Canton’s outdoor economy growing, with help from state
It’s only been open for about a year, but Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Park has already proven a popular, unique regional outdoor recreational attraction — even though it’s still growing.
Much more than just a bike park, Chestnut Mountain is now poised to become a powerful economic driver in a town that can use all the help it can get.
“I really think, given what’s happened with the mill closing, that outdoor recreation provides an opportunity to build a local economy,” said Reid Wilson, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “People love this part of the state because it’s so beautiful, and the more parks and trails we can have, the more folks we’ll draw, and that can mean more business for hotels, restaurants, gift shops, everything else in nearby towns.”
After more than a century of pedaling along at a moderate pace, Canton’s economy has hit a bit of a rough patch over the past few years. The effects of the Coronavirus Pandemic certainly weren’t isolated to Canton, but the effects of devastating flooding in 2021 and the unexpected loss of 1,000 good-paying union jobs at Pactiv Evergreen’s Canton paper mill earlier this year certainly were.
But during the depths of the pandemic, Canton was already taking steps to diversify its economy.
On June 5, 2020, the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy purchased a 450-acre parcel just east of Canton’s town limits on U.S. 19/23 near the Buncombe County line.
Originally planned in the 1990s as an 8,000-seat motorsports park, the parcel languished for most of the next two decades until SAHC got ahold of it, looking to protect sensitive habitat and water resources along Hominy Creek from future development while also increasing outdoor recreation opportunities in Haywood County.
The result, Chestnut Mountain Park , is a free multi-use facility comprised of picnic areas, hiking paths and biking trails. Within the park lies another separate attraction — Berm Park, home to five mountain biking trails ranging in difficulty from beginner to expert.
Seth Alvo, creator of the Seth’s Bike Hacks YouTube channel , championed the creation of Berm Park and helped raise around $300,000 towards its construction.
The park opened in April 2022, and the Town of Canton took ownership of the park shortly thereafter. Since then, the town has budgeted for monthly trail maintenance work to ensure the park remains in peak condition.
Wilson met with Canton leaders on the morning of Aug. 11 to tour the park, because DCNR recently signed contacts with the town to contribute $140,000 towards building three more trails.
“I think he was blown away by Chestnut Mountain — what it is, and what it will be,” said Zeb Smathers, Canton’s mayor.
Town Manager Nick Scheuer said the town used that money as matching funds to leverage other grant funding to cover the construction costs.
“Everywhere that we have seen investments in local parks, trails and greenways people come and they spend their money,” Wilson said. “This is good for people’s health whether it’s their physical health, mental health, spiritual health, all of the above.”
And also their economic health — statewide, outdoor recreation contributes $28 billion to the economy and is responsible for around 220,000 jobs, according to Wilson.
While it’s still too early to gauge the park’s specific impact on Canton and Haywood County, a forthcoming study from Appalachian State is expected to do so.
“Communities that invest in outdoor recreation see jobs in terms of guides, equipment manufacturers, retail outdoor equipment stores,” Wilson said. “I think as the Pigeon River clears , and as Canton and Haywood County continue to invest in outdoor recreation and amenities like parks and trails and greenways, we’re going to see more and more local jobs available in the outdoor recreation industry.”
Probably the biggest unanswered question in Canton is what’s going to happen to Pactiv Evergreen’s 185-acre parcel right in the heart of downtown now that it’s no longer being used to make paper.
Bisected by the Pigeon River, the parcel is prone to flooding and would need substantial and costly site prep for any sort of commercial or industrial development. Recently, the town passed an industrial development moratorium to ensure that any potential buyers looking to establish such operations must include the town in its discussions with Pactiv Evergreen.
There are plenty of ways the site could return to productive use, but nobody’s talking, and anything’s theoretically possible.
“I appreciate [Wilson] coming to visit. It was a truly beneficial morning,” Smathers said. “As he said and what Gov. Cooper has said, from zero hour, we’ve had the full support and attention of Raleigh. [Cooper] has made clear to all his secretaries that when you go west, you go to Canton, not just for photo ops, but to bring ideas. Raleigh has our back. All branches of government.”
A mountain biker curves along a trail in Berm Park, the mountain biking skills course within Canton’s Chestnut Mountain Nature Park. Great State Trails Coalition photo
Given the renewed focus on Western North Carolina’s outdoor economy, Chestnut Mountain could feasibly be connected to Pisgah View — North Carolina’s newest state park — and will also be a critical component of the proposed 150-mile Hellbender Regional Trail system.
Less than a mile from Canton’s town limits, Chestnut Mountain is just a short ride from Pactiv’s parcel.
With the blue-collar mill town ethos that pervades Canton, it’s also quite possible that some of the buildings and structures associated with the paper mill will endure long into the future regardless of what happens to the site.
“We’re eager to talk to community leaders about their potential desires to use part of that property for outdoor recreation,” Wilson said. Historic preservation also falls under the purview of the DCNR.
“There could be ways that the town could use the property, as well as other historic properties in town, to invest in local economic development — including renovation and development of historic properties that would help the local economy and preserve community character,” Wilson said. “We’re eager to work on outdoor recreation, historic preservation and investing in the arts and in any other ways that the town would like to work with us.”
Smathers said that as the town continues to prepare for the next chapter of Pactiv’s parcel — whatever it may be — and also looks at its revitalized Main Street core, he’s eager to continue conversations with DCNR.
“Obviously, we’ve been clear about preserving our history, in town and at the mill site. There are many buildings down there that are historic and would qualify for preservation,” Smathers said. “That does not mean they can’t be used for outdoor recreation or economic development, but what we do not want to see is our history torn to the ground, and I think there are ways to achieve that balance.”