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Canton looks to set commercial building standards

fr cantonDowntown Canton has seen better days. 

A once vibrant and bustling Main Street is now struggling to hang on to its few surviving businesses. Some of its historic buildings are now vacant and falling into disrepair.

The recession is partly to blame — owners with empty buildings don’t have much motivation to make improvements and upgrades. Other buildings are for sale and just waiting for the right tenant to come along.

As the economy is slowly making a recovery, the town of Canton realizes the importance of having an attractive downtown. 

“We do need to maintain our downtown area,” said Mayor Mike Ray. “When we go to sell our town to potential businesses, we want something to sell.”


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Town mulling downtown ordinance

In an effort to retain current businesses and recruit new ones, the town has drafted a downtown commercial maintenance ordinance for the board of aldermen to consider adopting. The ordinance would allow the town to tackle some of the safety issues with commercial structures downtown, whether they are occupied or vacant. 

“With the buildings, my priority is safety — we’re looking at an ordinance to see what can be done to make sure they’re up to code,” said Alderman Zeb Smathers.

Jason Burrell, Canton’s assistant town manager, said the proposed ordinance was not meant to set strict aesthetic codes — like those found in Charleston or Savannah — but to address boarded-up windows, flaking paint and other upkeep issues. 

“It doesn’t dictate ‘your building can or can’t be painted color X.’ The expectation is that it would assist in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of the community,” he said. “A spinoff of that is that it has the potential to aid in town efforts to promote the viability and marketability of the community.”  

Additionally, Burrell said, the staff and the board of aldermen had discussed the possibility of including some sort of incentive programs or policies that would assist property owners with the repairs, upgrades, façades or interior building improvements.  

The draft ordinance put before aldermen last Thursday would require all the exteriors of commercial buildings downtown to be painted, maintained and free of holes, loose or rotting materials and have proper drainage measures. Siding and brick façades would also be required to be kept in good condition. 

The proposed ordinance also addresses foundational walls, roofs, stairways, fire escapes, decks/porches, gutters, windows, doors and signage. The basic premise of the requirements is to make sure downtown structures don’t have the appearance of being vacant. 

The town wants to limit the number of boarded up windows and doors within the downtown area. Not only do boarded up openings pose safety issues, they also increase the risk of property loss in the event of a fire or flood. The town may issue a 90-day boarding-up permit for special circumstances.  

The proposed ordinance also has a registration requirement for vacant properties. Commercial property owners must register their vacant buildings of their own accord or within 30 days of receiving a notice from the town. Registration costs $50 and must be renewed annually. Once the property is no longer vacant, the owner must provide written proof of occupancy or sale to the town. 

The proposed ordinance states that violators would be issued a $50 citation and shall submit a plan of action to the town code enforcement officer and town manager within 10 business days. Failure to implement the plan can result in a $500 civil penalty. 

The ordinance will have to be approved by the town planning board and a public hearing will have to be held before the ordinance can be adopted. 


Downtown owners welcome standards

Bob McKenzie is currently investing more than $50,000 in upgrades and repairs to his downtown Canton building. He wouldn’t mind if other downtown property owners were required to do the same. 

“As long as it’s not too abrasive, I think it’s fine,” he said about the proposed ordinance. “I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”

He bought the historic brick building about four years ago. Renovations are complete on the ground floor while the upstairs is still being redone. 

“The upstairs is unbelievably beautiful and there’s an office-type space downstairs — could be an insurance or doctor’s office,” he said. “I’d like to see a coffee shop down there.”

On the outside, McKenzie is making repairs to the brickwork to ensure it will last for years to come. Crumbling brick is not a problem unique to his building — several of the brick buildings in downtown are starting to deteriorate.  

McKenzie said he bought a building in downtown Canton because he hopes the town will make a comeback. Originally from Savannah, he understands the importance of a historical downtown like Canton’s.

“I think Canton’s going to come back — it’s 20 minutes from Asheville and it’s a lot cheaper to build here,” he said. “The old people I have coffee with are still negative — that’s the problem. The young people aren’t the problem.” 

McKenzie said downtown Canton also would benefit from creating a separate truck route to make downtown more pedestrian-friendly. 

“We’ve got to get the big trucks off of Main Street — every other town I know has a truck route except Canton,” he said.

The semi trucks rolling down Main Street — mostly transporting to and from Evergreen Packaging — create a hazard for people parked along the street and also stir up quite a bit of dust, which only adds another unattractive quality to the vacant buildings. Dust from the trucks clings to the windows of vacant buildings. Jerry Penland, owner of Davis Furniture on Main Street, said he has to wash his windows at least once a week so passersby can see the furniture inside the showroom.

Penland purchased his building in 2003 from Toby Davis, who has a number of buildings for sale in downtown Canton. He has since repainted, put a new roof on the building and redone the hardwood floors. 

“I’d like to see people clean up their buildings, but I don’t know if you can force people to do it,” he said. 


Laying the groundwork

Burrell is in the process of doing a lot of groundwork before the town can begin trying to recruit new businesses downtown. 

“We can’t just go out and recruit without everything being staged properly,” he said. “You need to know what you have available and then make sure what you have is aesthetically marketable and it needs to be structurally sound.”

He is collecting information and photos of available downtown properties to list on a statewide online database. 

A 31-question survey also has been sent out to all downtown businesses. Burrell said the survey would give the town a better understanding of the challenges business owners are facing and how the town can help. 

Canton Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss said all these steps are tied into the economic development initiative that the board created last year. Collecting all this information will allow the town to be prepared to respond to requests and fit potential buyers with the best space for their business needs. 

“We need to be able to respond to requests with data, a strategy and the confidence that we know what we’re doing — we’re in inventory mode right now,” he said. “It’s going to take time and patience.”


Incentives talk

McKenzie said money talks, and if the town could offer some sort of incentive to property owners for fixing their buildings it could only help Canton recover more quickly. He said offering matching grants for improvements would go a long way. 

Ray asked the board of aldermen during a recent meeting to consider working with the University of North Carolina School of Government to develop a plan for development incentives. The School of Government has a Development Finance Initiative program and helps local governments attract private investment for special projects like downtown revitalization. 

A team of experts and graduate students at UNC can help the town with assessing distressed properties, facilitating private/public partnerships to develop incentives for property owners, creating requests for proposals to attract development, develop small business finance programs and more. 

Alderman Carole Edwards said the city of Durham worked with the same UNC team to revitalize its inner city. If the program worked for that area, she said, it could definitely benefit Canton.

“What they did was amazing,” she said. 

Ray said a representative from the program was willing to come talk to the board about it. The board agreed to hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. April 20 to learn more about the program. 

“We have to take the first step to make things look nice — we have to have that drive-by curb appeal,” Ray said.

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