After a search that has dragged on for more than a year, the Canton Board of Alderman has finally selected a town manager.
It’s not exactly a big change. Al Matthews has served in an interim position since long-time manager Bill Stamey retired in December 2007. Before that, Matthews had served as Canton’s assistant town manager since 2000.
The board voted 3-1 on March 23 to appoint Matthews as town manager. Alderman Eric Dills dissented, expressing concern that Matthews doesn’t live inside the town limits. At that meeting, the board changed the town ordinance to permit town managers to reside outside town limits.
Dills has since made it clear that though he disagreed with the rest of the board members, he’ll respect and support Matthews.
Matthews said the fact that he lives in the Jonathan Creek area of Haywood County rather than in Canton would not affect his job performance.
“I feel it’s more of a position of dedication rather than location,” Matthews said. “I’m on call 24/7 and I doubt there are too many times that I can’t be reached anywhere I am.”
With the board’s support, Matthews says he’s ready to get down to business — or rather, continue the business he’s worked on as interim town manager.
Matthews enters his new role during a tough economic time that’s not going to allow him much flexibility when it comes to embarking on new town projects.
“We’re not going to have any extra money to play with, so we’re going to have to be extremely mindful of the budget this year,” he said.
That said, Matthews isn’t short on plans or ideas. His first step will be hiring an assistant town manager who will be in charge of economic development, working actively to recruit new businesses and helping existing ones.
Matthews says the process of hiring an assistant manager will almost certainly take a shorter amount of time than the manager search did. Matthews already has a stack of applications from the town manager search that he plans to utilize.
A top priority of Matthews has been, and will continue to be, the appearance of the town. Matthews says that’s an item important to town residents.
“A little over a year ago, we had a public forum on what the people wanted to see, and the recurring thing was the appearance of Canton,” Matthews said. “Not only downtown, but in the residential areas as well. We need to make sure citizens do a good job in keeping up their own properties.”
Town staff have already made some moves toward improving the town’s look by hauling out five dump truck loads of mulch to create flowerbeds and grassy medians.
“That’s something we can do at a reasonable price, that improves curb appeal, and makes a good first impression on our visitors,” Matthews said.
Matthews knows, though, that many other things that can improve the town’s appearance will be costly.
“We have a lot of sidewalks in desperate need of repair, and things that cost a lot of money to work toward. It won’t happen overnight,” he said.
In the long run, Matthews thinks the improved appearance of the town will help economic development, particularly in the downtown area.
“Economic development is at the forefront of this board, and appearance is one of the most important things,” he said. “We’re working on it, and want to actively work with the community to clean up the whole area and make it more appealing. Then hopefully our downtown area will continue to grow and flourish, and older buildings will be renovated and occupied.”
Matthews said the town is also looking into ways to use the many vacant parcels of land flooded by the 2004 hurricanes. The lots are located in the flood zone and for the most part can’t be rebuilt on, so the town board has had to get creative. One recent idea in the works calls for turning a lot across from the town hall that once housed Plus Laundry into an area for downtown activities and events. Another idea: converting vacant lots in residential neighborhoods into community garden spaces, which the Canton aldermen plan to discuss at their upcoming meeting.
Canton Mayor Pat Smathers says Matthews’ ideas, coupled with his experience working for the town under the former manager, make him a good fit at a time when Canton is working to redefine itself.
“He knows the old, but he’s got new ideas and a new way of doing things,” Smathers said. “I think at this time in our town, Al Matthews is the best fit. I think he’s going to be the transition figure we need.”