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With an influx of younger residents seeking small-town charm and affordable housing, Haywood’s mill town is poised for the beginning of a new chapter

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

When Wilbur Davis looked out his storefront in downtown Canton recently and saw three young moms pushing babies in strollers, he paused to watch. It’s not that women with babies are a particularly unusual sight in downtown Canton, but not too long ago it would have been.

“You wouldn’t have seen that 10 years ago,” Davis said.

To Davis, a long-time resident of this Western North Carolina mill town, the scene meant something much more — it symbolized the subtle shift that is happening in the eastern Haywood County community.

The town of Canton is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. Gone are the heady days of the 1950s and 1960s, when Canton historian Patrick Willis estimates as many as 10,000 residents flooded the town and turned the downtown area into a bustling, vibrant space. Since that time, the town has struggled with a loss of businesses, the gradual loss of jobs at the paper mill, a declining Main Street — and a bit of an identity crisis. Today, a surge of young people is breathing new life into Canton and changing the face of the town that Champion Paper created.


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A shifting dynamic

Signs of the influx of younger people are everywhere. Mieko Thomson is a Realtor who has sold homes in the Canton area for eight years.

“If you’re talking about Canton, it’s more younger couples than older people,” said Thomson.

This fact came as a welcome surprise to Willis, a first-time homeowner in Canton in his late 20s. Willis, who worked for a while at the Canton Historical Museum, purchased a home in Canton with his wife several years ago.

“We’ve certainly met more young couples than I would have thought. I don’t really know the demographics. We’ve got a number of friends our age in Canton that we like to hang out with,” he said.

Mayor Pat Smathers, who was born in Canton and has lived there his entire life, has also noticed a shift.

“I had a guy in the radio business tell me that as far as selling advertising, the age group in Canton is much younger in the media market’s studies,” Smathers said.

“The population’s up in Canton, and there are lots and lots of houses being built,” he added. “What I’m seeing is a lot of young people and couples moving (here).”


But why?

A top reason is price. For 20- and 30-somethings purchasing a first home, other parts of Haywood County just aren’t affordable. Buncombe County is even more expensive. In Canton, a buyer can get a house the same size as one in Waynesville or Asheville for much, much less.

“I was shopping at a specific price range,” said Nicole Wilhelm, a Haywood County school teacher who purchased a house in Canton six years ago. “The house that I got for the same amount of money in Canton was newer and more up to date. The other places I would still have had to do a lot of work to it – they were all older houses.”

“I think a lot of the new younger people are just like we were. They realize that they can get a lot more house for their money,” Willis agreed.

“You get more house for the money,” Thomson echoed. Houses, primarily 1930s bungalows near Canton’s downtown that were originally built for mill employees but are far more architecturally interesting than what were built in most mill towns, go for an average of $140,000 to $180,000. The same size house in Waynesville runs $20,000 to $30,000 higher, Thomson said.

The houses are appealing in themselves. Many are “well-built, charming, bungalow-type homes,” Thomson said, with a front porch and attractive gables.

“It’s absolutely a good fit for a young couple. The houses are not overly huge, so you’re not going to get in over your head,” said Willis.

Rachel Whitmire, who bought a bungalow style fixer-upper in Canton this summer at a rock-bottom price, said she’s not the only one she knows with the idea of buying cheap and renovating.

“I have lots of friends that are buying houses and remodeling them,” she said.


Location, location

Another equally important reason young people are relocating to Canton? Location. The town is especially attracting those who work in Asheville and don’t want to give up their jobs or the brimming culture the city has to offer.

Asheville Chamber of Commerce statistics on commuting patterns show that in 2004, Asheville was the second most common place for residents of Canton to work. Canton proper was the only town that beat it.

“Every other house being bought is someone from Asheville,” Davis noted. “We’re already becoming a bedroom community for Asheville.”

“I think more people are moving from Asheville (than anywhere else) because they priced themselves out,” Whitmire said.

Parts of Canton are only 15 minutes from Asheville. This appeals to people like Wilhelm, who used to live in Asheville and work in Waynesville.

“I was originally toying with Canton to begin with because I love all the stuff to do in Asheville, but I needed to be closer to Waynesville so I didn’t have to drive 45 minutes. Canton was the perfect halfway point. It takes us 15 minutes to get downtown. We can pop in Asheville as quickly as we can get to Waynesville,” she said.

Other factors also play into young peoples’ decision to move to Canton. Willis was attracted to the small-town atmosphere the town still retains.

“Canton has always been a very close-knit community and myself, I’m sort of attracted to a small-town feel where people know each other and get to know each other,” he said.

“My neighbors are so friendly,” Wilhelm agreed.

Canton also boasts easily accessible amenities, like things for kids to do.

“I think our recreation program is very strong for young people,” Smathers said.

“We have the recreation park and the swimming pool. I think it’s a good town for young families to at least start out in,” Willis said.

During the election that took place in November, almost every candidate who won touted their belief that Canton should market itself as a bedroom community that is attractive to young couples. The success of those candidates could lead to even more services for this segment of the population.


Economic growth slow in coming

While there’s evidence that Canton’s population is changing, the town lags in economic growth and is slow in attracting businesses. A mixed drink referendum that passed in 2004 has failed to attract restaurants, and there are only a handful of places to eat out in Canton.

“When they promoted the liquor by the drink, they said it would bring more quality restaurants like Olive Garden to Canton. Four years later, that has not happened,” said Peggy Manning, who spent 22 years covering Canton as a reporter and editor. She first worked for The Enterprise, which was Canton’s newspaper until it merged with the Haywood County newspaper The Mountaineer. She now works in public relations for Haywood Regional Medical Center.

In the downtown area, vacant storefronts and boarded up windows can be seen. The town has had trouble getting businesses to locate downtown, which is in the shadow of the huge paper mill.

“The buildings are run down. I’d do these stories on new tenants and a month later they’d be gone. The rent was cheaper in Waynesville. If they’re not going to fix their buildings, they should at least make them affordable to rent,” Manning said.

Manning also questions the effectiveness and actions of some of the town’s committees. It’s like they sometimes don’t see the whole picture, she said.

“The cultural committee tries to promote the town by holding special concerts and things like that, but they don’t get the whole economic picture. If you bring them to town, you want them to see something — but there’s nothing to see,” Manning said.

Additionally, Manning said she wasn’t sure the town always followed through with plans to bring businesses to Canton.

“I didn’t see any apparent effort. Did they ever really present a plan? Did they ever say, this is what we want to do, will you (the town) support us?” she questioned.

Davis, too, harbors doubts about the effectiveness of committees put in place by the town’s elected leaders to attract people to Canton. “It’s always the entrepreneurs,” he said, that will help to revitalize business in a community — there’s only so much a committee can do.


The paper mill

Perhaps the most imposing obstacle hindering both the town’s population and economic growth is the very thing that Canton was built on — its paper mill.

This Catch-22 is commonly expressed among people who are familiar with the vital role the mill has played for Canton.

“The mill is Canton’s greatest asset and its greatest hindrance. It’s their largest tax base, (but) it’s also their biggest holdback from growing,” Manning said.

The sulfur-like smell of the paper mill, though far less noticeable than it once was thanks to major environmental cleanup efforts, is still a stigma attached to the town, said Willis.

“I think there still is a stigma attached, and recently I think it’s been very hard to get people to move in and start businesses in Canton,” Willis said. “But I think the smell has gotten better and people are realizing you can get a lot for your money here in Canton.”

Thomson said the smell is still a hindrance to some looking to buy in the Haywood County area.

“I hate to say it, but lots of people from the outside, when they find out (there is a) paper mill in Canton, they don’t want to go there,” Thomson said.

Smathers, though, is convinced that the environmental cleanup steps the mill has taken have contributed to the population influx in Canton.

“I think there’s evidence that as environmental things keep improving in town, I think that’s one of the things that’s causing a change,” he said.

“The mill has done quite a bit in the last 10 years to clean up air quality and water quality. Certainly the benefits of moving to Canton are outweighing the negatives,” Willis agreed.

Davis, who first came to Canton in 1956, said that he would not have moved back to the area 11 years ago if the environment was like it was when he first arrived.

With the mill’s acquisition by a new owner, the New Zealand-based Rank Group, and a trend toward a loss of manufacturing in Western North Carolina, there are questions about exactly what the mill’s future holds. However, talking about the mill’s potential closure and even its uncertain future were taboo topics until recently.

“Fifteen years ago, no one would have toyed with the idea of the mill closing. People are now looking to understanding that hey — I think the mill’s going to be here for a long time, but I think the workforce will probably continue to get smaller because of technology,” Smathers said.

“Machines man the machines. There aren’t as many jobs available. Now, the mill has an aging workforce that’s getting ready to retire out,” Manning said.

What would happen to Canton if its mill, and major employer, shut down? It’s difficult to ascertain.

“That’s hard to tell, because then, how will the economy of Canton survive?” Thomson asked. “It’s sort of a Catch-22.”

“What would happen to Canton if the mill shut down? There are two trains of thought. It would be a ghost town or a clean industry could come in and boom. No one wants to see it closed down or downsized, but if it ever did close, it could be what Canton needed to open up and be that community,” Manning said.

Willis agreed that the closing of the mill could potentially attract more people to live in Canton.

“If the mill closed, I think there’s a good chance of Canton becoming a town much like Weaverville. It’s a good location, and that’s attractive for retirees and more younger people as well,” he said.

“I think as things change with the mill, it’s going to be one of those well-kept secrets,” Wilhelm added.


Signs of growth

Though Canton faces some obstacles to becoming more economically viable, that’s not to say growth isn’t happening. Smathers ticked off a list of businesses that have come to town in the last six years, including Rite Aid, Dollar General, Sonic, Fred’s, Auto Advantage, Penland Furniture and Suntrust Bank.

“There’s a lot to be done, but when you start counting things (you start) understanding there’s a tremendous amount of growth,” Smathers said.

Smathers and Alderman Mike Ray have both talked about plans to hire a full-time business recruiter for Canton. Smathers said that’s likely the town’s next step toward pursuing economic growth. The town has already extended water and sewer lines out to its east and west corridors, which has attracted development to those areas.

“That puts them in a position for growth on the outskirts of town. That might actually counteract some of those empty buildings downtown,” Manning said.

But Canton is also looking to add more businesses to its downtown area. One positive step toward that end was made recently when the town qualified for the Small Town Main Street program. Administered by the state’s Commerce Department, the program provides assistance to towns in organizing a committee to work toward various goals for the downtown area.

“It’s not just for appearance, but recruiting new businesses for the downtown area and working together toward streetscape improvements,” explained Assistant Town Manager Al Matthews. “You establish a committee that addresses several of the biggest needs and biggest problems.”

Manning said that a recruitment effort should be, “of a different type ... to recruit specific businesses like the antique shops and beauty shops. Get away from the retail stuff and go more toward the service sector,” she suggested.

Wilhelm said she would like to see the downtown area revitalized and the town’s historic buildings restored.

“The buildings have a lot of character to them. There’s something very nostalgic about it, but the whole thing just needs a lot of TLC to bring it up,” she said.

One downtown business owner, Davis, is confident that the area will once again be a vibrant place — quite possibly much sooner than expected. Davis owns several of the properties downtown and has sold two buildings in the last three months.

“I don’t think there will be an empty building on Main Street in six months,” he predicted.


The future

What will Canton be like in the future? Though the trend seems to be toward becoming a community of commuters to Buncombe County and elsewhere, Smathers thinks there is more in store for the town.

“I don’t think we will ever just be a bedroom community. We are already and there will be more of that coming, but I don’t see us just as a bedroom community. We’re still going to be an industrial and retail town,” he said.

Manning said she believes Canton and Asheville will become further intertwined.

“Asheville’s already contacted Canton wanting water. Canton is eventually, in an evolutionary way, going to fold into Asheville. It could happen within 20 years; within our lifetimes, that we’ll see that happen,” she said. “They just need the right people to take them to the next level.”

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