Canton realigns staff to focus on recovery from flood, mill closure

Canton Assistant Town Manager Lisa Stinnett (left) and Town Manager Nick Scheuer listen to speakers during a meeting of the Town of Canton Board of Aldermen/women moments before assuming their new roles. Canton Assistant Town Manager Lisa Stinnett (left) and Town Manager Nick Scheuer listen to speakers during a meeting of the Town of Canton Board of Aldermen/women moments before assuming their new roles. Cory Vaillancourt photo

The Town of Canton, still beset with myriad issues related to both natural and human-caused disasters, took an unprecedented step by shuffling one administrator into a newly created position and promoting another — saving taxpayer money and making history at the same time.

“The position of town manager is now more important and includes more things than ever before,” said Mayor Zeb Smathers during a March 28 meeting that started with one town manager and ended with another. “But we're also at the same time faced with an equal task, how we basically build back the economy, maintaining who we are with the same character and values.”

After a motion passed unanimously by the town’s governing board, Town Manager Nick Scheuer was redesignated as the town’s recovery and resiliency manager. The position will be grant-funded, meaning taxpayers will no longer be responsible for his salary.

Scheuer first came to Canton in April 2018, when he was hired as the town’s assistant manager under then-Town Manager Jason Burrell. At the time, Scheuer was a transportation consultant with the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Division. Burrell departed in April 2021 after he’d served four years as manager and eight as an assistant to previous town managers including Seth Hendler-Voss, prompting Scheuer's promotion to interim manager. Around the same time, Stinnett, then town clerk, was promoted to assistant manager. Barely three months later, Scheuer, along with the rest of town administration and its governing board, would be thrust unwittingly into a tragedy that no one saw coming.

On Aug. 17, 2021, extreme flooding on the Pigeon River killed six people and caused millions of dollars in damages to town-owned infrastructure, including its police, fire and town hall buildings — not to mention homes and businesses along the normally placid waterway running through the middle of town.

Scheuer quickly assumed a pivotal role working with local, state and federal agencies on recovery and mitigation projects, all of which remain well underway.

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Less than 18 months after the flood, another tragedy — on March 6, 2023, one of the largest employers in the region, Pactiv Evergreen, announced without warning that it would soon end operations at its 115-year-old paper mill in Canton, throwing about a thousand employees out of work.

Scheuer, still dealing with flood recovery projects, again became a central figure in helping to plot the course of a post-mill Canton, where the future of the 185-acre paper mill parcel as well as its wastewater treatment plant that had treated the town’s wastewater for free for decades, is located. Time is quickly running out on a two-year grace period during which Pactiv must continue to operate the plant at its own expense.

“Nick Scheuer helped save this town — from water, from financial ruin,” Smathers said. “He's done it with character, he's done it as family, he’s done it as a team player and he's done it as our friend.”

Assistant Town Manager Lisa Stinnett, however, was right there with Scheuer all the while, taking on an outsized role in the town’s day-to-day operations alongside a staff stretched to its limits and working out of temporary office space ever since the flood gutted the William G. Stamey Municipal Building on Park Street.

Smathers called Stinnett, who started in the town’s recreation department 32 years ago, “not just a Canton success story but an American success story” moments before she was promoted to acting town manager. Stinnett becomes the first female town manager in Canton’s long history, just as women's history month draws to a close.

The moves serve a twofold purpose: Stinnett’s promotion gives her the authority to make decisions on the town’s day-to-day operations, which in turn frees up Scheuer to focus on economic development and the massive recovery efforts ahead.

“We are blessed in the town of Canton to have them,” Mayor Pro Tem Gail Mull said. “And we are so thankful that we've had this opportunity to make history and to kind of look where we are — we are still alive, still surviving, still with a future.”

Longtime Alderman Ralph Hamlett expressed confidence in Scheuer and Stinnett, and took a moment to recognize the historic nature of the action.

“I think people will be delightfully amazed and probably wonder, ‘Where have the women been for so long?'”

Both Alderman Tim Shepard and Alderwoman Kristina Proctor lauded Scheuer and Stinnett, but Proctor singled out Stinnett for specific praise.

“I think this is very on-point for us to be in a position to say we believe in you and we know your leadership style. You've got the relationships with the people, and you've got the drive and understanding of the town, and you've got the expertise,” Proctor said. “I'm thrilled to be able to sit here and say we know exactly who can step into this role to make sure that the day-to-day is on point. And we have complete confidence. Thank you for being up for this task, because it's not a small one.”

Much about the new staff classifications remains undefined or tentative including Scheuer’s exact title, the duration of Scheuer’s role and Stinnett’s promotion and what will happen to the both of them down the road.

Stinnett, along with town CFO Natalie Walker, will now lead the town through the rest of the annual budget process, culminating in the town’s first true post-mill budget, which is due by July 1.

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