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Canton without the mill: Looking forward at Rep. Edwards town hall

 Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, Congressman Chuck Edwards and Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant spoke during a town hall at Pisgah High School.
Lilly Knoepp
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, Congressman Chuck Edwards and Kannapolis Mayor D Hinnant spoke during a town hall at Pisgah High School.

Rep. Chuck Edwards told the crowd gathered at Pisgah High School for a “Canton Strong” town hall to look forward to what the future might look like without the Canton paper mill.

“I was raised in one of these little mill houses right across the hill from what we call the Champion plant,” Edwards said. “I love this community, it’s beautiful, it’s spectacular. I’m in love with it and I just get chills every time I come back.”

Pactiv Evergreen announced the closure of the over 100-year-old papermill in March. When the mill closes on June 9, nearly 1000 people will lose their jobs.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers has called the move a betrayal and a gut punch to the people of Canton.

“This is a death in the family. We are working our way through every part of it. The first part was when we heard that last whistle last Wednesday. The last steam and smoke faded away today,” Smathers said.

Rep. Mark Pless (center) led a prayer at start the meeting.
Lilly Knoepp
Rep. Mark Pless (center) led a prayer at start the meeting.

On Thursday night, Smathers welcomed Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant to share how the Eastern North Carolina town rebounded after textile mill Pillowtex closed in 2003 cutting more than 4,000 jobs. Hinnant, who has served as mayor since 2013, said he joined City Council to help set up a new water system in 2001.

“The reason that I sit in my chair today is that when people were sitting there with tears dropping off their chin, telling me all of the problems that they had: they couldn’t make their mortgage, they couldn’t get their medicines or whatever it happened to be it wasn’t about drilling wells or putting in pipes anymore it was about solving people's problems,” Hinnant said.

Smathers asked Hinnant for nuts-and-bolts advice about how to move the town forward ranging from taxes and federal funding to updating the town’s water and sewer as well as getting new jobs and training for former mill workers.

Hinnant explained the efforts were a full court press of public and private funding as well as help from the local community college, hospitals and more.

“When we first started bringing new businesses into our community people said you are just going to take our jobs and give them to get people who are moving into the community,” he said. “Now they don’t say that anymore because they realize there are jobs for everybody. You have to sell this idea to your community that you need to collaborate.”
Hinnant encouraged the people of Canton to be bold as they look toward the future.

“What you do about that mill is going to be a very bold decision that you are going to have to make,” Hinnant said.

“I don’t know the paper mill industry as much as I know the textile mill but the chances are that once a mill shuts down but most of the time they don’t come back,” he said.

Kannapolis’ downtown is just 25 miles from the center of Charlotte. That’s about the same as the 19 miles that separate Canton’s downtown from Asheville’s. Smathers asked Hinnant how the town was able to keep its identity.

Almost a hundred people turned out for the event. Most raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who worked at the mill.
Lilly Knoepp
Almost a hundred people turned out for the event. Most raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who worked at the mill.

“I am fine with being west of Asheville. I just don’t want to become West Asheville,” Smathers said.

“You don’t to lose your uniqueness in order to be successful,” Hinnant responded. “In fact, just the opposite.”

Twenty years after the mill closure, Hinnant says that Kannapolis is still working to improve and recover.

He said after the textile mill closed, 70 people took their own lives.

“It was really considered a real weakness in the past that if you had a mental health problem you ought to just tighten up. You could just do better than that,” Hinnant said.

He also considered the impact of those 70 people lost on their families and communities.

“That is still a part of our community and we have established a countywide mental health taskforce,” Hinnant said.

A Carolina problem

Edwards said that he is working with federal departments to bring assistance to Canton including a $4.8 million dollar request for wastewater, $4 million for Haywood Community College workforce development, and a $7.7 million dollar dislocated worker grant. He said he is confident that the community will be awarded a $1 million broadband grant.

“None of those by themselves will be the total answer but all of those fit into part of the solution,” Edwards said adding that these are just some of the things that he is working on.

During the Q&A portion of the town hall, Edwards was asked why Rep. Caleb Rudow (D-116) was hostinga town hall about the mill closurejust up the road at the Enka-Candler Public Library in Candler, NC at the same time. 

“The report that I’m looking at says that 92 percent of all of the impact of jobs and revenue is coming from Haywood County none of it from Buncombe County. While I respectfully appreciate that a House member from Buncombe County is willing to have some conversations to see how they can help us over here in Haywood County. I’d suggest that the best thing that Buncombe County can do to help Haywood County is to fix Buncombe County,” Edwards said.

Some in the crowd cheered as Edwards continued but others had questions.

Haywood County native Charles King said he worked for more than 40 years at the mill attended the event.

“I live in Buncombe County – right on the county line. I wasn’t going to say anything, but I think any help regionally that we can get, we need,” King said.

King explained that there are workers at the Waynesville branch of the mill that have been impacted by the closure such as the Blue Ridge Southern Rail Company, local chip mills across the region and others.

“It’s not just Canton. It’s regional,” King said.

Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers echoed this sentiment.

“This isn’t a Canton problem... This is a Carolina problem,” Smathers said.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.