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One year later, Canton displays remarkable progress

One year later, Canton displays remarkable progress File photo

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep. 

— Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” 

Yeah, it’s cliché to say so, but it is truly amazing what a difference a year makes.

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On March 6, 2023, Smoky Mountain News reporter Cory Vaillancourt, acting on a tip, shuffled along with Pactiv Evergreen employees into a hastily called workers-only meeting with then-company Vice President Byron Racki. At that meeting, the VP told employees the mill would close by summer.  

Vaillancourt began posting the news on social media, and many first heard about the life-changing mill closure not from company officials but from family and friends who shared the news on their social media platforms. As news spread that the mill was closing after more than 100 years in operation, many feared Canton would lose its very soul and go belly up into some kind of cultural and economic tailspin.

But the opposite happened. Anyone who has been watching from up close or afar can see that the town, its people and its business community is surging forward, riding a wave of optimism, sound decision making and inspiring leadership. All of that has been the catalyst for much-needed help from local, state and federal coffers that has been crucial now and in mapping out the future.

Downtown is booming with many new businesses. Canton’s town board, mayor and staff have been front and center, and a long list of others who were in leadership positions acted quickly.

Among those who jumped right into the fray was Haywood Community College President Shelly White. The college quickly developed a plan to provide scholarships for displaced workers who wanted to go back to school and introduced a host of new job-training initiatives that helped not only former Pactiv employees but will provide aid to future job seekers in Haywood County.

“I think that looking back over how fast we’ve moved over the past year as a community, it feels to me like we had the right people in the right places to problem solve,” White recently told The Smoky Mountain News.

And it is remarkable — as Vaillancourt’s story in last week’s edition showed — that so much has happened in one year when one considers how bureaucracies usually plod forward at a snail’s pace. There’s still much to do. Cleaning up the site and determining its future, solving what are sure to be some surprise environmental after-effects, and making sure Canton gets a wastewater treatment facility up and running are all huge challenges.

But I’m optimistic. Those who have worked so hard for the past year aren’t breaking their arms trying to pat themselves on the back. Quite the opposite, it’s still all handson deck as we move into year two of what will be a multi-year undertaking to transform Canton into the shining example what is possible for post-industrial mill towns.

And it will happen, it will just take some time. Looking back over the past 12 months, one can only think it will happen in a shorter time frame than most imagined. As Robert Frost reminded us in his famous poem, there’s still much to do before we rest.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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