel Christian Academy did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

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