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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.”

Who’s running and who’s not?

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers could face opposition this fall from his leading opponent on the town board, Alderman Eric Dills. Dills said this week he is considering a run for mayor against Smathers, although he has not made up his mind for sure.

Meanwhile, two board members ousted two years ago may put their hats back in the ring and try to retake their old seats. The race gets even more interesting with the prospect of a few new challengers.

The upshot: the battle for who will lead the town going forward is still clearly in flux.

Of the four current Canton town board members, none would say definitively whether they are running for re-election.

Alderman Ernest Stines said he hasn’t made up his mind yet.

“I’m not going to say one way or the other at this point,” Stines said. “I am going to think about it, pray about it and make up my mind.”

Alderman Troy Mann also said he was still contemplating.

Alderman Mike Ray, the only alderman who has tenure on the board, also said he wasn’t ready to say.

Alderman Eric Dills is definitely going to run, but may run against Smathers for mayor instead. If he doesn’t run against Smathers, he will run to keep his seat as an alderman.

Meanwhile, former town board member Charlie Crawford said he will most likely run to get back on the board.

“I am definitely thinking about it,” Crawford said. “I haven’t made a final decision yet. The chances are about 90 percent I will.”

Former town board member Ted Woodruff was not as definite as Crawford, but said he may consider another run as well.

“I hadn’t really decided yet,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff was on the board for 36 years before losing two years ago.

“Some people said I’d been on there too long,” Woodruff said.

As for challengers, Patrick Willis, 29, is the only one to confirm a run so far.

Another potential candidate is Ed Underwood, 60, a member of the town ABC board who is a correctional officer at Craggy prison.

“A lot of it depends on who else will be running,” Underwood said. “It is a tough decision.”

Underwood considered running two years ago, but felt his work schedule would potentially be prohibitive. If he runs and wins, he would retire, which is part of his decision.

Canton has new town manager: Lengthy search ends back where it started — with interim manager Matthews

After a search that has dragged on for more than a year, the Canton Board of Alderman has finally selected a town manager.

It’s not exactly a big change. Al Matthews has served in an interim position since long-time manager Bill Stamey retired in December 2007. Before that, Matthews had served as Canton’s assistant town manager since 2000.

The board voted 3-1 on March 23 to appoint Matthews as town manager. Alderman Eric Dills dissented, expressing concern that Matthews doesn’t live inside the town limits. At that meeting, the board changed the town ordinance to permit town managers to reside outside town limits.

Dills has since made it clear that though he disagreed with the rest of the board members, he’ll respect and support Matthews.

Matthews said the fact that he lives in the Jonathan Creek area of Haywood County rather than in Canton would not affect his job performance.

“I feel it’s more of a position of dedication rather than location,” Matthews said. “I’m on call 24/7 and I doubt there are too many times that I can’t be reached anywhere I am.”


More hiring

With the board’s support, Matthews says he’s ready to get down to business — or rather, continue the business he’s worked on as interim town manager.

Matthews enters his new role during a tough economic time that’s not going to allow him much flexibility when it comes to embarking on new town projects.

“We’re not going to have any extra money to play with, so we’re going to have to be extremely mindful of the budget this year,” he said.

That said, Matthews isn’t short on plans or ideas. His first step will be hiring an assistant town manager who will be in charge of economic development, working actively to recruit new businesses and helping existing ones.

Matthews says the process of hiring an assistant manager will almost certainly take a shorter amount of time than the manager search did. Matthews already has a stack of applications from the town manager search that he plans to utilize.



A top priority of Matthews has been, and will continue to be, the appearance of the town. Matthews says that’s an item important to town residents.

“A little over a year ago, we had a public forum on what the people wanted to see, and the recurring thing was the appearance of Canton,” Matthews said. “Not only downtown, but in the residential areas as well. We need to make sure citizens do a good job in keeping up their own properties.”

Town staff have already made some moves toward improving the town’s look by hauling out five dump truck loads of mulch to create flowerbeds and grassy medians.

“That’s something we can do at a reasonable price, that improves curb appeal, and makes a good first impression on our visitors,” Matthews said.

Matthews knows, though, that many other things that can improve the town’s appearance will be costly.

“We have a lot of sidewalks in desperate need of repair, and things that cost a lot of money to work toward. It won’t happen overnight,” he said.

In the long run, Matthews thinks the improved appearance of the town will help economic development, particularly in the downtown area.

“Economic development is at the forefront of this board, and appearance is one of the most important things,” he said. “We’re working on it, and want to actively work with the community to clean up the whole area and make it more appealing. Then hopefully our downtown area will continue to grow and flourish, and older buildings will be renovated and occupied.”

Matthews said the town is also looking into ways to use the many vacant parcels of land flooded by the 2004 hurricanes. The lots are located in the flood zone and for the most part can’t be rebuilt on, so the town board has had to get creative. One recent idea in the works calls for turning a lot across from the town hall that once housed Plus Laundry into an area for downtown activities and events. Another idea: converting vacant lots in residential neighborhoods into community garden spaces, which the Canton aldermen plan to discuss at their upcoming meeting.

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers says Matthews’ ideas, coupled with his experience working for the town under the former manager, make him a good fit at a time when Canton is working to redefine itself.

“He knows the old, but he’s got new ideas and a new way of doing things,” Smathers said. “I think at this time in our town, Al Matthews is the best fit. I think he’s going to be the transition figure we need.”

Canton town manager search drags on

There are just two candidates left in the bid to be Canton’s next town manager, but Mayor Pat Smathers said he doesn’t know how much longer it will take the board to finally pick one.

The town has been without a manager since December 2007, when long-time manager Bill Stamey abruptly retired. Stamey’s announcement followed an election sweep that saw the replacement of three long-time Canton aldermen and shift in majority power on the board.

Al Matthews, the former assistant town manager under Stamey, has been playing the roles of interim town manager, assistant town manager, and town clerk for more than a year since Stamey’s departure. Matthews has long been considered the heir apparent to Stamey. When he left his job as the Maggie town manager years ago to come to Canton, he was told by the town board at the time they would one day make him manager. But the arrival of a new board majority voided that promise.

The town board waited six months before starting the search for a manager in the summer of 2008. They received more than 30 applications before closing the search in November.

The long, drawn-out process still doesn’t have a definite ending date.

“It could happen toward the end of March, or it could not happen,” Smathers said.

He said aldermen are trying to arrange a time to interview the two remaining candidates again. The board is not releasing the names of the two finalists.

Smathers said the length of the process is partly because the town board wanted to wait until after it worked out its yearly budget to start a search. They’ve also taken their time in weeding out candidates.

“Let me just say that the board is being very deliberate in what they do, but it is a bit frustrating because we don’t have a manager, assistant manager, or town clerk,” Smathers said.

Smathers said board members, and himself, have varying opinions about what they’re looking for in a town manager.

Alderman Troy Mann told The Smoky Mountain News last month that he would ideally like to see two people sharing the town manager duties.

“If we hire an older person, we would like to also hire a younger person to elevate to town manager (one day),” Mann said. “That way, you have the continuity of government and knowledge between one generation and the next.”

Smathers, though, wouldn’t say whether he agreed with Mann’s suggestion.

“I have my opinion, and what I’m looking for, and I would say that each alderman has their opinion and what they’re looking for,” said Smathers. “I’m not sure that we all agree.”

Smathers, however, noted that as mayor, he can’t vote unless there’s a tie between aldermen.

Canton stuck in bidding quagmire

A flawed bidding process for a demolition job that left a local company out of the loop is causing a major headache for the town of Canton.

The town put its engineering contractor, McGill and Associates, in charge of soliciting bids for the demolition of the old community store building. The old downtown building, which was once a boarding house, has major drainage issues and has been vacant for some time.

McGill selected D.H. Griffin, an international firm with an Asheville office. A few days after the job was awarded, Canton Alderman Eric Dills bumped into an employee of Medford Enterprises, a local company that had also bid on the project. The man explained to Dills that his company had not won the project, but the bid amount he named was lower than that of D.H. Griffin’s bid.

Dills was concerned that a local company had not gotten a fair shot at the project, and brought his concerns before the board at its next meeting.

“I was wondering why we had taken the bid of a national company over a Canton-based company,” said Dills. “We had said before that we wanted the local guys to get shots at our contracts. Canton’s always pushing, ‘spend your money in Canton,’ and we need to lead by example.”

Following the meeting, Interim Town Manager Al Matthews asked McGill and Associates exactly what had happened during the bidding process. Matthews said he discovered that McGills solicited bids verbally rather than writing up the specifications for the project and sending them out — the standard form of soliciting bids for government projects.

Describing the project verbally to companies when soliciting bids left room for confusion. Medford Enterprises either wasn’t told or misunderstood some elements of the project, so their bid didn’t reflect the exact work McGill was looking for.

Though the demolition contract has already been awarded to D.H. Griffin, McGill and Associates called for a rebid upon hearing this information.

“This time, (the bid) was accompanied by a written set of specifications,” said Matthews.

But D.H. Griffin, which believed it had already been picked for the demolition project, protested.

“We received a protest from D.H. Griffin,” said Matthews. “They said we already had a contractual arrangement with them to provide work.”

D.H. Griffin was apparently upset enough to threaten legal action against the town. Matthews said the process has been stalled, and the town has yet to award a second bid.

“We’re withholding the awarding of a contract until such time that we feel any potential legal matters can be addressed,” he said. “We did not award to either company, and will not until legal matters can be resolved.”

Haywood extends token to Canton solar farm

FLS Solar Energy wants a tax break from Haywood County in exchange for an $8 million solar farm the company is building near Canton.

FLS is asking county commissioners for financial incentives that would allow the company to pay 20 percent of the taxes on the equipment it uses to operate for five years, saving FLS $6,400 a year or a total of $32,000.

Through the program, FLS would pay the total equipment tax up front, then receive a grant for 80 percent of the bill from the county.

The company’s request has received the endorsement of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, though it’s not exactly in line with the intent of creating jobs. The solar farm will only create 12 jobs, most of them during the design, development and installation stages, said FLS president Michael Shore.

However, EDC officials believe the county will reap more benefits from the project than just job creation.

“This is kind of unusual because this really won’t create jobs, but you kind of have to look to the future,” said EDC director Mark Clasby. “This will bring recognition and awareness that Haywood County is interested in green initiatives.”

While the amount may not seem like much, it will make all the difference to FLS, Shore said. FLS will have to pay back money put up by investors — about half the total project cost — within a five-year period, making for very thin profit margins, said Shore. Financial incentives from the county will help the project make it through the lean time.

“This allows us for it to be a profitable project in the first five years,” Shore said. “Starting year six, the margins of the project improve significantly, so we’re happy to pay our fair share of taxes at that point.”

FLS has signed a 25-year contract with Progress Energy to sell solar power generated at the Haywood site, guaranteeing that the company will be shelling out full property taxes for at least a 20-year period.

“Over the lifetime of the project, we anticipate paying at least $180,000 in taxes,” said Shore.

Shore says that by providing tax breaks for FLS, Haywood County could position itself as a good place to locate a green startup.

“In the Southeast, it’s up for grabs where the leadership (in alternative energy) is going to come from,” he said. “Now, Haywood County has the opportunity to put itself on the map as a leader in this new green economy.”

Canton mayor looks to state for help with business venture

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers is determined to realize his dream of turning a historic house in downtown Canton into a hotel, restaurant and retail space— and he wants taxpayers to help fund it.

Smathers has sat on the 129-year-old building for 10 years, dabbling in its renovation here and there, waiting for the right people and opportunity. Finally, he has a plan in order, which includes a boutique hotel, “unique” restaurant run by a local couple, extended stay apartments and retail spaces. He hopes to pay for much of the project through two grants — one for $25,000 and one for $120,000 — from the North Carolina Rural Center. He’s also putting up $120,000 of his own money.

The grant pool, dubbed the Building Reuse and Restoration Program, is a pot of money dedicated to “spur economic and job activity and job creation by assisting in the productive reuse of vacant buildings in small towns.”

Smathers says he’s applying for the money because he needs capital; but also because he thinks his project fits the grant’s goal of spurring job creation. He says he can create 10 restaurant jobs, four hotel jobs and five retail jobs — assuming he can find shopkeepers willing to lease the retail spaces, which he hasn’t so far.

Smathers couldn’t apply for the money on his own, because it’s only awarded to local governments. He asked Haywood County commissioners to sign their name to the application, which they agreed to unanimously last week.

While most entrepreneurs seek loans from a bank, take out a second mortgage on their home or borrow from their nest egg to launch a business venture, Smathers isn’t sure whether he could get a loan from a bank for this project.

“Financial institutions aren’t doing much investment in small towns,” Smathers explained. “And if they’re not getting involved in the communities, then I do think it’s the role of government to sort of prime the pump.”

In this case, that means grants funded by state taxpayers. But Smathers said the project has more service industry jobs.

Downtown revitalization has been a major goal for the town of Canton, and Smathers hopes his project will spur other businesses to open in the area. Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development director, thinks Smathers’ project will do just that.

“I’m excited about this and I think it’s a great opportunity to help downtown Canton revitalize,” Clasby said.

Canton Alderman Troy Mann is a bit more hesitant in his optimism.

“If the project could ever be completed, it might help,” Mann said. “I think it could be an asset, but I’m not going to say it’s going to be as productive as some have said.”

It’s not that Mann doesn’t want the project to be a success — he does. It’s just that he’s seen too many businesses come and go downtown and questions Canton’s potential to chase a tourist-based economy.

“You don’t have enough of a population base to support some businesses, and that’s the reason the businesses don’t exist,” he said. “No matter what kind of business goes in there, if you don’t have the population, it doesn’t matter.”

Mann thinks there are steps Canton needs to take to lay the groundwork for a downtown revitalization, such as cleaning up the town to make it more attractive to families and establishing a chamber of commerce or merchants association.

In Clasby’s opinion, things like restaurants are a part of that groundwork, and that they help attract other businesses, like retail. He points to the success of downtown Waynesville as an example.

“You look at downtown Waynesville, and it used to be a disaster zone,” said Clasby. “Back in the early ‘90s, there was one restaurant or two. Then others came in, and now there’s a number of restaurants down there.”

Smathers may be taking a risk with his hotel, restaurant and retail project, but a stipulation of the Rural Center grant gives him extra motivation to succeed. If he can’t create the number of jobs he’s promised in two years, he’ll have to pay back the grant money to the Rural Center.

WCU forges ongoing relationship with Canton

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

With a new town board, a new town manager, and a growing influx of young Asheville commuters looking for affordable housing, the town of Canton is setting itself up for some major changes — and students from Western Carolina University want to help.

Canton gains ground as mill’s dominance recedes

Things are changing in Canton. That in itself is somewhat newsworthy.

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