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Wednesday, 28 January 2009 16:21

Canton mayor looks to state for help with business venture

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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.

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