Four years ago, candidates for office in Canton wanted new faces. Two years ago, their platforms were cooperation. And this year, business development and recreation are the common threads among candidates.
“I think we also need to look at doing our best to attract new residents to Canton and new businesses to Canton as well,” said Patrick Willis, who is spearheading StepUp Canton, a program aimed at spurring economic growth in the town.
Willis, who ran unsuccessfully two years ago, said Canton needs to market its assets: its comparatively cheap property values, its friendly atmosphere and its family-oriented recreation.
All the candidates shared a similar desire to revitalize downtown Canton.
The town should also work with existing businesses to improve the appearance of local storefronts through grants to owners willing to redo their façades, said Alderman Ed Underwood.
“It’s just got to be a cooperative effort,” he said. Underwood cited his personal effort to improve the town’s appearance by picking up trash once a week while walking through town with his wife.
The candidates emphasized some form of combined effort between the town and business owners, many of them discussing the need for a business or merchant’s association to serve as a driving force for commerce.
When current Alderman Jimmy Flynn ran for office two years ago, he pressed for the creation of a business association, he said.
“That is what I will continue to push every chance I get,” Flynn said.
Fellow candidate Phil Smathers said such an association is key if the town hopes to bring specialty shops to Canton’s Main Street and beautify its downtown.
“Certainly, everybody’s moving for progress,” Smathers said. “We are expecting big things to eventually come.”
A couple of candidates even mentioned offering incentives to draw businesses to the area.
“We’re going to have to work as a team to get things going,” said candidate Cecil Patton.
Patton said the town must work with property owners and businesses to fill the empty storefronts along Main Street.
Stanley Metcalf also said he would like to see more local businesses on Main Street, adding that it is difficult to own a business in Canton, but incentives might entice people to open a store.
“In my opinion, Canton is an unfriendly business town,” said Metcalf, who owns a lawn care service.
It seems every time a business does something to promote itself, such as place a sign on the sidewalk, it breaks an ordinance, he added.
Willis and Underwood, another candidate and current alderman, both cited updating the town’s website as an important tool for promoting Canton to prospective businesses and residents.
“That gets the word out,” Underwood said.
From replacing its aging pool to lining up acts to play in the historic Colonial Theatre, Canton board candidates agree that the town needs to step up its focus on recreation.
“We’re going to have to take a hard look at that pool,” Underwood said. “We’ve got to have that pool.”
Flynn agrees that the pool needs to be replaced — a cost of more than $1 million.
The swimming pool only has about three years of life left in it, said Flynn, who wants to start a recreation fund to save money for the replacement. Flynn said the town should start other reserve funds for future projects as well.
Adding lighting to the ballpark complex, creating more paths for pedestrians and cyclists and repairing the pool are among Smathers’ list for recreation improvements.
One of Patton’s main campaign goals is to increase activities for kids and seniors. He said the town should offer games and keep the pool open later so that there is not a shortage of recreation opportunities for either age group.
The past two years
Canton has an unusual election cycle: all four town board members plus the mayor are up for election every two years. Two years ago, a slate of three new candidates prevailed in the election. A similar upset was seen four years ago. The widespread dissatisfaction that drove those elections does not seem as prevalent this year, however.
“I’ve got all respect in the world for the board that is in there now,” said Smathers, a challenger in the race. “To me, it’s been one of the best boards that has been seated in Canton in years.”
Smathers said he is not looking to oust one of the current board members. Instead, he is running for the seat currently held by Alderman Eric Dills, who is not in the race this year. Smathers was a longtime town employee and cited his experience working with the town budget.
“I am running on experience as an asset,” Smathers said.
Other candidates had more mixed reviews of the current town board, however, questioning whether it has accomplished enough.
Willis said if elected, he wants to work with other board members to create short- and long-term goals, which the town can work toward.
“I have not seen or heard what direction the town wants to go with,” Willis said, adding that he thinks the board can accomplish much more than it has in the past couple of years.
“Not everybody is going to agree on every issue … but if there is common goals that the board can come up with then they should work to get those goals accomplished,” Willis said.
Willis, who chose Canton as the place to raise his family, wants to see the town develop in a positive way.
Metcalf said he thinks the most recent board has done “a pretty decent job,” but he would not care if the whole board were replaced.
He would like to see more local people get involved, he said.
Currently, the Board of Aldermen holds its meetings at 10 a.m. on the second Tuesday of the month and 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Metcalf said he wants to change the time to make it more convenient for local residents to attend.
The incumbents running for re-election pledged to continue on the same course.
“For me and Jimmy and Kenny, we’ll continue working together (if we are re-elected),” Underwood said. “We haven’t kicked the can down the road.”
“I think we’ve been very progressive,” Flynn added.
Underwood said there is more they would like to accomplish, however, after coming on the board just two years ago.
“You couldn’t do everything in two years,” Underwood said.
The board began and will continue its sidewalk and street repair work, said Underwood and Flynn.
This board has spent more money on roads, fixing potholes and paving, than any other board in the past 10 years, Flynn said. It has cut expenses, held the tax rate steady and combined staff positions when an employee retired or quit to save money, he said.
The town has also begun replacing the sewer line along Champion Drive around exit 31 off Interstate 40. The line was undersized and as a result, lacked capacity for new businesses. Replacing the line had been a top goal of aldermen who were elected two years ago.
Kenneth Holland, a current alderman who is also running for re-election, did not return multiple calls requesting an interview.
• Continue street and sidewalk repairs
• Clean up the town, including façade improvements
• Replace the pool
• Create a recreation capital reserve fund
• Establish a business association
• Keep tax rates down
• Start a downtown business association
• Improve local recreation, including adding more paths for pedestrians and cyclists and lighting at the ballpark
• Beautify downtown Canton
• Offer more activities for the elderly and children
• Maintain current local tax rates
• Work to keep businesses in Canton
• Make Canton more business friendly
• Change the board’s meeting time to promote more resident involvement
• Award contracts to in-state businesses
• Improve the town’s website
• Increase communication between businesses and local officials
• Market the town’s assets to draw new residents and businesses
• Holland did not return phone calls requesting an interview.
Pat Smathers is what you might call a born politician.
His first campaign was pitching Terry Sanford’s 1960 run for governor and John F. Kennedy’s bid for the White House. He was posted on a busy corner in downtown Canton by his politically active father, bedecked in a vest adorned with campaign buttons and matching straw hat.
“I was 6 years old,” recalls Smathers. “They had me standing out, handing out campaign literature, I guess because who’s going to be mean to a kid? That’s the first time I really understood politics.”
Today, Smathers is a lawyer, with an office on Main Street in downtown Canton, and on the waxing end of his 12-year tenure as the town’s mayor.
He has seen the small mill town through epic floods of 2004, a buy-out of the paper mill, the town’s centerpiece and largest employer, and more recently, an economy trending decidedly downward.
He’s leaving office to tend to his law practice, which he now shares with his son, and devote some time to the renovation of the long-vacant Imperial Hotel, a downtown icon whose restoration he’s bankrolling.
Though his political life may have started at the tender age of 6, his career in politics got off the ground in the mid-1980s when he won the post of chairman in the Haywood County Democratic Party.
After that, he held various party offices and following an unsuccessful bid for state senate in the ‘90s, he started his stint as mayor in 1999. He also ran as the Democratic candidate for the lieutenant governor position in 2008, which he lost.
He didn’t really intend to be the mayor, or indeed stay the mayor for more than a decade, says Smathers. But he really loves the town. He just couldn’t say “no.”
Sitting in his office, it’s easy to see that Smathers is truly proud of Canton, and he knows how to work that angle. He’s a seventh-generation Haywood Countian on both sides, and he’s got the black-and-white family photo hanging above a leather couch in his office to prove it.
The glad-handing required of any politician came easily to Smathers, and from the beginning he saw himself as a salesman, with Canton as his product.
“The role of the mayor is really principal spokesman for the town and the promoter for the town,” says Smathers, who looks the part of a quintessential Southern lawyer, complete with summer seersucker suit.
He’s spent the last 32 years as a lawyer, salesman of a point of view, and it has helped him in his role as town promoter.
One of his main jobs, as he saw it, was going to a lot of meetings. State meetings, regional meetings, local meetings, economic development meetings — if there’s a meeting, Canton should be there.
“You need to know what’s out there. You need to know what’s going to be happening five years from now. If they’re talking about plans for economic development or things that may be happening, you need to be there to say, ‘Hey look, what about putting that in Canton?’” says Smathers. In other words, it’s his job to be perpetually on the hard sell.
And that he was, which didn’t always make him popular. He’s quick to say that he came to the job with an agenda for changing the town, and that didn’t always sit well with some.
Some of his projects, such as better power poles in town, came to fruition.
“We could’ve won a contest for the ugliest power poles in the state. They were horrible,” he says with disdain.
Others, like a major visitor’s center on Champion Drive or a leg of the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, did not. When the county was embroiled in a debate on where to build a new courthouse, batting it from one site to another, Smathers didn’t pass up the chance to suggest “why not Canton?” — even if it would mean designating Canton as the county seat instead of Waynesville.
His prowess at politicking, however, did come in handy during one of the town’s darkest times: the floods that inundated it in 2004.
Thirty-six hours of rain from Tropical Storm Frances slammed the town, leaving it largely underwater. Nine days later, Tropical Storm Ivan brought another deluge. The mill closed, the sewage plant failed and wastewater flowed into the Pigeon River and through town. Every downtown building was filled with a layer of destructive water. Town facilities alone, says Smathers, sustained $10 million in damage.
“I was terribly concerned,” he says, remembering that time. “A lot of people — probably most of the people in Canton — don’t realize what a perilous situation we were in. We could’ve been a ghost town.”
Of his long mayoral career, he pinpoints that catastrophe as the nadir.
“That was probably the most difficult time, I think, for me as mayor was that period of time during the floods,” says Smathers. “I go back and look at it and try to figure out how I got through all that. It was hard. I was just being pulled every which way. I must have been running on adrenaline 24 hours a day.”
Not only were the floods an unmitigated disaster, but he was also studying for his master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and mourning the death of his mother.
Still, though, his propensity for promotion won through. He saw the flood as a tragedy, yes, but also as a way to get a lot for Canton that it would never otherwise get.
When politicians in Raleigh called on him to pitch Canton’s need to the state and the nation, he saw his moment.
“I went down there and I stated the cause,” he says, and he brought home a lot of money not only to fix the millions of dollars in damage sustained by the town and its businesses, but fix other infrastructure problems and set the stage for Canton to emerge from disaster into a new era of economic development.
Smathers has a way of speaking in talking points, directing the conversation to highlight his favored themes and not letting the topic drift until he’s hit his key premises. He starts a lot of sentences with, “well, number one….” It’s a practiced rhetorical technique that has no doubt served him in the courtroom and behind the mayor’s desk in times of crisis.
Longtime Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy offered his town’s support when its neighbor disappeared underwater.
“He was mayor of Canton during its most critical times, the most critical situations that I can remember in my lifetime,” says Foy. “He had the flood and he had the restructuring of Champion (paper mill). Those were very critical issues for Canton and I think he did an outstanding job.”
Smathers himself attributes much of Canton’s success in recovery and growth to the town board, town manager and state representatives. And he hasn’t always gotten along with the aldermen, having seen three very disparate sets of elected leaders pass through town hall over the last 12 years.
“I think over the years, we’ve had some very frank discussions on the board about various issues,” says Smathers. “But you can’t take things personal. Nobody is going to agree with me all the time, and I’m not going to agree with everybody else all the time.”
To those who lament Canton’s decline since its mill heyday, Smathers aggressively pitches a more optimistic view. It has long been one of his goals to get young people to come here and come back after college or job training. And, he claims, it’s happening.
“Yes, we’ve lost a lot of businesses, but look, Canton is growing. People don’t realize just the changes that have occurred. Not everything has been successful, there’s been some things we’ve tried that have not worked out. We started on a very active self-improvement plan, and we did some things just to show people, well, you can change.”
Charles Rathbone owns Sign World WNC, one of the businesses that’s popped up since Smathers took office.
“Pat Smathers has always shown that he had Canton in his heart,” says Rathbone. “And you know, a lot of times a lot of the ideas that he had were not well-accepted by the different board members, but he was always looking to improve the image of downtown Canton.”
Smathers has struggled to bring back the once bustling town, where downtown was flush with grocers, dime shops, hat and shoe stores, watch repairmen: all the trappings of healthy, small-town America. Finding a new downtown economy has been his goal, and the number of filled storefronts these days shows success in that direction.
Reflecting on the last three terms, his major regret, says Smathers, is that he didn’t write more sympathy cards when long-time community members died.
The community — its history and tradition particularly — do genuinely seem to be in Smathers’ heart, pumping through his blood.
He’s vacating the mayor’s chair, yes. And his office will now just be the seat of Pat Smathers, lawyer.
In the November election, his name won’t be on the ballot. Mike Ray, a former town alderman who served with Smathers is running unopposed and will take up the mayoral torch.
But, says Smathers, don’t be fooled. He’s not going anywhere, and he hopes to still be involved in public life, just from the other side.
“It has been very rewarding to be the mayor, it’s an honor. If you take a small town like Canton, especially for someone like me who grew up here, the people in this community know me, they know the good and they know the bad,” says Smathers, by way of goodbye to his constituents. “Everybody has warts. And if the people that know you best are going to let you serve for 12 years, it’s an honor.”
Canton Mayor Pat Smathers is determined to realize his dream of turning a historic house in downtown Canton into a hotel, restaurant and retail space— and he wants taxpayers to help fund it.
Smathers has sat on the 129-year-old building for 10 years, dabbling in its renovation here and there, waiting for the right people and opportunity. Finally, he has a plan in order, which includes a boutique hotel, “unique” restaurant run by a local couple, extended stay apartments and retail spaces. He hopes to pay for much of the project through two grants — one for $25,000 and one for $120,000 — from the North Carolina Rural Center. He’s also putting up $120,000 of his own money.
The grant pool, dubbed the Building Reuse and Restoration Program, is a pot of money dedicated to “spur economic and job activity and job creation by assisting in the productive reuse of vacant buildings in small towns.”
Smathers says he’s applying for the money because he needs capital; but also because he thinks his project fits the grant’s goal of spurring job creation. He says he can create 10 restaurant jobs, four hotel jobs and five retail jobs — assuming he can find shopkeepers willing to lease the retail spaces, which he hasn’t so far.
Smathers couldn’t apply for the money on his own, because it’s only awarded to local governments. He asked Haywood County commissioners to sign their name to the application, which they agreed to unanimously last week.
While most entrepreneurs seek loans from a bank, take out a second mortgage on their home or borrow from their nest egg to launch a business venture, Smathers isn’t sure whether he could get a loan from a bank for this project.
“Financial institutions aren’t doing much investment in small towns,” Smathers explained. “And if they’re not getting involved in the communities, then I do think it’s the role of government to sort of prime the pump.”
In this case, that means grants funded by state taxpayers. But Smathers said the project has more service industry jobs.
Downtown revitalization has been a major goal for the town of Canton, and Smathers hopes his project will spur other businesses to open in the area. Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development director, thinks Smathers’ project will do just that.
“I’m excited about this and I think it’s a great opportunity to help downtown Canton revitalize,” Clasby said.
Canton Alderman Troy Mann is a bit more hesitant in his optimism.
“If the project could ever be completed, it might help,” Mann said. “I think it could be an asset, but I’m not going to say it’s going to be as productive as some have said.”
It’s not that Mann doesn’t want the project to be a success — he does. It’s just that he’s seen too many businesses come and go downtown and questions Canton’s potential to chase a tourist-based economy.
“You don’t have enough of a population base to support some businesses, and that’s the reason the businesses don’t exist,” he said. “No matter what kind of business goes in there, if you don’t have the population, it doesn’t matter.”
Mann thinks there are steps Canton needs to take to lay the groundwork for a downtown revitalization, such as cleaning up the town to make it more attractive to families and establishing a chamber of commerce or merchants association.
In Clasby’s opinion, things like restaurants are a part of that groundwork, and that they help attract other businesses, like retail. He points to the success of downtown Waynesville as an example.
“You look at downtown Waynesville, and it used to be a disaster zone,” said Clasby. “Back in the early ‘90s, there was one restaurant or two. Then others came in, and now there’s a number of restaurants down there.”
Smathers may be taking a risk with his hotel, restaurant and retail project, but a stipulation of the Rural Center grant gives him extra motivation to succeed. If he can’t create the number of jobs he’s promised in two years, he’ll have to pay back the grant money to the Rural Center.