Building a better Canton
Uncertainty haunts Haywood County, and the future of small-town Western North Carolina’s economy, now that the closing of Pactiv Evergreen’s century-old paper mill in Canton is nearly here.
Federal, state and local leaders convened at a Pisgah High School town hall last week, joined by a special guest who shared invaluable insight into a similar situation more than 20 years ago. Now, local elected officials have a better understanding of the current situation with the mill and some solid guesses as to what the future may hold — if not what could have been done back in February to prevent its closure.
THE GHOST OF KANNAPOLIS PAST
Darryl Hinnant, mayor of Kannapolis, was elected to city council in 2001 and has been mayor of the town since 2013. A recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, Hinnant moved to Kannapolis in 1975 and was a chemist by trade.
As a chemist, Hinnant is familiar with both textile and paper mill operations, and said that at a certain point, Cannon Mills — later known as Pillowtex — was one of his biggest customers.
At its peak, the Kannapolis mill employed around 25,000 people.
“We were a patriarchal community. From that I mean that the mill took care of everything,” Hinnant said. “I heard you say you have to worry about your water treatment plan or your waste treatment plant. In Kannapolis, the mill provided water, sewer, stormwater, police, fire and all the other normal city activities that you can imagine. The mill paid for it.”
In 1984, after an ownership change, the mill pushed Kannapolis, then the largest unincorporated community in the state, to incorporate and assume those services for itself.
During the late 1980s, the American textile industry began to experience a bit of a downturn due to the effects of cheap foreign labor, marking the beginning of a rough stretch that Hinnant estimates persisted through at least the year 2000.
That year, Pillowtex filed for bankruptcy for the first time, assuring Kannapolis that the move was just to shift some debt around and that it wouldn’t affect local employment levels.
Amid an epic drought, the self-proclaimed problem-solver Hinnant joined city council to work on an issue with the town’s water supply. Two years later, when Pillowtex shut down, Hinnant’s biggest problem wasn’t water.
“All these people were showing up at city council meetings, these great big guys, and they had tears running off their chin,” he said. “They were saying, ‘I have worked here in the mill, my parents had worked in the mill, the grandparents have worked in the mill … I don't know anything but working in the mill, so what am I going to do? I just was told I'm being laid off, and I have no skills. I quit high school the day after I turned 16 and moved into the mill.’”
Those tears came as workers fretted over missed mortgage payments, a lack of health care coverage and all the economic fallout that comes with the largest layoff the state of North Carolina had ever seen — more than 4,000 workers.
“That's the real issue you have right here in Canton. While it's a lot about what you do with the waste treatment facility … really, first and foremost, this is a people issue,” Hinnant said. “Nothing more than a people issue. All the others are small in comparison to the impacts that happen on the people.”
One year after Pillowtex finally closed in 2003, three authors published a report on how the community responded to the situation.
Here, officials on the state and local level are by now well versed in what’s being called “The Pillowtex Report.”
That report highlights some of Kannapolis’ successes, including a community services center that provided multi-layered social services in one centralized location. It also outlines the efforts of state and federal officials to secure funding streams for employee health care coverage.
The report, however, gives little mention to mental health services.
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers raised the issue with Hinnant, noting that in the aftermath of the Pillowtex layoffs, an astonishingly high number of people took their own lives. As the real economic consequences of Pactiv Evergreen’s decision to close the Canton mill have yet to set in fully for those workers who are still receiving paychecks, Smathers hopes to avoid the sobering statistics Hinnant had to face.
“Understand that from 2003 to 2023, 20 years now has transpired. The idea to be more aware of, or more willing to talk about, mental health stresses in your life is easier today — even though it's not easy — it's easier today, because it was really considered a real weakness in the past,” Hinnant said. “If you had a mental health problem, [the attitude was], ‘You ought to just tighten up here … you can do better than that, you can just get better than that.’ But we had about 70 who couldn't do better than that.”
Hinnant said that the county established a mental health task force, soliciting volunteers, and that Kannapolis acquired millions in state funding to establish a mental health treatment facility, including in-patient. More than 20 years later, Hinnant said, mental health treatment is still a work in progress.
THE GHOST OF CANTON PRESENT
While most of the attention in Haywood County is focused on Canton’s current situation, some are beginning to ask questions about why, exactly, this has to be the future that Canton now faces.
On Feb. 8, The Smoky Mountain News first reported that Pactiv had announced plans to idle one of its four papermaking machines. A leaked memo from mill manager John McCarthy confirmed the news.
That same day, SMN reached out to Rep. Chuck Edwards’ office to inform him of the developments, and to see if he’d been in communication with Pactiv about potential job loss, or what the reduction in capacity might mean for the mill as a whole, or if the federal government could do anything for Pactiv to avert the current catastrophe.
Edwards refused to speak to SMN at that time. A follow-up email on Feb. 9 garnered the same result. Since then, Edwards has refused to speak to SMN about anything mill-related.
At the June 1 town hall meeting, SMN asked Edwards what specific actions he’d taken between Feb. 8 and March 6 — the day the closing was announced — to prevent the mill from closing.
“I really reserve the right to respond to those media outlets that I've been able to build good relationships with that have reported the news fairly,” Edwards said, without citing any examples of “unfair” reporting. “I didn't respond to that question and I'm not gonna respond to this.”
Thus, Canton is now eating its second elephant, before finishing with its first — recovery from deadly flooding in 2021.
The Pillowtex Report is also silent on economic development, but Hinnant helped to fill in those gaps.
“Can I speculate on what I think might be your next big decision that you might have to make as a community? One of the questions that we had when the mill shut down in 2003, [when] it went into bankruptcy, we had the largest textile mill in North America under one roof,” Hinnant said. “Over 6 million square feet, larger than the Pentagon, under one roof. This was a white elephant in the middle of our town. Literally in the middle of town.”
Canton’s white elephant isn’t quite that big, but the 185-acre mill parcel is literally in the middle of town and is no less an issue for Smathers than it was for Hinnant at the time.
Kannapolis, however, received a backhanded stroke of good fortune.
Billionaire businessman David H. Murdock, founder of Dole Foods, had purchased the then-profitable Cannon Mills in 1982. Murdock immediately slashed 2,000 jobs, offloaded company-owned housing, eliminated worker pensions and then sold the whole operation in 1985, while retaining his local property holdings.
Nearly 20 years later, after Pillowtex had closed, Murdock acquired the Pillowtex property, demolished the buildings and partnered with the University of North Carolina System and the state to establish the North Carolina Research Campus, which created around 1,000 mostly white-collar jobs with good pay.
Part of the decision to tear down the mill, Hinnant said, was first to accept that the mill wasn’t ever coming back — a decision with which Canton seems to have made its peace.
The city went on to purchase 50 acres of the site at $100,000 an acre so it could have some say in how the town would develop absent the mill. Since then, the rejuvenation of Kannapolis has been nothing short of a sweeping success, with new businesses, housing, mixed-use developments and a new stadium for the town’s minor league baseball team.
Without a Murdock-like figure swooping into Canton, the town’s hands are, at present, tied in regard to the parcel. Pactiv Evergreen still owns it, and will until it gets whatever it wants — whatever that is.
Edwards, who hails from Henderson County, said that his family moved around quite a bit when he was young and that he’d for a time lived in a house near to the mill, as uncles and cousins worked inside. His stepfather, he said, worked at the gate.
“I've personally spoken with the executives of Pactiv Evergreen a number of times,” Edwards said, “and I've asked them the question — if you can't operate it, if you don't want to operate it, why don't you sell it?”
Apparently, Edwards didn’t get an answer to his question, or at least an answer he would share with the town hall audience. During Pactiv’s unsuccessful property tax appeal three days prior to the town hall, Pactiv’s attorneys said they weren’t aware of any efforts by the company to market the parcel.
The mill in Canton is more than just a mill; it’s become an identity for generations of area residents to the point that bluegrass musicians sing about it and the high school’s football jerseys read “Milltown” instead of “Canton.”
Smathers asked Hinnant how Kannapolis maintained its identity in the face of potential encroachment from its larger neighbor, Charlotte.
“I don’t mind being west of Asheville,” Smathers quipped. “I don’t want to be West Asheville.”
Hinnant assured Smathers that not only could it be done, but also that it was essential that it be done.
“You don't have to lose your uniqueness in order to be successful. In fact, just the opposite,” he said. “I would say to you that it is important you remain unique. That is what happened for Kannapolis and what causes people to come to Kannapolis. If you think you've got a problem with Asheville only being 20 miles away, something like that, I was sitting beside a million people who were in Charlotte, who were 22 miles away.”
A historic preservation group formed in the wake of the Kannapolis closure was integral to maintaining the identity of the town, Hinnant explained. The group helped to identify buildings that needed to be torn down, and those that needed to be preserved. Another key for Hinnant was the establishment of a town hall that consolidated services, making it easier and more efficient for investors, developers and residents to conduct business.
“We have been extremely successful, especially in the last 6 to 7 years, of getting new investments to come into our town,” he said. “The very first investment was $64 million worth of public-private investment in our community. That was the first one — we have them standing in line now, waiting to get the next opportunity to invest $60-$70 million in our community.”
Edwards said he was pursuing a number of grants, including $4.8 million for wastewater treatment — not nearly enough to fund what will likely be an 8-figure project that will take years, but likely a small part of several funding streams.
The clock is ticking on the wastewater issue — Pactiv will operate it for 22 more months — but until Canton no longer relies on the mill for treatment of its wastewater, full redevelopment of the parcel won’t be possible.
But Hinnant continued to stress that Canton has people problems, above and beyond wastewater and redevelopment.
Administrators at Haywood Community College jumped into action as soon as the closing was announced, and have served as a resource for employment, retraining and other issues pertinent to dislocated workers — just as Rowan-Cabarrus Community College did more than 20 years ago.
Edwards said he was also working on $4 million for workforce development at HCC.
“The community college is your biggest asset,” Hinnant said. “In this community and every other community.”
Hinnant also focused on a recovery effort that focuses on small businesses — something Canton has had plenty of experience with over the past decade.
“In 2013, I was told that the downtown occupancy rate in Canton was 20%. There was boarded up windows,” Smathers said. “We had to change the mindset, we had to make sacrifices. But we did it by increasing the amount of people coming in and supporting small businesses. We were able to expand our tax base without raising taxes … Now we're about up to 90% occupancy downtown and that happened because of not what government did, but [because] of supporting the small businesses and standing by and saying, ‘Guys, we’re in this together. Let's build a better Canton. We did it once. We're going to do it again.’”