Newcomers step up to lead Canton
There are changes ahead in Canton as a set of fresh new faces vies for their place as new town leaders.
All four of Canton’s aldermen are stepping down from their posts come November, leaving Mayor Mike Ray as the only incumbent in the election. He is running for re-election uncontested.
Each of the aldermen cited their own reasons for the sudden departure.
For Patrick Willis, 32-year-old first-time alderman, the decision to not run came down to timing.
“At this point in my life, career and family, I think it's best I step away from serving. I've enjoyed my time on the board, and I can't rule out running again at some point in the future,” he said.
He came into the race in 2011 as a fresh, young face with intentions to update the town website and improve economic development.
“I think we've done a good job of continuing to be good stewards of taxpayers' dollars. We've done everything we can to keep costs down while not losing any of the services or employees (due to layoff). I'm proud of our defense of Camp Hope so far, and I hope the case continues to favor us in the courts. I am also glad to see us have a more attractive web presence for the town,” he said.
Working part-time for two local pharmacies, Alderman Kenneth Holland said, “It just came down to a matter of having time to devote to it.”
“The fact that everyone decided to step down at one time was just a big coincidence,” he said.
Alderman Ed Underwood said he decided against running for a third term because he felt it was time to take a break.
"I've enjoyed serving the town and I appreciate the people who elected me and then re-elected me. I promised the people I'd give them 100 percent and I feel like I did that for those four years," he said.
For two-term alderman Jimmy Flynn, stepping away from the board he's served on for the past two terms is simply a way to have time to enjoy other things in life.
“I had accomplished some goals that originally started out four years ago, and I’ve been doing something connected to the town of Canton for the last 44 years and decided it was time to take a break,” he said.
From the beginning of his first term in 2009, he said the board set forth goals to accomplish.
“One of them was the new upgraded sewer line up Buckeye Cove without borrowing and money, and we did that without borrowing a nickel,” he said. “That allowed us to work with the county and private business and hospital to get an urgent care built in Canton and open up that whole valley for future growth.”
Both Flynn and Underwood pointed toward buying a new fire truck “that was long overdue,” without raising the town’s debt. They both also mentioned extensive street and sidewalk repairs as well as improvements at the International Sports Complex as accomplishments.
Flynn and Underwood have been the most vocal of the board members, especially in times when the board and mayor were at odds over some issues in meetings.
Flynn stressed that the mass exodus was not a group decision.
“I cannot speak for anyone else. I did not know whether they were going to run or not — it was not discussed. I simply made my decision and didn’t talk to anyone else about it,” he said.
The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce recently held a meet and greet for the six candidates vying for the four open alderman seats in November. Each candidate was given two minutes to talk about themselves and their goals if they are elected town leaders.
Carole Edwards said she’d like to see more businesses in downtown Canton and more recreation opportunities for young people. She also intends to strongly support town employees.
“We really are what small town life is all about,” she said.
Edwards has worked for several years in social services but has never held public office.
Ralph Hamlett was born and raised in Canton, and his father James was the police chief for nine years. He said he feels he owes a debt to the town that made him who he is today.
“I feel I need to give back to our town for what she has given to me and my family,” he said.
He hopes to revitalize downtown, among other things, to make Canton a place where young people will want to remain and raise their own children.
Gail Mull joked that she is “the most unlikely politician that ever came down the pipe. I’m a cross between Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller before the plastic surgery.”
Though she was full of off-the-cuff jokes that morning, she made it clear that the best interest of the town is at her heart. A Canton native and retired from 30 years as a secretary at the paper mill, she knows the town well.
She said the town is “at a critical period” and has had some problems, but “I don’t think it’s irreversible.”
She’s going into the alderman race without a specific platform and without making any promises.
“I just want to leave the town better than where I found it,” she said.
Phil Smathers spoke of his extensive background working with the town for the past 36 years as fire chief, assistant public works director and chief building inspector.
“I’m familiar with every town project the town has had in the past 35 years,” he said.
Zeb Smathers, a lawyer at Smathers and Smathers, said if elected as alderman, he would like to create a position at the town hall for a full-time marketing and events coordinator.
“We can’t expect the fish to jump in our arms anymore — we have to fish with dynamite,” he said.
He said booking more tournaments and other events at the Canton ball fields will be another goal and that he will support an extra 2 percent room tax to be collected by accommodation owners if the issue arises again.
Roy Taylor feels that “Canton has taken a step back,” as far as progress is concerned. While working as a part-time police officer, he said he knows from the inside that there are better ways the town could conduct business.
Many of the current aldermen agree that the fate of the swimming pool and the continuing battle for Camp Hope will be some of the main issues the new board will need to address.
Underwood said he hopes the new board listens to constituents before making a decision about the pool and that they will earnestly search for grants and private funding to pay for a new one.
Flynn said he hopes the board considers building a smaller water park instead of a large pool.
When it comes to Camp Hope, Flynn said the new board will have to figure out “what’s required to keep Camp Hope without breaking the town.”
Holland said economic development in downtown by attracting new businesses should be a priority for the new board as well.
“They also need to deal with more development out on Champion Drive. It’s about the only way the town can grow right now,” he said.
More than anything, Flynn said the new board should always keep the people of Canton in mind with every decision.
“I hope the new board will put the tax payers of Canton and its employees as their top priority,” he said.
Mayor Mike Ray seems optimistic about working with a new board, all of whom will be new to town government.
"I am excited about the six candidates who have stepped forward to mold the future of our town and community," he said. "We are faced with many challenges and changes concerning Canton. When one holds a true desire to see our hometown grow and progress, I see a bright future for Canton and for the place that we each love and call our home."
As election time approaches, The Mountaineer will provide more information about Canton alderman candidates and their platforms.