Year in Review: An ‘Around the region’ special

END OF AN ERA: Canton, which has long billed itself as Papertown, faces life without a paper mill for the first time in more than a century. Photo courtesy of the Town of Canton

For Western North Carolina cities and towns, 2023 was a year of endings and beginnings.

Canton was dealt a devastating blow when the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill shut down after 115 years. Hendersonville and Brevard, on the other hand, got some good news as construction on the long-planned Ecusta Trail finally got underway.

Meanwhile, Woodfin elected a new mayor for the first time in two decades, while Weaverville welcomed two new Town Council members. All these municipalities and others continued to deal with the region’s enormous population growth and related issues such as housing costs, transportation, employment and environmental protection.

Amid these changes, Xpress launched “Around the Region” — the monthly feature you are currently reading — in November. In it, we examine topics of concern to small cities and towns outside Asheville.

For this month’s feature, Xpress asked leaders and residents of these communities to weigh in on the issues that shaped 2023 — and to take a look ahead to 2024.

Who made the biggest impact on your community in 2023?

“The biggest impact in our community has, in fact, been the WNC community itself. I will never be able to adequately say thank you to the people, businesses and prayers that have been bestowed upon Haywood County this year. At our lowest, it was our friends that came to our need and lifted us up to remind us that towns like Canton and her people matter; their stories, their setbacks and their successes.” —  Zeb Smathers, Canton mayor

“Not just one person but a group — Friends of the Ecusta Trail. This rail-to-trail will connect Hendersonville to Brevard. Hendersonville funded initial feasibility studies, but a grassroots coalition of passionate community members, nonprofits and governmental entities, working since 2008, has led to the recent groundbreaking. This project will have major impact on Hendersonville, Henderson County, Brevard and Transylvania County for our economy, recreational amenities and healthy lifestyle.” — Barbara Volk, Hendersonville mayor

“The City of Brevard has definitely made the biggest impact on our community. Two years ago they didn’t hesitate to step forward to take on the responsibility for constructing and managing the Ecusta Trail in Transylvania County. This year they applied for and received grants totaling nearly $46 million toward construction of the trail. Because of their leadership, the Ecusta Trail should be completed in three to four years if all goes according to plans.” — Mark Tooley, president, Friends of the Ecusta Trail

“Hands down, that person is Judy Butler, Town Council member and board member of MANNA FoodBank. Judy personally leads the monthly food distribution in town and led the task force that raised over $300,000 to build a new playground at Woodfin Elementary School.” — Jim McAllister, Woodfin mayor

“We have been fortunate to have a tremendous manufacturing community in Fletcher. We are thankful for their consistent investment in our community. Our manufacturers have created high-quality and high-paying jobs. Additionally, we are excited about new manufacturers coming into town. For example, the French tech company Tageos has decided to establish a North American headquarters in Fletcher. Tageos will invest $19.25 million and bring 64 jobs to Henderson County.” — Preston Blakely, Fletcher mayor

“The biggest impact has been made by forging strong, collaborative teams. The Ecusta Trail is progressing in partnership with Henderson County, NCDOT, Friends of Ecusta Trail, Conserving Carolina and our representatives in Washington, D.C.  Our beautiful new soccer field was made possible by Transylvania Youth Soccer Association. Our economy and downtown remain vibrant thanks to partnerships with Heart of Brevard, Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority and Transylvania Economic Alliance.” — Maureen Copelof, Brevard mayor

How has your community maintained its uniqueness in the face of growth this year?

“Uniqueness comes not from building strip malls and megadevelopments with our precious mountains in the background, but instead comes from protecting open space, building where density already exists and balancing growth with protecting our county’s rural character. We are struggling with this. Crab Creek staved off a major storage facility, but many new developments are coming, and our loosey-goosey land rules promise more of the same unless we can tighten up those rules.” — David Weintraub, executive director, Center for Cultural Preservation in Hendersonville

“For many years, Fletcher has been considered a bedroom community to Asheville. However, we have an opportunity to embrace growth while still maintaining our hometown feeling. We are expecting and have already made investments in serving our community in relation to growth. We would like to continue pushing forward our Heart of Fletcher [Town Center] Project and also investing in recreation. We have added amenities such as basketball, tennis and pickleball courts at Bill Moore Community Park but would also like to extend our greenway.” — Preston Blakely

“The people of Woodfin have been energized by the opening of Silver-Line Park on the French Broad River and the coming together of neighbors to support Woodfin Elementary School and MANNA FoodBank.” — Jim McAllister

“Clearly defining our vision and holding numerous public input sessions to hear what citizens value about Brevard has ensured that Brevard’s unique characteristics are front and center as we manage growth. We tie all of our decisions back to our vision and values when working on economic development, infrastructure upgrades, zoning changes, etc.  This focus has allowed us to sustain the historical downtown, beautiful natural environment and close community connectedness that make Brevard unique.” — Maureen Copelof

“In Canton, an economic crisis, growth and other challenges have been constant in 2023. From zero hour of the mill closing, we have been purposeful in desiring to build a future that is directly tied to our past; we can still be a mill town without a mill. Canton’s next chapter will be one that allows us to maintain our beliefs, unique history and principles while at the same time bringing in new ideas and innovation.” —  Zeb Smathers

“We work to blend old and new. The reimagined Laura E. Corn Mini Golf transferred some favorite elements of the old course and brought in new features, including handicapped-accessible holes. We continue to support such community favorites as Rhythm & Brews, Bearfootin’ Art Walk and our farmers market, but strive to improve what we already have, as with a new streetscape for Seventh Avenue.” — Barbara Volk   

What changes have you noticed in your community in 2023? What changes are you looking forward to in 2024?

“We elected a new mayor! I have been a Woodfin Township resident for the last seven years and am looking forward to seeing how our newly elected mayor, Jim McAllister, rises to the occasion in this elevated leadership role.” — Ashanti Ternoir, community member and service provider 

“For my rural community of Sandy Mush, I am excited that we have seen growth and engagement in our young families. Community and connection are key for rural communities. Building out the high-speed fiber internet was instrumental in drawing and retaining our young families, and our Sandy Mush Community Center provides ample opportunities for community members to gather for events, volunteer opportunities and various activities to strengthen the community.” — Terri Wells, Buncombe County commissioner

“I live in Woodfin and work in South Weaverville part time. The traffic is getting worse and worse by the minute. And there are so many wrecks.” — Allison Walker, auto mechanic 

“Our neighborhood is West Hendersonville. Several roundabouts are in process of being constructed on U.S. 64/Brevard Road; their usefulness will be more down the road. The Ecusta Trail project is already an economic driver for this area. All neighborhoods need more quality, affordable housing and neighbors willing to see the value of that housing.” — Joe Fishleigh, executive coach

“As a resident of Weaverville, I’ve been excited to see the accessible playground arrive at Lake Louise and the Town of Weaverville’s police Mach-E. The greatest need I see for Weaverville is more access to sidewalks that access downtown and Weaverville Boulevard; I see more people walking across the interstate overpass with no shoulder.” — Sara Nicholsregional planner, Land of Sky Regional Council

What is the biggest issue facing your community entering 2024?

“How to handle the many development proposals the town is receiving. We have so much undeveloped land in Woodfin that must be thoughtfully considered. Our council will not allow projects that would change the peaceful character of Woodfin. Together, we will figure it out.” — Jim McAllister

“Weak land protection continues to haunt us as we enter the threshold of 2024. Allowing overdevelopment has consequences, including reduced water quality, fragmentation of ecosystems, raising the risks of dangerous landslides, loss of rural land and farms, and the cultural history of our community. We can’t eat our smartphones, drink McMansions or breathe in more roadways. We can protect what’s left so we, and the rest of the species that live here, can heal.” — David Weintraub

“We are updating our long-range plan. This project, GenH, will guide growth and development for the next 20 years. We received over 4,000 surveys on how people would like Hendersonville to grow, from which we will develop a vision for the future. The challenge for the staff and members of City Council will be to adopt plans and ordinances to fulfill that vision. We expect to have this ready by the summer of 2024.” — Barbara Volk

“Affordability. As mayor, I have come to terms that there’s no other force that is and will continue to change Canton and WNC more than affordability. The cost of living is affecting everything from early child care and health care to the decisions we make every day for our families. It is not lost on me that it’s easy to identify this problem but much more difficult to solve. Affordability is the issue which keeps me up at night.” —  Zeb Smathers

“The lack of affordable and workforce housing is the biggest issue we face. Prices for home purchase and rentals have skyrocketed, and availability is less than 1%.  This issue is compounded by natural features [like mountains, flood plains, and national and state forests] that limit available land [in Brevard]. Dealing with this issue requires collaboration between local government, nonprofits, faith organizations and for-profit developers.” — Maureen Copelof

“We have made significant progress on our Heart of Fletcher [Town Center] Project over the years. The town owns over 40 acres of land that we would like to transform into downtown Fletcher. The initial 5 acres along Hendersonville Road near Town Hall were under contract with a developer to create a mixed-use development but fell out of contract because of hurdles with NCDOT. Nevertheless, we will continue to try to cultivate a public-private partnership to continue to push forward this significant project that is key to Fletcher and important to residents.” — Preston Blakely

AROUND THE REGION: Do you live in a small town or city in Western North Carolina? We want to hear from you. What are the top issues facing your community? What stories aren’t being told? Contact Xpress reporter Justin McGuire at


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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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