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Forum aims to create new vision for Canton

fr cantonforumWhen Heidi Dunkelberg first entered the town of Canton, she couldn’t imagine ever living there.


“When I came here to play basketball against y’all in the 1970s, our bus seats were slashed and we needed a police escort out of the county,” she said. “It was a rough game.”

Co-owner of the Coffee Cup Café in Clyde, Dunkelberg avoided Haywood County for many years after graduating high school. Eventually, she found herself at a crossroads. She couldn’t find an affordable home in Buncombe County, with Haywood seemingly the only option. Then, her dream house popped up, but with one problem — it was right outside of Canton, in Beaverdam.

“I’ll tell you, as soon as we drove up that gravel driveway, before we even got inside the house, we knew we were home,” she smiled. “Now, 18 years later, I care deeply about this county and the town of Canton. This is my home.”

Dunkelberg’s story was just one of many told in front of the Canton town board at a public forum held Jan. 18 at the Colonial Theatre. The open floor was given to the community in an effort for the aldermen to hear the public’s comments on what they love about their community, what needs to change, and what to look for when heading into their current hiring process of a new town manager.


The next step

The hiring process for the new town manager began a year ago, when former town manager Al Matthews put in his notice that he would retire at the end of 2013. The town board had been able to weed through applicants and reach a final cut of potentials, only to reopen the search last August.

“The town of Canton doesn’t stop between our corporate signs,” said Mayor Mike Ray at the public forum. “We all have the same zip code, and we all would like to make our town better, better in the way it should be.”

The current search has attracted more than 80 applicants. That massive pool of candidates ultimately provoked the forum, where local residents could air their opinions and voice their concerns about the future of their town.

“With your input and thoughts, we can sit down with our thoughts and know who and what is the best for our town,” Ray said.

A former town board member and former president of the Canton Downtown Merchants Association, Juanita Dixon approached the microphone and spoke of her past experience in being involved deeply in the community. The most important thing, she said, would be to make sure there was complete transparency between the current board and new manager.

“The board sets the policies and the town manager carries them out. I would ask this board to sit down with the town manager to talk about things and don’t let it get into any dissension,” she said. “[Canton] is not going to be anymore like it was, we know that, but this is a good town. We have good people here and we can all work together.”


Town pride

Throughout the forum, numerous faces emerged from the crowd, each with a fond tale of the past, each with a hopeful vision for a once storied town. The past is the past, many felt, but all could still see the potential of their beloved community.

“My father worked here for 47 years,” said resident Pam Ledford. “I was raised in this mill town, and I’ve smelled every smell in this mill town. It’s a smell, but it’s also employment for our town’s past and its future. If the new town manager has pride, they will pass it down.”

“First and foremost the manager needs a vision, a heart and care for this town like the people sitting in this room,” added Deborah Reed, president of the focus group for the ‘Mater Festival. “That someone needs to also be creative, needs to network, and find other ways to get resources and grants.”

Canton resident and member of the Friends of Camp Hope, Tracy O’Neil came forth with optimism about the work being done at the camp and the avenues that could be explored with the town-owned property. He also pointed out the importance of seeing the promise of any and all business that may approach the town for possible development.

“You need to form an alliance with the town manager and pick a leader that can see our advantages with the Interstate 40 corridor,” O’Neil said. “Open your mind or at least open yourself to talking to folks that want to bring business here.”

Bringing the forum to a close, the town board members felt the meeting has been beneficial for both sides of the microphone. They mentioned perhaps more forums in the future, all in an effort to keep the lines of communication open between town officials and its residents. 

For now, the search is still on for a new manager. The board will take the public comments and soon dive into the pool of applicants.

“I’m a product of Canton, everyone of this board is a product of Canton, and everyone of you out there is a product of Canton,” said alderman Zeb Smathers. “We are here on a Saturday afternoon because we care. We have to be out there. We have to acknowledge the past, appreciate it, but also build towards the future.”

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