Grant-funded projects come to a close in Canton
As the year comes to a close, so are several grant-funded economic development projects in Canton.
In 2010, the town joined the N.C. Rural Center’s Small Town Economic Prosperity program to find ways to grow the local economy with an emphasis on the downtown business district. With a year and a half of work and $100,000 in grant money behind them, Canton's NC Step team has completed a variety of projects that they hope have created a better, more attractive town.
The grant money, which was awarded to the town in 2010, came in two phases — planning and implementation. During the first phase, the town was given $25,000 to come up with ideas for how the grant money would be used. A group of about 20 people from business owners to interested community members came together to form the team that worked on the planning phase for the next year and a half.
"We had to prove that we had the ability to put projects together to be eligible for the $100,000 in implementation money," said Jason Burrell, the town's assistant manager, who will assume the interim manager position Jan. 1, 2014.
With the planning funds, the group was able to host a kickoff event to tell the community about the project and send NC STEP committee members to training and forums at the rural center. There was nearly $18,000 left over from the planning funds, so the team was able to complete an environmental impact study regarding adding two additional ball fields at the International Sports Complex.
"The town would have had to foot the bill for that otherwise," Burrell said.
After the planning phase was complete, the town was approved for the $100,000 to set those plans in motion beginning in June 2012.
"That is where the legwork really began because we had thought up the projects and then it was a matter of actually making them happen," Burrell said.
The group decided to break the money into three categories setting aside $50,000 for marketing, $35,000 for building and district improvements and $15,000 for business support.
When it came to marketing, the first and biggest goal was to update and restructure the town's website.
"The website the town had was outdated an kind of archaic. What they wanted was a website that would engage people and portray Canton in a more clear and concise way," Burrell said.
A large chunk of the marketing money, $28,500, was spent on the website design and development including hosting costs by Top Floor Studios in Asheville. Part of the reason for using the grant money was so that the town could use top notch professional services that they would not have afforded otherwise. The result was a much more effective website including a picture slideshow, business directory and news and events page. They also hired a professional photographer to take stock photos of the town for the website and other marketing areas.
The team worked closely with the town appearance committee to purchase seasonal flags to place downtown and replace four outdated welcome signs.
"We were trying to dress up the community and make the town look more inviting for people passing through," Burrell said.
They also used money to bring Canton’s presence to television screens across the region featuring the Canton Armory, Colonial Theatre, Rough Creek Watershed and the International Sports Complex on WLOS’ Road Tripping series.
In addition, print and digital maps were made of the Rough Creek Watershed trail system, which covers nearly 10 miles of hiking and biking area. The goal was to market the trails for tourists.
"We wanted to make it to where somebody in the eastern part of the state could find out about the trail system so if they come here to hike they can just plug it into the GPS on their phones. It's marketing to a specific niche of people that are into that type of recreation activity," Burrell said.
NC Step purchased the town a membership to an online database that tracks retailers who are searching for property to lease or purchase in a particular area.
"This provides us an inside look at companies interested in locating a new business or expanding in a particular state or region and also provides demographic data relevant to what they are looking for," Burrell said. "This database will be a resource at the staff's disposal to use in the future as they court businesses."
When it comes to building and district improvements, NC STEP set aside money to offer downtown building and business owners who wished to improve the aesthetic of the interior and exterior of their buildings. A handful of businesses took advantage of the offer, which gave them a 50 percent matching grant up to $5,000.
Because of the facade grant, two downtown buildings that have long been empty will be renovated and made new. Randy Burrell, a longtime Canton resident, will be making more than $100,000 worth of improvements on the first floor of his building at 108 Main Street with $10,000 coming from NC STEP. His hope is to open a restaurant/cafe, Jason Burrell said.
In addition, engineering company Reece, Noland & McElrath, Inc. will soon be moving from Waynesville and setting up shop at 94 Main Street bringing with it 10 to 20 new jobs.
"These are two buildings that have been vacant for years," Burrell said. "These are two buildings and soon to be ‘businesses’ that I feel Canton NCSTEP’s efforts can be seen as a positive direction for our business community."
Money also went toward supporting existing businesses by developing marketing videos for stores for use online. They are also jumping on the quilt square bandwagon, purchasing five quilt square blocks for placement at Polly's Florist, Sid's On Main, Champion Credit Union,
He believes the money has been used carefully and wisely according to the original goal, and he expects the payoff to last.
"As Canton NCSTEP wraps up, the impact will still be felt long into the future. The efforts of citizens that participated in the program and the relationships that were formed with local, county and regional partnerships will long live and continue to be an asset to the town," he said.