Six candidates, all Canton natives, are running to fill four open seats on the Canton town board. None of the current aldermen are running for reelection, meaning the town, with the exception of the mayor, will have a completely new set of leaders. It will also need a new town manager.
Current Town Manager Al Matthews announced his retirement earlier this year, and in January, the current Canton board started searching for his replacement. However, the town board only has a couple meetings left before the as-yet-unelected aldermen take over and doesn’t seem any closer to picking a new town manager than it was in January when the search first began.
The prospect of choosing a new town manager doesn’t faze the candidates, however.
“I don’t feel concerned about it in any way,” said Carole Edwards, 57, who works at the Haywood County Department of Social Services. “I really don’t think it would be a bad thing for us to interview and hire a town manager as a board.”
Edwards added that she would like someone upbeat who is also a team player.
Rather than having to work with a town manager handpicked by an outgoing board, the new town leaders could have a chance to find someone they work well with, who can help them advance their vision for Canton. Of course, they will have to get to know each other first.
“It is going to be a challenge because it’s going to be getting to know the personalities of the new members of the town council,” said Ralph Hamlett, a 62-year-old political communications professor at Brevard College. “It also allows us opportunity to think differently, to think out of the box.”
If the hiring of a new town manager is left up to the newly elected board, it could mean a delay as they get acquainted with their new jobs and then begin the search for a new administrator.
“I think that if we are going to do it, we are going to have to start the process over,” Zeb Smathers, a 30-year-old Canton lawyer. “Fresh eyes require fresh resumes.”
In the meantime, the new board would need to name an interim since Matthews is officially retiring Dec. 31.
The perennial problems for Canton have always been how to grow its economy and update its infrastructure. This election is no different. Both items stood out on the each candidate’s to-do list.
Canton faces many of the same problems that other towns do in terms of infrastructure, Phil Smathers said.
“Our sidewalks are really getting into bad disrepair; streets need to be repaved,” said Phil Smathers.
He applauded the recent expansion of the Champion Drive sewer system, which could attract new businesses, but said leaders cannot forget about Main Street.
“We are certainly looking for more business there, but at the same time, we need to revitalize downtown,” Phil Smathers said.
However, some businesses are still weary of investing in improvements since the recession. The town could look for grant funds from the state or federal government to help with downtown revitalization and infrastructure projects.
“I think we need to think outside the box,” Mull said. “We are not blessed with unlimited capital, so I think we will have to try alternate routes for funding.”
The town could also entice new business with incentives, Edwards said.
“The first thing we have to do is look at what opportunities we have to assist businesses,” she said.
Edwards added that recreation options, such as a new pool and more ball fields, could draw more visitors.
Bringing new businesses into town would allow Canton to increase its tax revenue by expanding its base rather than raising taxes. The additional money could then be invested back in the town, Hamlett said.
“People in our town are taxed to the max,” he said. “What we don’t want to do, or shouldn’t want to do, is place the burden on the taxpayers for those things that we want to do.”
However, businesses aren’t going to come to Canton leaders begging to move into town. Canton officials will have to make a concerted effort to attract new businesses.
“This would require rolling up our sleeves,” Hamlett said.
Canton officials also need to work more with other towns and the county to attract businesses and tourists, said Zeb Smathers.
“What is good for Canton is good for Waynesville is good for Maggie [Valley],” said Zeb Smathers.
One change he proposed is dedicating one employee to market the Canton baseball fields and the Colonial Theatre. Right now, there is no one whose sole duty is to book events.
Roy Taylor disagreed with Zeb Smathers assessment that the town needs someone specifically to market venues, but he agreed that Canton needs to use the ball fields to their full potential.
“It could be a moneymaker for the town of Canton, but it’s not,” Taylor said. “I know they have a lot of baseball tournaments out there.”
The town also charges a lump sum for use of the fields when it could earn more by taking a percentage of the revenue earned from baseball tournaments.
Just as all four Canton aldermen are exiting office, causing a complete turnover of the board, voters must choose whether to allow for that possibility again. In addition to voting in the municipal elections, Canton residents will decide whether the board should switch to staggered terms.
Currently, all the aldermen are up for election every two years. With four-year staggered terms, the top two vote-getters in the November election would serve four years on the board. The other two elected aldermen would serve two years before facing reelection, thereby setting up a system where only two of the aldermen are up for election every four years. It would also ensure that board doesn’t lose its institutional knowledge all at once, as is happening this year.
“I would not want that to happen to Canton again where we lose all the knowledge of the previous years,” said Phil Smathers.
Hamlett also felt that another complete turnover of the town board should be avoided in the future, and staggered terms is the way to do that.
“We have four new members coming on the board, and it’s going to be a learning curve for all of us,” Hamlett said. “I think staggered terns would eliminate the problem.”
Every other town board in Haywood County operates on a four-year, staggered term system. The current board of aldermen has pushed for staggered terms. Ironically, they are all leaving the board this year.
“If it was such an important issue for the town of Canton, why are all four of them leaving?” Taylor said.
Edwards, Mull and Zeb Smathers each said they didn’t know if they would for or against a switch to staggered terms.
“If the people in the town vote for that, then I think it’s a good idea,” Edwards said.
Carole Edwards, 57, DSS community resources supervisor
“(Canton) has declined so much that it’s almost like it’s going to disappear. … None of that has been addressed in the last four years, and it needs to be.”
Ralph Hamlett, 62, Brevard College professor
The political communications professor would like to apply his knowledge to help his hometown. “I am a part of Canton and always had been.”
Gail Mull, 65, retired Evergreen Packaging employee
“I thought maybe I could make a difference. I know that sounds naive and idealistic, but I feel like that is everybody’s plan.”
Phil Smathers, 66, retired Canton employee
Smathers has run for office before and saw a need to run again when none of the current aldermen signed up for the election. “That is not a good thing for Canton, so I went ahead and applied.”
Zeb Smathers, 30, lawyer at Smathers and Smathers
Community members asked Smathers to run and he wants “to try to bring a fresh voice and eyes” to the board.
Roy Taylor, 67, retired Department of Motor Vehicles investigator
“I feel like that we need economic development. It appears to me that it is always put on the back burner.”