When the Town of Canton relaunched its Labor Day Festival a couple years ago, it was in a crucial move to reinvent the century-old event — and also the downtown itself.
From the outside, John Burgin looks like a lucky guy, a guy in the right place at the right time to cash in on the revitalization sweeping Hazelwood.
Telling people what to do with their property is not an easy job, even when a town’s local economy may depend on it.
Downtown Canton has seen better days.
A once vibrant and bustling Main Street is now struggling to hang on to its few surviving businesses. Some of its historic buildings are now vacant and falling into disrepair.
Fred Baker’s title isn’t particularly glamorous. For nearly three decades, he kept the potholes patched, the trash picked up, the sewer lines repaired, the clean water flowing, the lights on and the gutters swept all over Waynesville.
“It is a slow news day when public works is in the paper,” Baker said.
The clock is ticking for Canton to spend $25,000 in remaining grant money from the N.C. Rural Center.
Susan Gathers was kicked back in the student union one afternoon, her thumbs poised over her smart phone, simultaneously bantering with friends while texting — sometimes even texting the same person she was talking to.
This impressive skill to seamlessly dialogue in multiple mediums at once is nothing new for “Generation Next-ers” like Gathers. But unlike the typical truncated words and vowel-less abbreviations that permeate normal text-speak, her screen was filled with Cherokee syllables as she pushed send.
Three years ago, Holly Hooper and sister Heather Menacof had saved enough money to invest in new windows for the lower part of their popular outfitter store in Sylva, Blackrock Outdoor Company.
Then the economy tanked. The sisters were forced to put the money back into the business. They scrimped and saved once more, however, and are moving forward again with dressing up the part of the building that faces Mill Street, better known as back street.
Hooper hopes Black Rock’s individual attempts to aid this part of the downtown gets a significant boost in the form of a state grant being submitted by the Downtown Sylva Association. The grant application is due by Feb. 10. Meetings are being held, ideas have been solicited, and a number of Sylva businesses have expressed keen interest in participating in a general cleanup and refashioning of back street.
After years of neglect, back street actually has received some attention fairly recently in the form of landscaping and upkeep. Currently, there are few vacancies along the street, and the businesses located there generally seem to be holding their own.
But Julie Sylvester, head of the Downtown Sylva Association, decided more could be done. About 40 people turned out for a meeting a few months ago about fixing up back street.
The Downtown Sylva Association is a membership organization dedicated to bettering the business environment in downtown Sylva. It is tasked with helping businesses thrive and prosper.
“We had a good mix of people all wanting to see this project move forward,” Sylvester said.
Grant money is available through the state’s Main Street program. The grants are intended to provide direct financial benefit to towns, retain and create jobs and spur private investment.
Sylvester said an initial phase for back street renovation includes painting, pressure washing, disguising unsightly but necessary items using paint or other means of hiding them (air conditioning units, for example).
“The idea is we try to do something that will make a big difference without a lot of money,” Sylvester said.
Hooper said she hopes to see street lighting installed. And awnings, she added, to protect customers from rain. Eventually, Black Rock would like to open an entrance into the store on back street instead of just having one on Main Street.
That would mean hiring an additional employee, however, and the store needs to see more traffic and business via back street before doing that, Hooper said.
Neglect has its advantages. At least it does if you are talking about preservation.
On back street in Sylva — the proper name is Mill Street, but few use that term — many of the buildings still bear the names of the businesses once operated in them, circa 1920 or so.
That includes a former hotel, “The Paris,” which once occupied the building now housing the Tuckaseigee Trader. Owner Steven Lott said if the Downtown Sylva Association is, as reported, in search of ideas on how to dress up this area of town, he believes it would be — his words — “really cool” to bring back that 1920s-era feeling.
“If you stand back at the railroad tracks and look, there is a lot of history,” Lott said.
Railroad tracks run through Sylva, setting something of a permanent boundary on one side of back street. The tracks restrict parking to limited slots in front of the stores, mainly, and in a public parking lot on the other side of the tracks.
In recent years, back street has seen something of a return to its heydays. There are few vacancies, several thriving businesses, and still more doing OK and attempting to ride out these sour economic times.
Renovation work has taken place, cleanups have been done, and the street scene is generally much less grim than it was 15 or so years ago. But more still begs addressing, said Julie Sylvester, head of the Downtown Sylva Association. And with any luck, a state grant might just cover the costs.
The Downtown Sylva Association is a membership organization dedicated to bettering the lives of business owners in downtown Sylva. It is tasked with helping businesses thrive and prosper.
Details of what exactly to apply for are sketchy. The money is available through the state’s Main Street program, of which the Downtown Sylva Association is a part. Last year, the Main Street Solutions Fund boasted a coffer of $1.95 million. The fund is intended to support small businesses in three ways:
• Providing direct financial benefit.
• Retaining and creating jobs.
• Spurring private investment.
Certainly sounds like a good match with back street and its many needs, Sylvester said. She believes it might be helpful to move some of the unattractive air conditioners off the fronts (or is it the backs?) of the buildings onto the roofs. This would require, of course, buy-in from the building owners involved. Also, maybe get rid of — or hide, or otherwise disguise — some of the unsightly cables and wires dangling from buildings and utility poles. And what about pressure washing the buildings, or putting awnings up? An overall facelift sounds good, Sylvester said in conclusion.
Great ideas all, Lott said, sounding enthusiastic via his cell phone one day this week while he drove toward Cullowhee. The air conditioner that cools his business is located directly over the store’s entrance. When it rains, customers get doused going in and going out, he said, throwing his support behind the possible removal of the units onto the roofs of back street’s buildings.
The Downtown Sylva Association will be gathering ideas for the next few weeks. The actual deadline for the grant money hasn’t been announced. But, once it is, Sylvester said the grant would have to be written and submitted quickly. She envisions forming a committee soon to work on the proposal.
Canton may be looking toward a new era of revitalization, thanks to a grant from the North Carolina Rural Center. The town was awarded $25,000 earlier this fall for the Step Up Canton program, which will formulate strategies for economic growth and development.