Several candidates have made downtown revitalization the central tenet of their campaign and consider it the one of the most important issues on the town’s agenda. They include Gene Monson, Carole Edwards, and Kenneth Holland.
“When I was growing up, it was a booming, prosperous little town. We have seen that go away. The downtown has kind of dried up,” Holland said.
Holland wants to see a downtown revitalized to look more like the town he once knew. And who wouldn’t?
“All the buildings were full,” Edwards said. “You had drugstores and you had clothing stores. We had a Belk’s on the corner. We had a jewelry store. You could buy a pair of shoes. We had all the things in our town that you would need.”
Canton is not alone in its plight. Small towns across America saw business sucked from their downtowns by strip malls and big-box stores as auto-centric suburban sprawl became the new way of life.
But Edwards thinks there’s hope.
“I really feel like we can bring this town back to life. I know other communities have done it,” Edwards said. “We shouldn’t sit there and say ‘We can’t do this.’ There is always an option out there.”
But others aren’t as optimistic. Several of the old anchor buildings are in the hands of owners who aren’t investing in their upkeep. Charlie Crawford, another candidate, questioned if the town could force the owners to do something with their buildings.
“People have a right to do with their property what they want to do,” Crawford said.
Crawford said the town has tried to create a nurturing atmosphere for revitalization. Crawford pointed to streetscape projects pursued during his tenure, which vastly improved the downtown appearance by burying power lines, installing historic lampposts and beautifying sidewalks and the public realm.
“I think the town has done about all it can do to help the building owners,” Crawford said.
The downtown proponents advocate cracking down on these building owners, however.
“Citizen after citizen after citizen appeals to the board of aldermen about the appearance of downtown. I hear the town say there is nothing we can do. I disagree. There is,” Monson said. “People sit here and say ‘As a property owner you own this and own that.’ But you don’t own it — you are simply a steward of that property.”
The downtown district has been recognized as a National Historic District and the town has a historic preservation committee to oversee it. Monson said the historic status provides a mechanism to compel building owners to take responsibility.
Holland agrees the town needs to more stringently enforce appearance codes for downtown buildings.
Alderman Eric Dills agrees as well.
“We need to require the building owners, most of whom do not live in Canton, to maintain their buildings to an acceptable standard,” Dills said.
Holland said the downtown needs an active merchants’ association to “get everyone pulling together.”
Candidate Jimmy Flynn would like to see a business organization take root in Canton, but said it shouldn’t be limited to the downtown area.
“I hate to think of downtown as an entity in itself,” said Flynn. “I feel like business in Canton is business in Canton, be downtown or anywhere else. I think we are too small a town to identify one little area to be economic development. It needs to be in any area that will accommodate business growth.”
“You can’t just focus on the downtown. You have to focus on the entire town,” candidate Ed Underwood said.