In May, one North Carolina town lost the mill that fueled its economy. We found a surprising thing when we returned three months after the Canton paper mill closing. People are optimistic.
It’s been three months since Pactiv Evergreen closed the Canton Paper Mill.
On May 24, the whistle blew for the final time at the mill, which served as the heart of this small mountain town in Haywood County for 115 years. When the mill closed, nearly 1,100 workers lost their jobs.
We know North Carolina. Sign up for our free, award-winning newsletter.
Despite the very real challenges that Canton faces in the coming months and years, it was clear during a mid-August visit to the town that residents are optimistic about their future, and whatever obstacles they may face, they will face together as a united community.
Tammy Milner Henry owns Maddie’s on Main, a boutique downtown where individual sellers can rent booths and sell an assortment of items from paintings to home goods. She said there has been an outpouring of support for the town from both local residents and people from out of town in light of the mill closure.
“I see people being very intentional in making sure we know they’re supportive,” Henry said.
‘It’s going to be ok.’
Henry says that she’s spoken with other business owners in town, many of whom feel hopeful about the future of the town. “In my gut I feel like it’s going to be okay,” she said.
At Papertown Coffee, workers indicated that business was doing well, despite the closure of the mill. Jana Sanders, who opened Canton Nutrition on Main Street last year, echoed this optimism. “I’m hopeful. Since the mill closed, people have really come together,” Sanders said.
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers is also hopeful about the town’s next chapter. “We have a future. What that future is, and when it arrives, is to be determined.”
In the immediate moment though, the town faces difficult decisions to fill the void that the closure of the mill has created. Smathers says that the town will likely be faced with a $3 million budget shortfall next year. For a larger city, this would be a manageable deficit. However, for a town of just under 4,500 residents, it poses a serious challenge.
State Rep. Lindsey Prather, whose district borders Haywood County, and who counts some former mill workers as constituents, hopes the state will step in to support the community.
“People in western North Carolina for a long time have felt that we get ignored by Raleigh. I hope the attention that the mill closure has gotten stays until Canton is back on its feet,” Prather said.
The General Assembly is still negotiating next year’s state budget, and Smathers hopes that there are three key areas of support for Canton included in the budget: Economic relief for the town, wastewater treatment support, and resources for the workers who lost their jobs.
Without new funding, the economic void left by the closing of the mill could lead to the town having fewer police officers and firefighters, Smathers said.
The community could also be left without a wastewater treatment plant, unless state lawmakers provide resources. There is currently a plant on the mill site, but that plant is owned by Pactiv Evergreen and the town has no control over it.
“They control the wastewater. We have to build our new wastewater facilities. That’s approximately $35 to 37 million,” Smathers said. “We don’t have that money, and we have thousands of citizens depending on that.”
Lastly, the mayor hopes that funding will be provided to help the mill’s former workers and their families in the form of employment opportunities, job training, and mental health support.
What’s Next for Canton
What Canton receives from the state budget remains to be seen. Speaker of the North Carolina House Tim Moore told reporters earlier this month that he expects the state budget to be finalized in September.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget proposal includes $5 million of support for the town to help it recover, but his request will require approval from the Republican-dominated legislature.
Smathers said that there has been an outpouring of bipartisan support for the town and expressed gratitude for Gov. Cooper, Sen. Thom Tillis, and Congressman Chuck Edwards’ support, noting that all three have visited since the closure of the mill was announced and sought to get relief for Canton.
Furthermore, Smathers says there have been productive conversations with both Attorney General Josh Stein and Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson, the likely nominees for governor in 2024 on the Democratic and Republican tickets, respectively.
“People here want leadership, not partisanship. I lose sleep over a lot of things. Having partners on both sides of the aisle is not one of them,” Smathers said.
That dueling sense of optimism and uncertainty seems to permeate the community.
Jana Sanders said that while she is ultimately hopeful for the future, she believes that the town has not felt the full impact of the mill closure yet.
“I am hopeful for the town, but with it only being two and a half months since it completely closed down, we haven’t felt the full trickle of that yet.”
Smathers, meanwhile, expressed gratitude for the support that so many across North Carolina have shown the town. “I am constantly reminded and blessed of the support from our friends across North Carolina.”
Furthermore, Smathers hopes that the support that Canton has seen will be replicated and encourages North Carolinians to support small towns near them.
“The barbecue sauce may change, but the hopes and aspirations, and the needs and the importance of these towns, that remains constant.”