Canton leaders hope to unlock potential for commercial development around interstate

Canton aldermen are embarking on an ambitious quest to identify long-term goals and strategies that will shape the town in years to come.

“You’ve got to have a plan, and this is the plan for the future of Canton,” said Alderman Ed Underwood.

Each alderman came up with their own list of priorities for the town. They brought those lists to the table at a meeting on Tuesday (Jan.12).

At the outset, it seems all five town leaders meet eye-to-eye on most of their priorities. The top priority appears to be upgrading the sewer line to accommodate commercial development around the I-40 interchange at exit 31 and along Champion Drive. For now, the heavily used sewer line is hitting maximum capacity.

According to a 2008 estimate, the extensive sewer expansion project would cost about $1.2 million. The town has attempted landing grants but has yet to secure any.

Town leaders plan on meeting every Tuesday to discuss the nitty-gritty of each item now that they have a master list in tow. Other common threads between their lists include:

• Repairing the town swimming pool.

• Annexing West Canton and other areas if feasible.

• Eliminating potholes and pave streets/sidewalks.

• Economic development/promote downtown.

• Seeking grants where possible.

Mayor Pat Smathers already published his 17-point vision in a local newspaper prior to last year’s election, encouraging voters to choose candidates who would cooperate with him to implement his goals.

The unilateral move drew criticism from some candidates, who insisted that residents and other aldermen also have input in a long-term vision.

Shortly after the election, Smathers succumbed, asking aldermen to come up with their own wishlists.

A few of the aldermen came up with original ideas not found on any other list.

Flynn said he wanted the town to begin back tax collections and start tearing down condemned houses littered across town.

Currently, the Town of Canton partners with Haywood County to collect taxes. According to Flynn, those who have paid their county taxes, but fail to pay the town, fall off the radar.

Flynn suggests breaking off the county partnership to start collecting its own taxes.

“I know there are some that are perfectly capable of paying but don’t,” said Flynn. “Tax collections would take very little resources.”

Flynn also wants to develop a plan of attack for dealing with condemned houses, which downgrade the neighborhood’s property values.

“It’s just unsightly,” said Flynn. “It’s open to vermins [sic] and rats.”

Underwood came up with the idea of using prison crews for projects then discovered that the state program that loans inmates to municipalities has fallen by the wayside due to the statewide budget crunch.

Canton joins trend of imposing steep fees on video sweepstakes outlets

The Town of Canton has begun clamping down on video sweepstakes machines with a new ordinance last week, but some business owners seemed more relieved than disappointed.

That’s because the ordinance ends the 90-day moratorium passed in November and clears the path for even more sweepstakes machines in town.

Cyber sweepstakes use an obscure loophole in the video poker ban to subsist. The video gambling industry claims winnings are predetermined — even though customers appear to play games of chance, similar to those on video poker machines.

Canton’s new policy calls for a steep $2,500 annual tax on the first four machines, with $700 per machine thereafter.

It requires each business to pull in no more than 15 percent of its income from cyber sweepstakes and demands minors be prohibited from playing or even viewing the screens.

While no one spoke at Canton’s public hearing on the ordinance last Tuesday (Jan.12), a few video sweepstakes representatives were present. One was so eager to get the machines up and running, he wanted to pay the fee on the spot that night. Town Manager Al Matthews instructed him to be patient and come in the next morning.

So far, two businesses have signed up for the privilege license. Lankford’s Grocery registered 19 sweepstakes machines, while Crosby Wireless registered six.

Annually, these two businesses alone will hand over $16,900 to the town. For now, Canton is only charging half the annual fee to cover the remainder of the fiscal year through June. Come July, a full year’s worth will be due.

Canton Alderman Eric Dills was noticeably displeased even though he voted for the measure, which passed unanimously.

“I don’t really like this business,” said Dills. “It is gambling and everybody knows it’s gambling.”

Dills pointed out there’d be no concrete way to determine if a business was raking in more than 15 percent of its profits from sweepstakes.

Mayor Pat Smathers said the town would have to use a common sense approach.

“If you have 15 of those machines and a hot dog stand, chances are you don’t sell that many hot dogs,” said Smathers.

The towns of Hendersonville and Franklin have already set a $2,600 annual tax on sweepstakes machines. Franklin collected fees from eight businesses within days of passing its ordinance, a testament to the lucrative nature of the industry.

Canton Mill pursues new pollution permit

Evergreen Packaging, a large paper mill in Canton, is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River.

The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.

The river downstream from the mill is far cleaner today than anytime in the mill’s 100-year history. The Pigeon River was once so polluted few fish species could survive and it was unsafe for people to swim in.

During the 1990s, the mill embarked on a $300 million environmental overhaul, spurred partly by expensive lawsuits.

Environmentalists and downstream communities want the mill to make further improvements. But instead, it seems progress has plateaued.

“While the river has gotten cleaner since the 1980s, we can’t allow North Carolina to end the river cleanup until it’s clean and free of odor, foam and significant toxic discharges,” said Chris Carswell, who lives downstream of the mill in Cocke County, Tenn.

But Derric Brown, the director of sustainability for Evergreen, said progress going forward will be measured in much smaller steps than the progress of the past, mostly because of the giant steps already made.

“Incremental improvement is becoming increasingly difficult,” Brown said.

Sergei Chernikov, an environmental engineer in charge of the state permit, said it will take exponentially more effort to make less noticeable improvements as time goes on.

“The law of diminishing returns is in full force,” Chernikov said. “What they are working on now is the remaining 10 percent. It is definitely getting harder with each step. But they are making progress.”

The biggest environmental victory of the 1990s was getting the mill to drastically reduce dioxin, the most toxic chemical discharged into the river. The final health advisory against eating fish caught downstream of the mill was lifted in 2005. Fish once wiped out by the mill’s pollution are being reintroduced in a joint effort between the mill and state wildlife and environmental agencies.

Chernikov called Evergreen the cleanest paper mill in the state and among the cleanest in the world.

“If you look at other facilities throughout the nation and Canada, (Evergreen is) doing much better,” Chernikov said.

Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for NC, disputes that claim, however.

“There is no way this can be called the cleanest paper mill in the world,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the pollution from the mill is all relative to the size of the Pigeon.

“You put an enormous paper mill on a tiny river, it is still a huge amount of pollution being released into a tiny river,” Taylor said.

The mill has faced repeated lawsuits, including class action claims, from downstream landowners in Tennessee over the past two decades. A federal lawsuit by three local landowners from Haywood County was filed this fall, claiming the pollution deprives them of the right to enjoy their property along the river.

The mill’s current pollution permit, dating back to 2001, sets limits on the pollution and mandates water testing on a daily and weekly basis to ensure compliance. The permit expired in 2006. The mill has been operating under an extension while drafting a new permit, which is now up for review.

The mill is operating within state pollution limits on most counts. The current permit allows a variance in two areas: temperature and water color. In the new permit, the mill is again seeking a variance for temperature, but feels a variance for color is no longer necessary.



A major source of contention is steaming water released by the mill into the river, which raises the overall water temperature.

In September 2008, for example, the water taken out the river was 66 degrees on average, but was a piping 93.5 degrees when put back in the river. Even half a mile downstream of the mill, the river was still 11 degrees hotter than it should have been — with a temperature of 66 degrees upstream of the mill compared to 77 degrees downstream.

In the winter, the temperature variance is even more acute, with the discharge twice as hot as the river’s natural state.

“You can actually see the river steaming in the winter,” Taylor said.

The discharges exceed federal and state temperature standards by a long shot, which cap the overall temperature increase at 5 degrees. The mill is allowed to raise the river’s temperature by 25 degrees under the variance in the pollution permit.

Chernikov said the river is hotter for only a short section, however, since side streams are constantly flowing into the river and cooling it back down.

“There will be some impact but whether it is significant or measurable is the question,” Chernikov said.

Brown said the temperature is not hurting water quality.

“There have been studies of the river showing that temperatures is not inhibiting the balance in indigenous populations of fish,” Brown said.

Evergreen uses a massive amount of water to cool its equipment and coal-fired boilers, which make electricity for the mill’s operations. It’s cheaper for the mill to make its own power from coal than to buy it.

Chernikov said the variance for Evergreen is similar to that of power plants in the state. In order to cool the water down before returning it to the river, it would require the costly construction of cooling towers. Cooling towers have a downside as well. They lead to lots of evaporation and less water is returned to the river, decreasing its natural flow, he said.



The upgrades of the ‘90s also reduced the discharge of color, which darkens the river. While marked improvements were made to reduce color, the mill has still required a pollution variance for the color of its emissions.

The new permit would make small improvements in color, eliminating the need for a variance, according to the mill and state environmental officials.

Typically, the lack of a variance is a good sign, indicating the mill is meeting state standards. But that’s not necessarily the case with color, Taylor.

Regulating color discharge is a tricky proposition for the state under its current protocol. The state doesn’t have a hard and fast limit, but instead limits color to an “acceptable” level.

“The color is psychological. For some people it may look fine, for some people it may not,” Chernikov said. “The color is really a very subjective parameter.”

Taylor said the mill agreed to make what she considers undetectable changes to its color discharge and in exchange the state suddenly deeming it within the “acceptable” range — thus no longer requiring a variance.

“They are trying to PR their way out of this variance,” Taylor said. “They are cooking the books to make it sound like they have improved in the past decade but they have not.”

Taylor wants the state to adopt a numerical standard for color.

“Without a numerical color standard, there is no way to tell whether they have met an acceptable color standard,” Taylor said.

But Brown said the subjective measure is appropriate.

“Color is aesthetic,” Brown said. “Different people perceive color differently.”

What’s acceptable in the mountains, where rivers are much clearer, could be much different than what’s acceptable along the coast, where rivers are sometimes black and briny by nature. Taylor said the state could still set numerical standards, however, by using a sliding scale based on the natural color of the river compared to the discharge.

Brown said the color discharged by the mill has no environmental impacts but is purely an aesthetic issue.

Taylor disagrees.

“We say color is an indicator of an adverse chemical soup that includes some toxins,” Taylor said. The less color, the less the overall discharge, and the better off the river is in general, she said.

Water gets tainted with color when flushed over wood fibers. Color leaches out of the pulp and ends up in the discharge that goes back into the river.

The mill proposes to reduce color over the next four years from 42,000 pounds a day allowed under the current permit to 39,000 pounds a day, a step the mill has already achieved. The mill’s goal is to reduce color to 37,000 pounds a day within four years. The improvement is small in comparison to the major reductions made since the late 1980s, when the mill discharged 380,000 pounds of color a day.

Taylor is also dismayed that water would be sampled and monitored less frequently under the new permit. Evergreen does the monitoring itself and submits the stats to state regulators. But Taylor wants testing by an independent third party to spot check the mill’s data.

“This mill has been so controversial for so long it is time for there to be independent testing,” Taylor said, calling for “full transparency.”


Dirty water

An environmental advocacy group Environment North Carolina has just issued a report that analyzes industrial pollution of waterways based on monitoring data from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. The report is titled Wasting our Waterways: Industrial Toxic Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act.

Major findings of the report include:

Blue Ridge Paper Products released 123,856 pounds of toxic chemical waste into the Pigeon River and was the 10th largest reported polluter of toxic chemicals in North Carolina in 2007.

The Pigeon River is ranked 7th in North Carolina for most cancer-causing chemicals, with 10,740 pounds of chemicals linked to cancer discharged by the Blue Ridge Paper Products plant in 2007.


Want to weigh in?

A public hearing on a water pollution permit for the Pigeon River by Evergreen Packaging will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Tuscola High School in Waynesville.

For more information on how to comment or about the draft permit, go to

Canton leaders to compare and contrast lists

As everyone else compiles wish lists for the holiday season, Canton’s four aldermen will put together a list of their own on behalf of the town.

Soon after they were sworn into office last Tuesday (Nov. 24), Mayor Pat Smathers asked the aldermen to come up with a list of goals for the town, involving them in a process he began before the election.

In mid-October, Smathers published his 17-item wish list for Canton in an op-ed piece in The Mountaineer. In the editorial, Smathers wrote that he hoped to begin implementing the plan along with the newly elected aldermen soon after the election.

Smathers was prepared for the reality that the new aldermen would produce their own lists for what the town needs to prioritize. After his list was published, those running for office made it clear they would come up with their own agenda rather than just following Smathers’.

It remains to be seen how the new board will work with each other. Three of the four aldermen are serving their first terms after winning election in November. Two of the former aldermen chose not to run, and a third was unseated.

This makes the second election in a row that voters in Canton have swept in a new slate of candidates, having voted in three new aldermen in 2007.

Canton’s town manager will collate the aldermen’s individual lists and present a master list to the board at an orientation meeting in mid-December.

Some of the items on Smathers’ long list of goals included installing lights on town sports fields, creating a craft and farmer’s market, hiring a town recreation coordinator, and extending the town’s greenway.

Furthermore, Smathers called for an upgrade of town water and sewer lines around Interstate 40, where the capacity has been maxed out preventing new businesses from hooking on. Smathers wrote he’d like to annex new territory into the town limits as well.

Alderman Eric Dills dubs Smathers’ 17-point vision an “ice cream list” with broad goals that everyone in town could agree on.

“Everybody likes ice cream,” said Dills. “It’s not a real controversial list. It’s just whether or not it can be done, and how and who’s going to pay for it.”

Alderman Ed Underwood, who was elected mayor pro-tem at the meeting, agreed. Underwood stated that many of the board members’ ideas would likely coincide with the items on Smathers’ list.

“The main issue is going to be in how you fund them,” said Underwood.

Dills said some of his own goals for the town may not be as “flashy” but are still worthy of implementation.

For example, Dills said he’d like to see the town repaint parking stripes downtown and start washing streets regularly.

“It’s not an expensive proposition,” said Dills. “It’s a very pleasing thing to see for what it costs, which is almost nothing.”

Dills said he views the list as important in building a consensus among the board members on the direction Canton needs to go.

For Dills, that means stepping away from a push toward tourism.

“We cannot bet our future on trying to draw visitors off I-40,” said Dills. “We can be a wonderful residential town, a place where people want to come and live and raise families and retire.”

Underwood said his main goal was to make Canton a vibrant place to live, shop and play, meaning his list will include a variety of directions.

“From economic development to recreation to fixing potholes,” said Underwood.

While Alderman Jimmy Flynn supports the goals on Smathers’ list, he said that it was “obvious” that the aldermen needed to write up lists of their own.

Flynn said he needed more time to compile his list but that he would work with a particular vision in mind.

“Slow, steady growth that does not overburden the taxpayer or the town employee,” said Flynn.

Though Dills will dream up a wish list for Canton along with the other aldermen, he expressed hesitation about signing up for a plethora of expensive projects, citing a strong concern about keeping taxes low.

“We need to be like every other business, and conserve and tighten our belts,” said Dills.

Hope of paper mill job attracts hundreds to ESC

More than 300 people waited in line at the N.C. Employment Security Commission in Waynesville on Monday to submit job applications with Evergreen Packaging, the paper mill in Canton.

Evergreen employs 1,200 workers in Haywood County. The company is not adding new jobs at this time but is merely building up its applicant pool.

“This is actually a routine practice we do once or twice every year to make sure we have a pool of qualified applicants as jobs become available, primarily because of retirements,” said Mike Cohen, spokesperson for Evergreen.

Mark Clasby, Haywood County Economic Development Director, said Evergreen has an older workforce that is retiring.

“So there is a continued need for replacements,” Clasby said.

Evergreen’s last call for applications was in January 2009.

The line seemed longer than usual this time, according to Virginia Gribble, the director of the Employment Security Commission. ESC accepts and processes the applications. Gribble cited the high unemployment in Haywood County, which was 8.5 percent in September.

The long line is likely a sign of the economic times, said Gribble, but it was also a testimony to the quality of employment offered by the paper mill.

“It has been a very good response from the community,” Gribble said. “A lot of people are interested in working there because they are such a good employer.”

Clasby agreed.

“They have been a mainstay here in our community for 100 years and have provided really good jobs over that period of time,” said Clasby.

Entry-level jobs were advertised at $37,500 per year plus health insurance and other benefits.

Many who applied cited a long lineage of family members who have worked at the paper mill.

The Canton factory makes paperboard used in milk and juice cartons and envelope-grade paper. Evergreen also operates a smaller plant in Waynesville where coating is applied to the cardboard.

Fresh faces will lead Canton

As with the election two years ago, Canton will once again see three new faces on the board.

Voters had a deep bench of candidates to chose from: 10 running for four seats on the board. The only two returning board members are Alderman Eric Dills and Mayor Pat Smathers.

Town politics in Canton have been marked by division the past two years, and the vast majority of candidates running this time claimed they would rise above the fray and bring an end to opposing camps.

The two town leaders most at odds — Smathers and Dills — are the only two returning to the board, leaving it up to the three new board members to forge a new direction.

“I think we will sit around that table and come up with some good ideas and discuss them and come to a consensus hopefully a lot quicker than what was done in the past,” said Ed Underwood, one of the new candidates winning election to the board.

Candidate Jimmy Flynn agreed.

“I just feel like the three new people need to concentrate on bringing everybody together,” Flynn said.

Flynn said personality conflicts need to be put aside to do what’s best for the town.

“They have to concentrate on listening to each other more than talking,” Flynn said.

Two years ago, voters ousted three long-time board members and ushered in a slate of new faces for the first time in years. A power struggle between Smathers and Dills rooted in philosophical differences bogged down progress, according to both candidates and voters.

One voter interviewed for an exit poll, Paul Moore, said he went for a “complete change” when casting his ballot. Moore had supported a change on the board two years ago but was disappointed in what they had accomplished.

“Nothing,” he said.

Luckily for Moore, all the seats on the Canton board are up for election every two years, so he didn’t have to wait long to vote for another clean sweep.

Dills has been among the first to admit that the change promised by candidates two years ago hasn’t come to fruition but says progress was stymied by hold-overs in the town leadership who resisted the change.

“People haven’t been satisfied with the progress that has been made, but I know I will continue to stand in there with their best interest,” Dills said.


Coming to consensus

A hot topic in the race was forging a new place for the historic, blue-collar mill town in the 21st century economy.

“I think everybody in Canton wants Canton to be a vibrant community again,” said Randy Burrell, a voter interviewed on his way out of the polls. “I think all the candidates have that in mind. It is the main issue. Canton has a little niche somewhere and once we find it, we’ll be back.”

Indeed, most candidates made revitalization a central issue — but they differ on how to best target the town’s efforts. Some want the top focus to be on the core downtown. Others want to upgrade water and sewer around the Interstate 40 interchange to lay the groundwork for commercial development. Yet others believe Canton’s strength lies in its neighborhoods and want to clean them up.

Underwood said it is crucial they agree on some priorities, or they won’t be any better than the last board, which was chastised for getting nothing done.

“You hear presidential elections with a mandate. The mandate here was get down there and work together,” Underwood said. “I think if you didn’t hear that message, you got a problem.”

Mayor Pat Smathers published an op-ed piece in a local paper listing 17 priorities he wants to see the town tackle and challenged voters to elect candidates who would follow his lead on them.

Dills said he is going to come up with his own list to put before the board. He said the board should commit to priorities on paper rather than a piecemeal approach that is hard to track.

“We have to come to some concensus and figure out what we want to accomplish the next two years, put it on paper and let’s go do it,” Dills said.

Troy Mann, a current board member who lost re-election, wished the new board good luck.

“If they can fulfill Mayor Smathers’ list of 17 projects, they have their work cut out for them,” Mann said.

Smathers was running unopposed, and nearly a third of the voters chose not to vote at all in the mayor’s race and instead marked no name at all. Another 88 voters wrote in a candidate for mayor, but the names were not available as of press time.

Barry Mull, a worker at the mill, was among those who chose not to vote at all, rather than vote for Smathers.

“I think it’s time for him to slide out of there,” said Mull.

Most voters wouldn’t say who they voted for to avoid hurt feelings in a small community. For Cassie Erwin, 22, members of her own family were split over who to vote for and therefore she wouldn’t share her picks.

Flynn, a safety manager for Buckeye Construction, was the top vote-getter. He chalks it up to his experience working for the town for 30 years in a variety of jobs from the police department to recreation department to streets. He also served as town clerk and assistant manager.

“I think people were looking for experience,” Flynn said.



Pat Smathers (I)    448


Town board

Seats up for election:    4

Total seats on board:    4

Jimmy Flynn    364

Ed Underwood    337

Eric Dills (I)    288

Kenneth Holland    257

Carole Edwards    246

Patrick Willis    229

Charlie Crawford    216

Troy Mann (I)    214

Angela Jenkins    195

Gene Monson    171

Registered voters:    2,880

Voter turn-out: 648 (24%)

Canton’s future pivots on heated board race

When voters head to the polls in Canton next week, they will face a daunting and even unwieldy list to choose from: 10 candidates for four seats on the board.

Town politics in Canton have been marked by division the past two years, and the vast majority of candidates claim they will rise above the fray and bring an end to the stalemate that has stalled progress on some important issues.

Much is at stake as the historic mill town struggles to find its place in the 21st century economy. Canton is one of the last blue-collar, working towns in the region, where smoke dominates the landscape and the mill whistle still trumpets across town. But the mom-and-pop shops that once anchored Main Street have gone the way of suburban sprawl. Unlike other mountain towns that filled the void by catering to tourists, that model wasn’t in Canton’s cards.

Candidates running for town board say they want to help forge a new path for Canton, but to do so means ending the power struggles that have consumed the town’s agenda.

“I feel like the lack of cohesiveness on this board the past two years has kept them from making a lot of progress,” said Carole Edwards, one of the candidates.

“It’s like we are standing still, waiting to move forward,” said Angela Jenkins, another challenger on the ticket.

The mantra for change resonating through this election is not new. Two years ago, voters ousted three long-time board members and ushered in a slate of new faces for the first time in years.

“I think people were looking for some good positive change,” said Patrick Willis, who supported the turnover two years ago but is now running himself. “I think people were hoping for improvement the last election, but I didn’t see much improvement, so I think that’s why so many people are running now.”

Indeed, many candidates share Willis’ assessment of town politics.

“Two years ago, I was happy there was a change made,” said Gene Monson, another candidate. “It was time for some fresh faces. However, as a board, I don’t think they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish over the past two years — or accomplish what most of the citizens were hoping for.”

Those who swept into office two years ago admit they haven’t been as effective as they hoped.

“There was resistance to the improvements and initiatives we brought,” said Alderman Eric Dills, who seems to be at permanent loggerheads with Mayor Pat Smathers. “If the town has not progressed in the past two years, the mayor has to bear his share and can’t keep pointing his finger at the board and saying it is all our fault.”

While challengers are quick to criticize the current board for not getting along, few were willing to ascribe blame.

“I don’t know whose fault that is. That is very controversial, and I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” Edwards said. “You can’t place blame on any one person.”

Jenkins said the blame lies on both sides.

“I think it has been uncooperative all the way around. People went in there and picked a team,” Jenkins said. “It was us versus them.”

Kenneth Holland, another candidate, said he wouldn’t “point the finger at anybody.” That’s not what matters, he said.

“The net result is not a whole lot is being accomplished,” Holland said.

Candidates scrambled to fend off labels that would lump them into one of the existing camps on the board.

“I think the idea of a Pat Smathers’ camp and an Eric Dills’ camp is more in the mind of Pat and Eric than the minds of the citizens,” Monson said. “I think the citizens are saying ‘I agree with part of what one says and part of what the other says.’”

While campaigning to voters, however, Monson has been asked point-blank if he was on one side or the other. His answer?

“If elected, I am not in either camp,” Monson said.

Underwood said he wouldn’t “take sides” between Dills and Smathers. Candidates would lose votes from people on the other side if they openly testified to being in a camp, Underwood said.

Only Jenkins admitted to being in any particular camp: the people’s camp.

“I feel like I would be for the side that was for the people,” Jenkins said. “I think you should be able to voice your opinion but also be able to listen to other people’s opinion.”

That’s precisely what hasn’t been happening amidst the power struggle on the board, according to candidates staking out the middle ground.

“I hope I have the intelligence and humility to consider every idea on its merits and not based on whose idea it is,” Monson said. “I am more concerned about getting it right than being right.”

Willis said a difference of opinion on the board could be a positive thing if they listened to each other.

“I am all for putting out 200 ideas,” Willis said. “I don’t want the board members not to listen to an idea just because they don’t like who it came from.”



Dills said the new board members faced pushback on initiatives they tried to bring to the table over the past two years. Dills said those in charge at town hall tried to block the change.

One example involved installing swings at the town playground, which had been part of Dills’ campaign platform in 2007.

“I told people, ‘If I get elected, I am going to get you those swings,’” Dills said.

Shortly after taking office, Dills and the other new board members expressed their desire for swings. But Town Manager Al Matthews said the town’s insurance would go sky-high with the addition of swings, according to Dills. They continued to push the issue, however, and directed Matthews to research insurance rates. It turned out the town’s insurance rates wouldn’t “go up one cent,” Dills said.

“It was like pulling teeth to get the swings,” Dills said.

Dills recounted a similar resistance when he proposed extending the season for the outdoor pool by remaining open two additional weekends through the end of August.

“Mr. Matthews said it could not be done. He said it was impossible,” Dills said.

According to Dills, Matthews said it would be a problem getting lifeguards to work. But when Dills took his proposal directly to the town recreation committee, they said there was no problem getting lifeguards for two additional weekends. The extended season was a success this year, Dills said.

A top example of the quagmire on current board point is how long it took to hire a permanent town manager. Long-time Town Manager Bill Stamey retired shortly after the new guard was elected in fall 2007. Town Clerk Al Matthews stepped in as interim town manager, a post he held for another 16 months — which is how long it took the board to choose him to take Stamey’s place.

“We were in a state of flux during that time,” Edwards said. “It is a very important role for a town, especially a town this small.”

As the process drug out, Smathers publicly expressed his frustration. But Dills claims it was the mayor’s fault, not his.

“He kept blaming us for taking so long to hire the manager when he was delaying the entire process,” Dills said.

Smathers wanted to promote Matthews to town manager, while Dills supported an outside candidate. Dills was ultimately the only board member who voted against Matthews appointment to the post.

“I felt we needed a new manager for things to change,” Dills said.


Tax hike

While the majority of candidates say the turnover on the board two years ago reflected voters desire for change, Charlie Crawford, one of the aldermen voted off the board at the time, paints a different picture. He claims it was mostly backlash over a 5-cent property tax increase.

Crawford said the town had depleted its reserves on flood recovery, a catastrophe dating back to 2004 when a swollen Pigeon River consumed much of downtown Canton. The town had to rebuild the depleted reserves, he said.

“It absolutely had to be done,” Crawford said.

Crawford points to the failure of the current board to lower property taxes as proof there was no alternative.

“That says to me they knew absolutely nothing about what they were talking about before the election,” Crawford said of his ousters two years ago.

Not only did the newcomers not lower taxes, but they raised fees for town services like trash pick-up and water and sewer.

Jimmy Flynn, a long-time town employee now running for office, agrees discontent over the tax increase drove the election results two years ago.

“I think that tax increase was not thoroughly explained to the public,” Flynn said, adding that an incremental increase would have been more tactful.

Alderman Troy Mann, who is running for election, made the property tax hike his main campaign platform two years ago.

“Most people were upset about that,” Mann said. “We needed folks on that board who would look out for the expenditure of their tax revenue.”

But Ed Underwood, another candidate, questioned a governing philosophy that avoids raising taxes at all costs.

“They don’t care what happens to anybody else as long as their taxes don’t go up,” Underwood said. “If you’ve got that mindset, you are being a little selfish. They don’t want the town to progress. Other people are out there saying, ‘I wish we had things for our kids to do.’”

Underwood said he was not among those seeking wholesale change in leadership two years ago.

“I liked a lot of the board members who were there at the time. I supported some of the board members who were there,” Underwood said.


A big plan

Mayor Pat Smathers, who has held office since 2000, has aggressively pursued a new image for Canton over the past decade. The current board has stalled that vision, Crawford said.

Flynn agreed and said if elected, he would support the “mayor’s train,” borrowing directly from an analogy Smathers has used over the years to describe his initiatives.

“Even if it is moving very slowly, it still needs to be moving,” Flynn said of the train. “I think over the past two years, it has not went forward at all.”

While Smathers is running unopposed for mayor, he has not stayed out of the race. He wrote an op-ed column in The Mountaineer two weeks ago laying out a 17-point plan for the town. He directly challenged candidates to get on board with his vision and called on voters to pin candidates down on whether they would support him.

“My aim is to make the following items election-year issues so that I and whoever is elected can begin working on an implementation plan soon after the election,” Smathers wrote in the op-ed.

Many were careful to couch their support, however. They said they would support Smathers’ ideas on their merits, but not merely because Smathers wants them to.

“I will do what is in the best interest of the town,” Monson said. “As far as it being Pat’s platform, I am running to work for the citizens of Canton. I am not running to work for Pat.”

Willis said the members of the town board should also craft their own lists. The board should compare and contrast their lists, then rank the projects by priority.

“I don’t think all the ideas (on Pat’s list) are as important as Pat thinks they are. Some are. We just need to look at those,” Willis said.

Residents should be brought into the fold as well, according to Willis.

“In a perfect world there would be a number of residents who have input on what those goals should be,” Willis said.

Underwood said there’s not much Smathers left off the list.

“Pat listed a lot of things,” Underwood said. “I think anybody in that position who knew the town like Pat does would probably list the same things.”

Nonetheless, Underwood thinks there’s room for more input.

“Pat has put this list out there. Everybody else needs to put their list out there and come up with a consensus on how we need to attack what Canton needs,” Underwood said.

Underwood pointed out that Dills has not put out a similar list of his ideas.

Dills countered that not all of his ideas are tangible projects. One of his initiatives would be ending a long-standing practice of nepotism in town hiring. Another would be reducing the number of town employees who are issued unmarked town vehicles to drive back and forth to work.


What to tackle

The sheer volume of items on Smathers’ list left few stones unturned. The list called for installing lights on town sports fields, creating a craft and farmer’s market, hiring a town recreation coordinator and extending the town’s greenway. It included an upgrade of town water and sewer lines around Interstate 40, where the capacity has been maxed out preventing new businesses from hooking on. Smathers also wants to annex new territory into the town limits.

Nearly every candidate said they supported the items on the list in theory, although they had different ideas of which are most important and should be tackled first.

Holland said Smathers has been an excellent visionary for the town.

“He hits the nail on the head,” Holland said. “The problem is he can’t get everybody to go along with him on it. Some board members may have opposed it just because Pat proposed it.”

Dills said it would be hard not to support items on the mayor’s list.

“Who could be against those things? We all want outdoor lights at the international sports complex, but it costs $425,000 and the town absolutely doesn’t have it,” Dills said.

Alderman Troy Mann also questioned the usefulness of the list when there was no way to pay for it all.

“It would be foolish to go out and advocate spending $450,000 on a project without the necessary cash flow to pay for it,” Mann said.

Mann said he has tried to keep the reins on town spending during his term, even though it’s labeled as not progressive.

“I wasn’t bursting forth with a lot of ideas that would create a lot of tax requirements,” Mann said. “There are times in your own family budget that you put back those things you think you can do without.”

Mann said no board should fall in lockstep behind one person’s initiatives, which is one difference between the current board and previous board.

“It is not a given that if it is brought to the table it is going to be approved,” Mann said. “There is more discussion, more oversight. We are more engaged. Every issue is given more consideration.”

Crawford said just because the previous board got along doesn’t mean they rolled over.

“I had a number of disagreements with the mayor when I was on the board serving under Pat. They just weren’t worked out in public. They were worked out behind the scenes,” Crawford said. “You don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”

Meet the candidates

There are 10 candidates running for four seats on the Canton town board. Only two sitting aldermen are running for re-election, with eight challengers. All four seats are up for election every two years. Mayor Pat Smathers is running for re-election unopposed.


Canton aldermen – Pick 4


Charlie Crawford, 74

Retired DMV inspector, currently operates a small car lot and construction company

Crawford was ousted in the last election two years ago after 16 years on the board.

“The people I’ve talked to are pretty well fed up. I think there are a lot of people running because there is an apparent lack of progress by the present board. We need to get back on a progressive agenda. We need to bury whatever differences we have to serve the town.”


Jimmy Flynn, 59

Safety director for Buckeye Construction Company, former town employee for 30 years

“You have to have a board that can agree to disagree and move forward. We just would like to see Canton go forward at some growth rate. It is not a bad thing when the board doesn’t always agree and vote on everything unanimously, but I think it is a bad thing when they almost never vote on anything important unanimously. That tells me there needs to be a little more cohesiveness.”


Gene Monson, 51

Owner of group purchasing organization for 130 restaurants that pool food orders to help realize economies of scale through bulk buying power

“The members of the current board individually are all fine gentlemen. However, as a board I don’t think they accomplished what they wanted to accomplish over the past two years or what most of the citizens were hoping for. I hope I have the intelligence and humility to consider every idea on its merits and not based on whose idea it is. I am willing to compromise. I am more concerned about getting it right than being right.”


Carole Edwards, 54

Regional consultant for Department of Social Services on welfare programs

“My slogan is a fresh and new perspective. I feel like I have the enthusiasm and heart to want to work for this town. We may try a lot of things that don’t work. If you don’t try, how do you know what works and doesn’t work? I may not agree with what someone else thinks, but if it is an idea, let’s try it and see if it doesn’t work.”


Patrick Willis, 29

Historic interpreter at Thomas Wolfe National Historic Site

“Honestly in the past two years I have not seen a whole lot of improvement in the town. I feel like the town could use some new fresh ideas and opinions. One of the things I would like to see is more open communication with the residents of the town from the town board.”


Kenneth Holland, 62

Retired pharmacist

“The current board has been divided down the middle on issues. The net result is not a whole lot is being accomplished. What they were planning on doing when they went in two years ago didn’t get accomplished as planned. We need to change things.”


Angela Jenkins, 42

Former stay-at-home mom now enrolled in a craft program at Haywood Community College

“I guess there are just too many different opinions about what needs to be happening and how to go about do it. There’s just no cohesiveness. You have to prioritize what needs to be done and find a way to get it done. I think it is going to be important that we have a board that gets along and gets the town moving forward.”


Ed Underwood, 60

Retired lieutenant colonel in US Army and retired state prison guard

“One of the problems with the current board is that it seems like the board members can’t work together. When you go onto a board like that you have your own personal agenda and have to try to set that aside to work as a team member. I’d say the consensus is the voters want a change.”


Troy Mann, 72

Retired cattle farmer

Mann has served for two years after running for election in 2007 as part of a wave that unseated three long-time board members.

“Our thinking was the citizens of Canton wanted some change over what had been. There is more discussion, more oversight, we are more engaged. Every issue is given more consideration. It is not a given that if it is brought to the table it is going to be approved.”


Eric Dills, 44

Residential contractor

Dills has served two years on the town board. He ran in 2005 and lost by five votes, but emerged in 2007 as the top vote-getter.

“When I ran before, I felt like the town was really going down. It was deteriorating. We were going in the wrong direction. The mayor controls the biggest part of the agenda. If the town has not progressed in the past two years, the mayor has to bear his share and can’t keep pointing his finger at the board and saying it is all our fault.”

Downtown platform

Several candidates have made downtown revitalization the central tenet of their campaign and consider it the one of the most important issues on the town’s agenda. They include Gene Monson, Carole Edwards, and Kenneth Holland.

“When I was growing up, it was a booming, prosperous little town. We have seen that go away. The downtown has kind of dried up,” Holland said.

Holland wants to see a downtown revitalized to look more like the town he once knew. And who wouldn’t?

“All the buildings were full,” Edwards said. “You had drugstores and you had clothing stores. We had a Belk’s on the corner. We had a jewelry store. You could buy a pair of shoes. We had all the things in our town that you would need.”

Canton is not alone in its plight. Small towns across America saw business sucked from their downtowns by strip malls and big-box stores as auto-centric suburban sprawl became the new way of life.

But Edwards thinks there’s hope.

“I really feel like we can bring this town back to life. I know other communities have done it,” Edwards said. “We shouldn’t sit there and say ‘We can’t do this.’ There is always an option out there.”

But others aren’t as optimistic. Several of the old anchor buildings are in the hands of owners who aren’t investing in their upkeep. Charlie Crawford, another candidate, questioned if the town could force the owners to do something with their buildings.

“People have a right to do with their property what they want to do,” Crawford said.

Crawford said the town has tried to create a nurturing atmosphere for revitalization. Crawford pointed to streetscape projects pursued during his tenure, which vastly improved the downtown appearance by burying power lines, installing historic lampposts and beautifying sidewalks and the public realm.

“I think the town has done about all it can do to help the building owners,” Crawford said.

The downtown proponents advocate cracking down on these building owners, however.

“Citizen after citizen after citizen appeals to the board of aldermen about the appearance of downtown. I hear the town say there is nothing we can do. I disagree. There is,” Monson said. “People sit here and say ‘As a property owner you own this and own that.’ But you don’t own it — you are simply a steward of that property.”

The downtown district has been recognized as a National Historic District and the town has a historic preservation committee to oversee it. Monson said the historic status provides a mechanism to compel building owners to take responsibility.

Holland agrees the town needs to more stringently enforce appearance codes for downtown buildings.

Alderman Eric Dills agrees as well.

“We need to require the building owners, most of whom do not live in Canton, to maintain their buildings to an acceptable standard,” Dills said.

Holland said the downtown needs an active merchants’ association to “get everyone pulling together.”

Candidate Jimmy Flynn would like to see a business organization take root in Canton, but said it shouldn’t be limited to the downtown area.

“I hate to think of downtown as an entity in itself,” said Flynn. “I feel like business in Canton is business in Canton, be downtown or anywhere else. I think we are too small a town to identify one little area to be economic development. It needs to be in any area that will accommodate business growth.”

“You can’t just focus on the downtown. You have to focus on the entire town,” candidate Ed Underwood said.

Canton election hangs on vision for town

How Canton residents envision the future of their town could play a pivotal role in who gets elected this fall.

The current town board has been locked in a power struggle recently, with two long-time board members often at odds with three newcomers who swept into power on a platform of change two years ago. Canton Mayor Pat Smathers said strife on the board is holding the town back from making advancements.

“I think the next board needs to reach a consensus on the direction for the town,” said Smathers, mayor for the past 10 years. “There is not a lot of consensus on the current board. I am not saying who is right and who is wrong. I am not throwing bricks at those guys. It’s just a fact there is not a lot of consensus.”

The town needs to get on the same page and figure out where it is going and how to get there, Smathers said.

Smathers’ opponents on the board say they have fundamental differences with Smathers over what that vision should be, however.

“Pat’s vision for the town and my vision for the town are two opposite things,” said Alderman Eric Dills, one of Smathers’ chief opponents. “Pat’s vision for the town is a vision to try to make the town a tourist town. That’s what they have been trying to do for the past 10 or 12 years: to draw visitors.”

Dills said Smathers often talks about finding a way to capture more of the traffic that passes by Canton on the way through the region.

“But it passes by on Interstate 40 at 70 miles an hour. To put all this effort into promoting Canton as a destination is to forget about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room, which is this paper mill over here,” Dills said.

Alderman Troy Mann agreed that Smathers’ emphasis on making Canton attractive to tourists is the wrong direction.

“There are some on the board who do not feel like that is Canton’s potential and we are not going to spend a bunch of money trying to bring about something we don’t envision,” Mann said. “That is the point of friction between what the mayor sees for the town of Canton and what the board sees for the town of Canton.”

Increasing the mill town’s visibility to the outside world has indeed been a recurring theme for Smathers in recent years. Capturing tourists and travelers has only been part of his vision, however. Smathers wants to see the town’s retail sector expand and downtown developed. He has pushed for parks and recreation complexes, from ball fields to river walks. He also wants to create and implement a long-range economic development plan.

Smathers has worked to make Canton more of a player in the region, be it politically or economically. He sees having events as one way to achieve that.

“We need to be more active in having events. Who would have thought two years ago we would have the Beach Boys in Canton and Charlie Daniels? It puts us out there,” Smathers said.

Dills said some of the initiatives have not been worth the time and effort, citing the $175,000 fund-raising campaign to bring the Beach Boys to Canton for a concert. Dills wants to see more energy put into making the town’s neighborhoods attractive, which means more stringent enforcement of the town’s ordinances.

“What Canton must do is promote itself as a family-oriented, family-friendly town. These people moving into WNC will look at Canton as a place to come and raise families,” Dills said. That means ensuring good, clean, safe neighborhoods — one of the chief assets Canton has going for it, he said.

Patrick Willis, 29, a challenger seeking a seat on the board this year, agrees that Canton should focus on developing its image as a good place to live.

“Canton has a lot of charm and a lot of personality. There is a growing younger crowd that is discovering the town and moving here to start families,” said Willis, himself being one example. Canton has been discovered for its proximity to Asheville, affordable homes, and traditional neighborhood feel, Willis said.

But Willis said the town is at a crossroads and town leaders are too busy arguing to get focused.

“I don’t think the board has done enough in the last two years to try to act on the town’s potential,” Willis said. “Looking at the past two years now, I don’t think the town has gone forward with economic development. I think the mid-term and long-term planning are not there.”


At odds with little progress

The shake-up two years ago when three new members were elected — shifting the majority control on the board — has produced no shortage of disagreement, but tangible change has been little.

Dills said the board has been stymied in some of its attempts at change. Despite drawn-out, heated controversy, the town board has kept on the same town manager, Al Matthews, which Dills said has made it difficult to accomplish some of the reform he would like to see.

“The town manager, not the board, truly has 75 percent of the power,” Dills said.

A hot button issue two years ago was a move by the former board to raise the property tax rate by 5 cents. It became a top campaign platform of the new aldermen that won election.

While the new board members haven’t raised taxes further, they failed to lower them back to the former levels, however.

“Sometimes when people are running, they will promise people stuff they can’t do because they don’t know about city government,” said Ted Woodruff, a former alderman who was ousted two years ago.

Woodruff said they had to raise taxes to cover costs incurred by flooding to the town in 2004, and a decrease in taxes paid by the paper mill, which accounts for a large chunk of the town’s budget.

Charlie Crawford, another former alderman who lost re-election two years ago, said that town residents don’t like the turn the board has taken the past two years.

“I’ll be honest — I think there is a lot of dissatisfaction,” Crawford said. “I don’t know whether they voted for the opposition the last time, but they are expressing dissatisfaction with what they got.”

Crawford added they failed to deliver on their promises.

“They definitely didn’t lower taxes like they said they were going to do,” said Charlie Crawford. “They raised water and sewer rates, building permits, trash pick-up — anything they could raise without raising taxes they raised.”

Alderman Troy Mann said they never promised to lower taxes.

“I just said I hoped not to raise it like the board then had,” Mann said.


Changing management

Another platform of the new board members — Dills in particular — is reforming the general administration of the town. Dills said there is an engrained way of doing business based on favoritism. Far too many town employees are given town vehicles to drive home and use for personal use, including one employee who works only 10 hours a week for the rec department. The town was also paying a cell phone stipend to its retired town clerk because they occasionally called him with questions.

“I wanted to break the good old boy system,” Dills said.

The division on the current town board has also been defined by those who support Mayor Smathers and those who don’t. The three new board members felt Smathers was exerting too much unilateral control over town affairs. Those who were ousted were pleased with Smathers leadership.

“I think Pat is a wonderful mayor, really I do,” Woodruff said. “Pat loves Canton and has worked hard to make canton a better place.”

Patrick Willis, a challenger for town board, said the old board agreed with Smathers too often, while the new board seems to oppose him every step of the way.

“It is not good to have a board that says yes to the mayor and town manager all the time, but at the same time the board is put there to get things done. They either need to work out with their personality conflicts and differences and try to work together better,” Willis said. “There needs to be a middle ground.”

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