At BearWaters Brewing Co., which sits on the bank of the Pigeon River in view of Canton’s 115-year-old paper mill, you can order a beer called the Papertown Pilsner.
If you’d prefer a nonalcoholic drink, you can walk less than a half-mile to Main Street and get a caffeine fix at Papertown Coffee. Not far from there is Papertown Billiards, just across the street from the large “Papertown” mural that covers a wall in Water Wheel Park.
Elsewhere in the Haywood County town, you can find Papertown Equipment Rental, Papertown Storage and a slew of signs with the words “Papertown Strong.”
For more than a century, Canton’s identity has been tied to the pulp and paper mill that opened in 1908 as the Champion Fibre Co. The mill has provided jobs, tax revenue and a sense of community for generations — the beloved Pisgah High School football team even adorns its helmets with the words “Mill Town.”
But that is about to change.
The mill’s closure, announced by Illinois-based Pactiv-Evergreen in March, will begin Friday, June 9, with the first in a series of layoffs. By the time the plant is closed for good on March 9, 2025, more than 1,100 jobs and about $3 million in annual tax revenue will be gone.
Will the town’s identity be next?
“The day after the announcement, I was taking my son to preschool, and I was driving down the hill toward the mill,” says Mayor Zeb Smathers, who traces his family’s roots back to the county’s earliest days. “And it just numbed me to think this child and the children of so many others in Haywood County are going to grow up in a community without the mill. It’s just tied into our DNA. And now we’re faced with: How can we be a mill town without a mill?”
For Smathers and others around town, the answer will involve relying on traits they say have defined Canton’s blue-collar ethos since 1908 — hard work, tenacity, community — while charting a course for the rest of the 21st century. That course will include embracing growth, positioning the town as an outdoors recreation hub and determining the future of the mill site itself.
“Change is hard, and change is definitely coming,” says Lisa Conard, who opened Pigeon River Mercantile on Main Street in 2018. “But if we all just link arms and press on, I think we can get through it and look back and think, ‘Wow, that was a pivotal moment and look where we are now.’ “
The shuttering of the mill is likely to create opportunities for Canton to experience the WNC real estate boom that so far has eluded it. Developers and others have been wary of a town dominated by a 150-acre industrial site that emits smoke, steam and an infamous dank odor caused by hydrogen sulfide and other reduced sulfur compounds.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there are lots of people who are now thinking, ‘Hmm, I need to rethink Canton,’ ” says Jeanne Forrest, who opened Grateful Table Cafe & Provisions on Main Street in 2022. “I expect that we are going to have a noticeable increase in business inquiries from people looking to relocate to the area almost immediately.”
In fact, 84 real estate agents and others interested in property sales said in a recent poll they believe the mill’s closing “will create opportunities for real estate investors,” according to the Asheville Citizen Times.
But growth must be carefully planned by officials, cautions Russ Harris, executive director of the Sylva-based Southwestern Commission, a regional council of government that serves Haywood and six other counties.
“Housing costs have stayed affordable in Canton for a variety of reasons over the years,” he explains. “And all of a sudden — you’re 20 minutes from downtown Asheville — you’ve got to be a little bit worried about controlling some of that development and not having it become more unaffordable for people that live there, like a lot of the region is at this point.”
Smathers says his goal is to welcome new people and businesses without losing the town’s identity.
“I don’t want to be Cary to Asheville’s Raleigh,” the mayor says, referring to the area that grew from a quiet town of a few thousand to a sprawling bedroom community of the state capital. “I’m fine with being west of Asheville, but I don’t want to be West Asheville. West Asheville has its own identity, which is great, but we’re Canton.”
He points to Durham, which has leaned into its past as a tobacco hub while reinventing itself with a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy. The city has a Tobacco Heritage Tour, and murals on old warehouses chronicle decades of tobacco history.
Kevin Sandefur, CEO and co-founder of BearWaters Brewing, is confident the town will be able to retain its identity even as growth from Asheville spills over the Haywood County line. “I think the history of this town is pretty ingrained in the community, so I think it will be memorialized in different ways,” he says. “There is a distinct cultural difference here versus an Asheville area.”
Gateway to recreation
Unlike Durham, Canton isn’t home to a world-class university and health care system. But it does have plenty of assets that could allow it to become a leader in outdoor tourism.
The Pigeon River, which flows through the middle of town all the way to East Tennessee, provides tubing, kayaking and fishing opportunities. And with the mill gone, the quality of the water will improve, Smathers says. The mill treats wastewater on-site before returning it to the river and has long been a source of local environmental concerns.
Other outdoor attractions include the Rough Creek Watershed Trail System on the south side of the Newfound Mountain Range about 5 miles north of town. It has three hiking and biking trails on 870 acres. Last year, the town opened Chestnut Mountain Nature Park, which includes an extensive trail system, picnic areas, wildlife habitats and a 10-acre mountain bike skills course called Berm Park.
Pisgah National Forest sits about 40 miles to the town’s northeast. To the west, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is less than 25 miles away, and Cherokee National Forest is about a 40-mile drive.
“I see Haywood County as being sort of the gateway to recreation in Western North Carolina,” Forrest says. “Outdoor activities — that’s our ace in the hole. People want to connect with the outdoors, they want to connect with nature, and we have an abundance of those opportunities.”
Forrest thinks it is crucial that Canton not make the mistake of relying so much on just one economic driver as it has with the mill.
“Diversification is the key to the continued success of any community,” she says. “When you put all your eggs in one basket and that basket decides they want to go somewhere else, then you’re left going, ‘OK, now what?'”
Future of the mill
One looming question is what will become of the mill’s 150-acre campus.
“There could be an opportunity to do something, maybe not a paper mill, but something industrial, advanced smaller-scale manufacturing,” says Harris of the Southwestern Commission. “You’re close to I-40, you’re close to Asheville. You’ve certainly got a lot of assets to go in that direction.”
State, local and regional leaders can play a role in working with companies looking to develop the site, he says.
In March, Gov. Roy Cooper sent a letter to Pactiv Evergreen CEO Mike King urging the company to “explore all options to keep the Canton mill in operation, whether through sale, repurposing of the mill or other means.”
So far, the company has not announced its plans for the property. A spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry from Mountain Xpress.
“Hopefully, they’d be willing to sell it,” Harris says. “I think there is some concern that right now the people who would be interested are competitors. I can’t speak for their intentions or motivations, but I think the fear is that for that reason they would just sit on it instead of any kind of remediation and putting it up for sale.”
Sandefur of BearWaters Brewing would like the town to use part of the industrial site to help mitigate flooding from the Pigeon River. The brewery was among many Haywood County businesses and homes affected by flooding after Tropical Storm Fred swept through Western North Carolina in August 2021.
“Maybe they can put a lake in or some type of a holding area for excess water volume coming down the river in the event of a heavy rainfall event,” he says.
Smathers says the town is in much better shape to survive the mill closing than it would have been 10 years ago, when downtown occupancy was at 20%. Today it’s at 90%, and many of the businesses plan to stick it out.
“We have no plans on going anywhere,” says Forrest of Grateful Table Cafe & Provisions. “We’re doubling down, actually. Canton’s going to get through this rough patch, and we’re going to come out the other side better, stronger and well positioned to bring in new business.”
Conard of Pigeon River Mercantile also says she plans to stay in Canton, as does Sandefur of BearWaters Brewing.
And, he promises, Papertown Pilsner will remain on tap.