Around the region: Post-Paper Town, people in Canton are cautiously optimistic

NEW OPPORTUNITIES: The Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton shut down in June 2023 after 115 years. Despite initial concerns, many in the community say the town has come to terms with the closure and are eyeing new economic opportunities in the area. Photo by Caleb Johnson

A year ago, the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill in Canton closed after 115 years, stirring uncertainty and fear for residents of the Haywood County community that calls itself “Paper Town.”

Twelve months later, observers say the mill closing has been painful but not as devastating as they had feared.

Unemployment in Haywood County has stayed steady as many of the 900 mill workers have found new jobs and stayed in town. Local merchants report little, if any, drop in business and are optimistic about a future geared to outdoor recreation and tourism. And Spirtas Worldwide, a Missouri company that redevelops closed industrial sites, is in the process of buying the mill site, a move that will answer questions about the future of the land sooner than some expected.

“If you had told the town, the county or the region that this is where you could be in a year, I think most of us would have taken it,” says Russ Harris, executive director of the Sylva-based Southwestern Commission, a regional council of governments that serves Haywood and six other counties.

But challenges remain. The Town of Canton lost more than $1 million in annual property tax revenue from the plant. State Attorney General Josh Stein is suing Pactiv Evergreen to recoup $12 million in state economic incentive money, and the plant’s toll on the quality of the Pigeon River continues to be a concern.

And while Spirtas Worldwide’s possible purchase of the former mill site is a cause for optimism, exact plans are uncertain.

“You can still see the despair in people’s eyes, even with this announcement,” says Mayor Zeb Smathers. “When you hear ‘demolition,’ that means a lot of things may be torn down, and that hurts. It’s like watching the home you grew up in be torn down and turned into something else.”

Some Canton merchants say they already have seen a change in clientele, with more out-of-towners popping in, especially in the immediate aftermath of the mill closing. But to sustain that, says business owner Lisa Conrad, officials will have to take a more active role in promoting a post-paper mill vision of Canton’s downtown.

“There are a lot of decisions being made, even small decisions, that really need to be made in the context of ‘Canton is changing,'” says Conrad, who opened Pigeon River Mercantile on Main Street in 2018. In early June, she rebranded the business as a ladies boutique called Clementines. “We cannot be doing business as usual. More attention and intention need to be brought by our town officials, as well as us as merchants, to where we are headed because we have to be the catalyst for going into the future.”

Drop in unemployment

But thus far, the town weathered the first challenge: helping the 900 people who were suddenly out of work. 

Haywood County’s April unemployment rate was 2.8%, lower than the 3.1% rate in June 2023, the month the mill closed. The rate is also below the state average and the lowest among the seven counties the Southwestern Commission covers.

“There were a lot of open jobs, some in Haywood, a lot in Buncombe County,” the commission’s Harris explains. “There were a lot of employers that were willing to come in and hire people pretty quickly after the closure.”

CHANGES AFOOT: Pigeon River Mercantile, a downtown Canton staple since 2018, rebranded itself recently as Clementines, a ladies boutique. Photo by Caleb Johnson

The Southwestern Commission received grant money to provide job training to up to 900 residents, but so far only about 130 people have enrolled. That’s another indication many former mill workers found new jobs, Harris says.

Furthermore, local businesses also dodged the economic hit many predicted after the mill closure. A 2023 report by Dogwood Health Trust and Syneva Economics forecast that the ripple effect of the closing would result in more than 2,000 job losses regionally. The report said the losses would come from local suppliers who directly served the mill as well as small businesses hurt by community members reducing their spending.

So far, Harris and Smathers say, the region has not seen that job loss. “We still have businesses that are open, restaurants are still packed,” Smathers says.

Embracing change

Hive House Commons, a downtown event center, opened just before the mill closure announcement. Owner Sarah Zielke worried when she first heard the paper mill was closing.

“I felt really worried for the community,” she says. “But I also saw it obviously as something that would probably break open the potential for more business to happen over here.”

That’s because the end of the mill also meant the end of the infamous sulfur smell that emanated from the plant’s pulping process, she explains.

RESILIENCE: Lee White opened Geek Mountain on Canton’s Main Street in May 2023. “We can handle this because the town is strong,” he says of Pactiv Evergreen paper mill closing. Photo by Caleb Johnson

“Everyone talks about the smell,” she says. “It’s a really beautiful area, and it’s so accessible to Asheville. I think literally the only thing holding back business growth was the smell.”

Zielke is not the only business owner who sees the mill closure as an opportunity to draw more visitors.

“Many customers come in that have never walked downtown in Canton before, and they literally live 5 miles away,” says Lee White, owner of Geek Mountain, a Main Street store that sells pop culture-related art, apparel and games. “That’s because the smell was a problem for many people. With the mill closing, there’s definitely a change already within the downtown.”

White believes it will be vital for business owners, residents and government officials to embrace that change.

“Put a Band-Aid on it for a little while and mourn your loss. But then you have to stand up and be like, ‘OK, we have a job to do.’ We have to get this going and start building your business back and figuring out ways of prospering without having the mill,” White says.

Conrad, who transformed Pigeon River Mercantile into a ladies boutique, embraced the change.
“When we opened [Pigeon River Mercantile in 2018], we wanted to appeal to the millworkers,” she says. “We were carrying men’s overalls and work boots. My grandfather worked at the mill, and the home I live in now was paid for by mill town money. And I will always be thankful, but we are growing into something else.”

Government officials and merchants think that something else could be outdoor tourism, centered on the Pigeon River, which flows through the middle of town on its way to eastern Tennessee. But Conrad notes that the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) allocates less money to Canton than to communities like Maggie Valley​, Waynesville and Lake Junaluska​. She hopes that will change as the town embraces a tourism-oriented economy.

“If the Town of Canton wants the merchants to survive, we need support as far as marketing and making people aware that we are there,” she says. “There are entrepreneurs out there that want a fighting chance to open a business, but it’s not just about opening a business. We have to have sustainability.”

Art, outdoors

Hannah Burnisky, owner of Cold Mountain Art Collective, similarly would like to see more marketing efforts to get people downtown. The pottery studio and multimedia art gallery, which opened in 2021, has seen a slight decrease in business since the mill closed, but Burnisky remains confident about the future. She even envisions Canton developing an art studio scene of its own.

“What I love about our spot is we’re right between Waynesville and Asheville, and both sections have become a little bit oversaturated and can be overpriced for a lot of the people just starting their art career,” she says.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: Many people in Canton see outdoor recreation as a key to the town’s future. Photo by Caleb Johnson

Charles Wells is another business owner who sees opportunity.

With a fleet of tubes, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards — and newly added mountain bikes — his Pigeon River Outfitters is in a good position to take advantage of outdoor tourism. Wells, who opened the business in 2017, has contracts with short-term rental owners from places as far away as Cary and even Florida. And he sponsors Lee Newton, a country music singer/songwriter from Canton who promotes the business at her shows.

“I’m really, really trying to get the word out and pump it up,” he says. “We’re looking for people that are from over 50 miles away because over 50 miles, they tend to get a hotel room. And we’ve had people that come up to go tubing all the way from Alabama.”

Wells, though, is concerned the Canton business community doesn’t cooperate enough.

“Instead of  trying to fight each other, we need to try to work together, and that will make it successful. Otherwise, we’re going to be bickering, and it’s just going to be a ghost town.”

Despite concerns, though, Wells and other merchants are optimistic about the town’s future.

As Geek Mountain’s White, who opened his store a month before the mill closed, puts it: “There’s been absolutely no days where I go, ‘Man, I can’t believe I opened this in this town.'”

What’s next?

The decision by Pactiv Evergreen to sell the 184-acre former mill site to Spirtas Worldwide is a huge step for the town as it moves to a post-mill future, Smathers says.

“There are many, many case studies of [other former mill] towns that still have places sitting vacant 15 years later,” Smathers says. “The idea that we are at this point, a year later, talking about what’s next is a success and a reason for optimism.”

What’s next for the mill site, though, isn’t clear. The Spirtas deal hasn’t been finalized, and the company has not announced any plans. Owner Eric Spirtas told The Mountaineer his firm will put the needs of the community first when developing the area.

“He’s talking about economic development, and how safety and the welfare of our citizens is paramount,” says Smathers, who talked to Spirtas shortly after the sale was announced.

Smathers expects some of the mill buildings in the flood zone will be demolished but that others will be repurposed to bring in a variety of businesses while preserving some of the town’s history. The site could be used for a variety of purposes, including manufacturing, commercial, residential, outdoor recreation and entertainment.

“We think that it [the Spirtas deal] will send a signal across the region, if not farther, that we are primed for economic development, for jobs,” he says.

And economic development will be vital for the Town of Canton as it faces its biggest immediate challenge in the wake of the mill closing.

The town budget for 2023-24 includes $1.3 million less in tax revenue than the previous budget. Canton will be able to plug that revenue hole with money allocated by the state legislature, but that is not a permanent solution. “That’s not going to last us forever, nor do I want it to last us forever,” Smathers says.

Meanwhile, some issues need to be resolved with Pactiv Evergreen:

  • Attorney General Stein is suing the company to recoup $12 million in grants the state Commerce Department gave it under a 2014 Job Maintenance and Capital (JMAC) Development Agreement. As part of the agreement, Pactiv promised to maintain operations at the paper mill and retain at least 800 full-time employees through the end of 2024.
  • The U.S. EPA issued an administrative order of consent to get the company to clean up two separate “seeps” leaking toxic substances into the Pigeon River. A seep is a spot where a fluid contained in the ground oozes to the surface.

Smathers believes that once those issues are cleared up, the town will be in a good position.

“I know a handful of people that have moved away, and I don’t fault anyone for that,” says Smathers. “But most of these millworkers are still in their homes. They’re still in our public schools. They are still in churches. And that speaks volumes. If you have a base like that, you can’t help but be optimistic.”


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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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One thought on “Around the region: Post-Paper Town, people in Canton are cautiously optimistic

  1. Jay Sheaffer

    I wonder to what degree officials in Canton have looked to nearby Brevard for inspiration as they go through this transition. For many decades, Ecusta Paper Mill was to Brevard what the Pactiv Mill was to Canton. Brevard has redefined itself since the Ecusta closing just over 20 years ago…. taking advantage of the natural surroundings to become a center of outdoor tourism.

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