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Leaders pledge to support Canton

On April 6, Mayor Zeb Smathers welcomed local and state leaders to Canton. They met at Pisgah High School, which sits on a hill overlooking the paper mill that is closing. Smoke, for now, still billows out of the stacks.

“Leaders, men and women, Democrats and Republicans, from Washington to Raleigh,” said Smathers, are working with the town to provide “help, support, and love for the millworkers, families, their children, not just now, not just two months from now, but as we find our way.”

One of the leaders in attendance was Gov. Roy Cooper.

Smathers said Cooper called him shortly after the news broke that the mill was closing. Cooper’s first question was, Smathers said, “How are your people?”

“That matters,” said Smathers. “Leadership matters.”

Cooper was welcomed to the school by students and school leaders.

Superintendent Trevor Putnam

Smathers shared a story of being at a career day with students. Students wore nametags, he said, that identified what they want to be when they grow up. He met a student whose father, Smathers said, had lost his job, but “millworker” was listed on the student’s nametag.

“As long as we have people like that young man that through all of this — the pandemic, floods, watching their dad lose their job — they want to be here and be a millworker, that is our job, that is our calling. To build again this hometown of tomorrow that allows him and so many others to continue to call this school system, these churches, these ball fields, their friends, home,” Smathers said. “Never underestimate the power of calling somewhere home.”

On March 6, Pactiv Evergreen announced plans to shut down the paper mill in Canton. The first layoffs will occur on June 9.

“This closure will have a devastating impact on the thousands of people who have depended on wages and business from the Canton Paper Mill,” Cooper said. “We are going to mobilize local, state, federal, businesses, nonprofits. We are going to have an all-of-government approach to recovery for this area.”

Cooper said skill retraining and small business development through the community college will be important. “We have a lot of investment ready to get people retrained to do whatever it is we could bring here. That’s the beauty of our community colleges,” he said.

“The heart of Haywood County and western North Carolina is strong. And it is a lot bigger than one paper mill,” Cooper exclaimed.

“I didn’t get a call from this company. I didn’t know they were going,” said Cooper. “They just left. We need to hold them accountable.”

On March 16, Cooper sent a letter to the CEO of Pactiv Evergreen about the return of state economic incentives that were given to the Canton mill. The governor’s letter urges the Pactiv Evergreen CEO to explore all options to keep the mill open or find a buyer. It also said that closing the plant would be a “clear breach” of a $12 million economic development agreement with the Department of Commerce. The breach would require full repayment of that money that was paid to Pactiv Evergreen from 2015-2021.

Cooper said he has still only heard from lawyers of the company. “We want that money to go to this area,” said the governor. “We are all in on recovery for Canton, Haywood County, and western North Carolina.”

The governor also met with mill workers at the United Steelworkers Smoky Mountain Local 507 Union Hall and rail workers and suppliers at the Blue Ridge Southern Railroad Depot, according to the press release.

Earlier last week, the governor launched a page on his website to share information and resources for people in western North Carolina who are looking for jobs, news about the closure, mental health resources, and more.

Governor Cooper’s proposed budget and the House’s proposed budget includes $5 million in funding for economic relief for the town of Canton.

As the town copes with ripple effects of the mill closing, there is something people from across North Carolina can do. “Come to Canton,” said Smathers. “We need you to support local now more than ever.”

Spread the word around, echoed the governor: “Come to Canton. Come to Haywood County.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.