When Liz Rhine and Russ Grimmett announced plans to open a craft coffee shop in Canton, family and friends responded with skepticism. “People told us we were crazy,” Rhine says.
Since the construction of Interstate 40 in the 1960s, a slow but relentless trend has plagued the mill town: One after another, local businesses have disappeared. In the early 2000s, then-Mayor Pat Smathers tried to revitalize the area’s downtown, but hurricanes, floods and the 2008 financial crisis hindered progress, leaving the ghost town intact.
More recently, Smathers’ son (and law practice partner) Zeb picked up where his father left off, serving Canton first as a member of its Board of Aldermen/Women and now as mayor. All the while, Smathers has kept a watchful eye on Asheville. As the city’s popularity and cost of living continue to climb, Smathers has worked to attract young entrepreneurs to his hometown, where the median home sales price is $190,550 compared with Asheville’s $326,088.
In addition to cheaper living, Smathers points to the economic incentives Canton offers. The three most popular options provide between $1,500 and $10,000 to new building owners or tenants.
All of those enticements factored into Rhine and Grimmett’s decision to settle in Canton where the couple opened Papertown Coffee in June. “We knew that Asheville was becoming way too expensive and that there was a lot of people starting to move outside of the area,” Rhine says. “We felt like the demographics here were changing and that we could hopefully pull it off here.”
The new coffee shop is just one in a string of recent business arrivals. The goal, says Smathers, isn’t to turn his hometown into the next Asheville. Rather, his aim is to help stimulate the local economy by providing Cantonians with local options.
Balance, the mayor continues, is among the major challenges. “How do you continue to attract new people, new ideas and new money without changing who you are?” Smathers asks. “Because we are a manufacturing town. We still have that identity. … We pride ourselves on that.”
Train tracks divide the heart of downtown Canton from the industrial sounds and sights of Evergreen Packaging, the successor to Champion Paper. Nevertheless, the billowing clouds that rise from the factory’s smokestacks permeate the entire town with the smell of hydrogen sulfide. When it comes to the malodor, many longtime residents have often said, “It smells like money.”
The paper mill dates to the turn of the 20th century, when Peter Gibson Thomson expanded his Ohio-based company, Champion Fibre, to Western North Carolina. Champion operated from its location on the banks of the Pigeon River for nearly 100 years. Starting in the early 1990s, the factory’s ownership and name changed hands multiple times before Evergreen Packaging took over in 2007.
At its peak, Champion employed nearly 3,000 workers. Today, Evergreen Packaging provides jobs to roughly a third of that number. Still, the factory remains a leading employer in the community. And, perhaps surprisingly for those whose communities prize different values, many residents also view the mill as a bulwark against gentrification. “It takes a special person to live in Canton,” says photographer Gna Wyatt.
Despite its smell, Wyatt believes the town is in the midst of a boom. Over the last three years, she says, she has watched new businesses trickle in. Meanwhile, in her neighborhood she counts 10 houses that are now occupied by Asheville transplants.
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau supports the idea of Canton’s growing appeal. Canton’s population growth has increased by an average of 0.95% in each of the last six years; within the same period, Asheville’s growth has averaged 1.3%. However, in 2017 and 2018, Canton outpaced Asheville by 0.3% and 0.7%, respectively.
Still, Wyatt doesn’t worry about Canton losing its small-town, blue-collar identity. Along with the paper mill, she has confidence in the town’s leadership and approach to community building. “Everyone knows Zeb [Smathers]. He is a friend to all of us,” she says. “When I want speed bumps on my road, I can message my mayor on Facebook, and he will respond to me immediately. That’s cool.”
What’s also cool, Wyatt continues, is how Smathers has expanded local notions of what types of new businesses can fit into the town. “Ten years ago, a brewery or a tattoo shop in downtown Canton was never a possibility or a thought,” she says. Both are now fixtures of the diversifying scene.
That growth, Wyatt says, has in turn benefited her own business, Starling & Oak Photography. Previously based in Asheville, Wyatt is in the final stages of relocating to Canton, where she rents a second-floor studio on Main Street. “I’m an LGBTQ+ photographer,” she notes. “And I’ve never had any kickback from that. I’ve never experienced anything here but encouragement.”
‘The family farm’
Several other new business owners in the community echo Wyatt’s sentiments. Hospitality, they say, is as much a part of the town’s culture as an appreciation of the area’s natural beauty. At the same time, Canton’s leaders aren’t shy about sharing the good news of what the town has to offer.
One example came in 2016, when Canton’s then-Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss caught wind that BearWaters Brewing Co. was searching for a new home. He immediately called BearWaters’ co-owner Art O’Neil.
“He told us there was a spot he wanted us to see,” remembers O’Neil. The brewery owner agreed to a meeting; Hendler-Voss suggested a site visit that day. O’Neil reminded the town manager that it was 4 o’clock on a Friday. “There’s no time like the present,” Hendler-Voss replied.
BearWaters Brewing opened in Canton the following year. Some initial trepidation that the town’s older longtime residents might not welcome the business didn’t last long, O’Neil says.
“There was a lady who stood [in line] probably 45 minutes when we first opened, and when she finally got up to me, she said, ‘Now I don’t even drink beer, but thank you for not overlooking Canton,’” O’Neil recalls.
Robert Kuhhirte, co-owner of J-RO’s Burgers & Subs, shares a similar experience with Canton’s leadership. Since 1993, he has operated Smoky Mountain Sub Shop in Waynesville. Around 2015, Kuhhirte says he was approached by then-Canton Police Chief Bryan Whitner.
“He asked if we would ever consider opening up a place in Canton,” Kuhhirte remembers. “We didn’t think much about it. But then he came back and said he was really serious about it. That he would show us available spots.”
Kuhhirte and business partner Randy O’Quinn eventually took Whitner up on the offer. In March 2017, J-RO’s opened. Business, says Kuhhirte, has boomed from day one. “Canton people support their town,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons why we have been so successful.”
Like many in the community, Kuhhirte sees Canton’s potential, but he also worries the possible downsides of growth. “Some of the old Asheville people, they wouldn’t come over here because of that,” he says, pointing toward the smokestacks. “That was always a deterrent. But now the price of everything is pushing them out. They’ve already gone up to Weaverville and down to Hendersonville, and so it’s ultimately coming this way.”
Despite his concerns, Kuhhirte believes those same smokestacks will ultimately stave off any major threats to the town’s character. “That’s the family farm,” he declares. “That’s everybody’s paycheck. It’s been here over 100 years, and I think it’s going to stay here another 100.”
When husband-and-wife team Nathan and Michaela Lowe opened their restaurant Southern Porch in 2016, the couple saw it as their chance to help get the ball rolling for Canton. Natives to the region, Nathan grew up in Waynesville while Michaela spent her youth in Bethel. Their family now calls Canton home.
The Lowes’ restaurant operates out of the former Imperial Hotel, a sprawling Queen Anne-style residence built in 1876. Over the years, the structure expanded in size and fulfilled a number of different roles, including a boardinghouse, post office and commercial space. The building’s many transformations illustrate an important point: Change is nothing new in Canton.
Still, Nathan Lowe notes, that doesn’t mean it always comes easy. “A lot of people resist change,” he says. “And they still do. Even here, we try to slowly incorporate new ideas or new beers to the menu.”
Like many who grew up in the area, Michaela Lowe wants to see Canton hold onto its small-town feeling. At the same time, she’s also excited to be part of its growth and evolution. So far, she says, the town has managed to balance both.
“We’re starting to see a lot of people moving here from Asheville,” she explains. “But I think the newer arrivals are open to ideas. They see that Canton has a bit of that Asheville flair, but it still has that hometown feel. And I think there are a lot of people coming here that crave the latter.”
Canton’s charm certainly made an impression on Lisa Conard. An Asheville native with family roots in the Canton community, she opened Pigeon River Mercantile on Main Street in September. Founding a retail business wasn’t originally part of her plans, she admits. “My husband and I were going to invest in the building as a rental property or flip it,” she says.
But as they continued work on renovations, members of the community kept checking in on them. Between “the heart of the people and the building itself,” Conard says, she and her family discovered “a great opportunity to have a little store here.”
Conard manages Pigeon River Mercantile’s daily operations with help from her daughter, Haleigh Thompson. With the store’s one-year anniversary approaching, the two hope they’ll soon be able to identify patterns in the local market. To date, they note, it has been difficult to nail down hours of operation.
“Canton isn’t necessarily a destination yet,” says Thompson. “It’s a lot of word-of-mouth.” But it is growing, she adds. “It’s not the ghost town it once was.”
Vacant buildings, however, still line sections of Canton’s downtown. A butcher shop, a market, art studios and a bookstore are among the additions local business owners say they would like to see fill those voids. Meanwhile, Smathers is hustling to attract an outdoor store to the area as part of Canton’s broader move to capture some of the region’s outdoor recreational market.
In addition, the mayor highlights the ongoing partnership, begun in October 2017, between the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Haywood County chamber.
“It’s already paying off,” Smathers exclaims, pointing to the June announcement that Abundant Labs will open a $12 million hemp processing facility in Canton, bringing with it 18 new jobs — a number that could grow to over 40 in coming years.
“For me, it’s still important that we make things,” Smathers continues. “Whether that be manufacturing on a large level or with craft beer. I see Canton wanting to stay that blue-collared town.”
Community involvement, Smathers points out, is also crucial to maintaining the town’s identity. “You have to wash people in the blood of what you are,” the mayor says. “We have to invite new residents to a Pisgah football game, talk to them about the town’s history, get them involved in the local churches and in the community, whether it be through the historic groups, recreation or school.”
For now, the community seems committed to rolling out the red carpet for new arrivals. Inside Papertown Coffee, Liz Rhine stands behind the cash register, as her fiancé and business partner, Russ Grimmett, steams milk. A man walks in carrying a mint green folder. He introduces himself as James Markey, minister of music at Canton First Baptist. He explains he is making rounds downtown, getting to know some of the new business owners. The three chat for a few minutes. On his way out the door, Markey hands the entrepreneurs a sheet of paper from his folder.
Before Markey can leave, a nosy Xpress reporter asks the minister for a copy of the letter, explaining that he is in town working on an article about Canton’s growth. Markey happily obliges.
The letter’s opening two paragraphs read:
“First of all, I want to sincerely thank you for all that you do to help make Canton the amazing place to live that it is. The transformative revitalization that has taken place over the past few years has been a tremendous blessing to the people of our town, and credit for the excitement and energy that exists for our strong and vibrant community moving forward is due in large part to your faith, hard work and dedication.
“In the coming weeks, teams from Canton First Baptist church will be reaching out in person to newcomers to our town to simply welcome them here. While it is our calling to always share our faith message, our primary mission with these visits is not to preach, but simply to tell people we’re glad they’ve chosen Canton to call home.”