Yes we Can(ton)

BRINGING IT BACK: Canton's leadership, residents and local businesses have come together to pump new life into the area's downtown. In the midst of its growth, community members contemplate how to maintain Canton’s small-town vibes. Photo courtesy of the Town of Canton

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.

LEADING THE WAY: Canton native Zeb Smathers was elected town mayor in 2017. The pro-business Democrat is working to attract new businesses to his hometown. Photo courtesy of Smathers

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.”

Smoke signals

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.”

NEW IN TOWN: In June, Papertown Coffee opened in Canton. Owners Russ Grimmett, left, and Liz Rhine purchased the two-story downtown building, converting the upstairs into their living space. Photo by Thomas Calder

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.”

Hometown feel

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.

CASUAL DINING: Southern Porch opened on Main Street in 2016. “We get so many people that come as they are from the paper mill, and that’s how we want it to be,” says co-owner Nathan Lowe, left. Also pictured are co-owner Michaela Lowe, and the couple’s two daughters, Khairee and Brindley. Photo by Thomas Calder

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.”

Sincerely yours

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.

FAMILY OPERATION: Lisa Conard, left, and her daughter, Haleigh Thompson own and operate Pigeon River Mercantile. The business opened last September. Photo by Thomas Calder

“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.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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9 thoughts on “Yes we Can(ton)

  1. bsummers

    Hey, not so fast. Canton can’t grow too big – we’re counting on them to supply Candler with water, right?

    “At the Oct. 16 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ meeting, interim County Manager George Wood discussed the idea of conducting a study on extending water lines from Canton to the Smoky Park Highway Corridor of the Enka/Candler area.:
    Buncombe looks at linking water system with Canton’s
    https://www.themountaineer.com/news/buncombe-looks-at-linking-water-system-with-canton-s/article_06d31532-dde9-11e8-b126-7fb951348436.html

    Haven’t heard a peep about that since they announced it (right before the 2018 election). If they were never actually looking into that, well that suggests that maybe the whole thing was a scam, just to get Robert Pressley re-elected to the Board of Commissioners. That’s unthinkable…

    • NFB

      Article was behind a paywall.

      Was this an issue in Pressley’s re-election campaign? I don’t recall hearing about it, although I don’t live in that district.

      • bsummers

        Paywall? Really? I’m not a subscriber, but I got 5 free articles. Anyway, here it is. I let this reporter know that there were two errors in the first sentence of his story. One, Buncombe County, per se doesn’t own any water lines. Two, the discussion, at least what anyone was saying publicly, was only about extending water lines down from Candler to serve the part of Candler that wasn’t currently served by Asheville. Hooking up directly to Asheville’s water lines, as far as I knew then or since, was never part of the discussion. But since the proposed lines would just happen to end right where Asheville’s began… that was part of my concern.

        And while I never saw or heard Pressley himself campaign on this, I did talk to some of the people who had been pushing for water for Candler for years. They were very excited about the possibility, and credited Pressley with getting it on the County’s agenda. The fact that neither the County Manager or the Commission ever followed through, well… It was long after the election when they realized that.

        Buncombe looks at linking water system with Canton’s
        For years now, there’s been talk of connecting Buncombe County’s water lines to Canton’s, and now there is a tangible move in that direction.

        At the Oct. 16 Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ meeting, interim County Manager George Wood discussed the idea of conducting a study on extending water lines from Canton to the Smoky Park Highway Corridor of the Enka/Candler area.

        “There’s a lot involved in even a preliminary engineering study,” Wood told the board. “But where we’re at right now is just collecting some of the information.”

        Wood said the study itself will look at the potential need for expansion tanks and pumps, depending on the analysis of the topography between the systems to be connected.

        “A preliminary engineering study looks in broad brush,” he said. “It does not lay out a full design, because that would be much more expensive, and you don’t want to go forward with that cost unless you think you’re prepared to go forward with actually doing a construction project.”

        Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher said that he’s spoken with business owners and residents in the western part of that county and heard their concerns for a need for service there. He also spoke a bit about Canton.

        “There’s some changes in Haywood County and Canton recently,” he said. “If you haven’t been over there and seen some of those changes, it’s a good time to have this conversation.”

        Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman told The Mountaineer that the commission of the study itself, which hasn’t yet been voted on, is in no way indicative of some definite direction.

        “We don’t have any real data indicating what the feasibility is,” he said, adding that another option for that part of the county could be to get water from Asheville. “I think it would be expensive, so how would it be financed, who would be responsible for paying for it? The county isn’t traditionally in the business of paying for water and sewer expansions.”

        Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said there has been talk of this happening for years now and he is open to hearing whatever the results of the potential study may be.

        “Obviously we have no issues with Buncombe County studying this, but we will always look at what’s best for Canton,” he said, adding that Haywood County will also have a hefty stake in whatever course this study takes.

        Barry Summers of Save Our Waters WNC has been keeping his eye on the issue and how it may affect Buncombe County’s water and sewer systems. He said that his group isn’t immediately concerned with Buncombe’s effort to look into the possibility of a connection with Canton, but said it is something he’s keeping an eye on.

        “This is just a little confusing as far as whose interest would be served by this,” he said. “What would be the upside, what would be the downside?”

        “It’s not clear what they would actually achieve, and the big question, of course, is who would end up supplying the water for an expansion of the system,” he added. “What they’re proposing really looks like connecting the city of Asheville’s water to Canton’s. That’s much bigger than providing water and sewer to a couple hundred residents in the Enka and Candler areas.”

        Summers was especially curious because of the issues he said Canton had during the 2016 drought.

        “Droughts are definitely coming and population is definitely increasing,” he said. “The idea of just adding another several hundred residents and commercial property that would be developed by having this water line installed, you’d think that’d be a cause for concern within a community that just had a serious problem.”

        Summers said he expects the issue to become dormant until Buncombe names a permanent county manager early next year.

  2. Angela Bleckley

    I am a new business on Main Street in Canton, Nailology Studio, and I would have loved to have been mentioned in this article!

    • Betty Guyer

      Hi Angela, glad to hear about your nailology studio. I am a resident of Canton and also have a very small booth in Maddie’s on Main (which also wasn’t mentioned). I will be sure and mention to my family and friends that there is now a place to get nails done in Canton. Good luck to you.

    • Thomas Calder

      Thank you. Her name has been corrected in the online version.

  3. Tyler McCamey

    I am have been a resident of Canton for the past year and a half and have been pleased with my experience thus far. While I would enjoy a revitalization of the downtown area, I hope that it does not lead to the increase of rent/housing prices, much like what happened in West Asheville. If we can do this, but still keep the small town feel with a tight knit community, I am all in.

  4. Ellen Selm

    I’ll echo Angela Bleckley and mention I’m also a business owner in Canton – Middle Path Nutrition and Wellness Center – just newly opened this year! I hope your article brings people out to walk our quaint little comeback town and see there’s even more going on than your article had room to fit. :}

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