Coming of age in a decaying milltown is a common American recipe for brain drain. While growing up in Canton, Zeb Smathers anxiously watched his community struggle with the fallout from globalization.
The mountain town’s blue collar spirit was under threat. His grandfather’s grocery store went out of business and the town’s paper mill changed hands and downsized. Smathers left. He came from a well-to-do family and was able to attend Duke University then head to Chapel Hill for law school.
Studying in the Triangle during the early 2000s, Smathers wondered if his hometown could follow Durham and Fuquay-Varina and recover from total factory-dependence to develop a diversified economy.
So he returned to the mountains and, soon after, followed in his father’s footsteps as mayor.
In leadership, Smathers celebrates the grit of the milltown — the paper factory stubbornly remains open — while developing a burgeoning bedroom community to Asheville, only 25 minutes away. Now with mass unemployment threatening that progress, along with the added responsibilities of a newborn at home, Smathers acknowledges that the job is not getting any easier.
Host Anita Rao follows Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers down memory lane to think about the prospects for post-pandemic sustainable development.