Canton gains ground as mill’s dominance recedes

Things are changing in Canton. That in itself is somewhat newsworthy.

That’s not meant as a rub. The truth is the town of Canton has been defined by its paper mill for 100 years. Its leaders, its civic organizations and even its commercial activity revolved around the mill and its employees. It proudly calls itself Papertown, though many are anxious to see what role the mill’s new owners from New Zealand will take in community affairs.

In recent years, however, other influences are gaining more influence, including a demographic change that some say is transforming the east Haywood County mill town.

Want evidence of change? Look no further than the election last month. Three long-time aldermen were swept out of office. Some say a tax hike was the cause, but even the fact of that tax hike points to changes. The paper mill was devalued, further evidence of its lessening influence. That meant the town had to hike taxes to get the same amount of money.

When your only industry is losing tax value and slowly reducing its aging workforce, things should be looking bad for a town, right?

Wrong. Yes, the mill’s workforce is old. As many as 500 of its employees, according to a company statement in 2006, are expected to retire by 2011. That could lead to an influx of younger workers who will bring young families with them, and who will also reduce the mill’s payroll and perhaps help it survive.

Those two facts — a new town board and a younger workforce — will be dealt with by a new town administrator. Long-time Town Manager Bill Stamey retired last week, ending the 39-year tenure of one of the state’s longest serving managers. He will be missed, but it’s also another factor in what promises to be a new energy building in Canton.

One of Canton’s most interesting characteristics is the hundreds of unique, well-built homes that were constructed in the era between the 1920s and the 1960s. These houses were built for the paper mill employees, but they far surpass the architectural quality associated with most mill towns. These homes are being snapped up young couples and singles who can’t afford prices in Waynesville or Asheville. Realtor Mieko Thomson echoed that reality: “If you’re talking about Canton, it’s more younger couples than older people” buying homes, she said.

Recent Census Bureau statistics reveal that more people leave Canton each day to commute to work in Asheville than commute to Waynesville and Maggie Valley combined. The town’s small-town feel, its recreational amenities and its affordable homes are attractive to many potential homeowners. Although it’s own character will prevent it from ever becoming just a bedroom community for Asheville, that ripple effect will pay benefits to the town in the coming years.

Mayor Pat Smathers can also tick off a list of new businesses who have opened shop in the last couple of years. The town recently joined the state’s Main Street program — a downtown revitalization organization — and elected officials are considering hiring their own economic developer.

The future of the paper mill is out of the hands of local people, but Canton will be fine no matter what happens there. It’s no longer a one-horse town totally dependent on its paper mill. It’s found a niche and is on a roll since the floods of 2004, something that is good for the entire region.

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