Stephanie Swepson-Twitty:
Bringing EMSDC to Fruition

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty came to the Eagle Market Street Development (EMSDC) project in downtown Asheville via a circuitous route. She has shepherded this project for the past 15 years and 2018 is the year of completion of the project which has this Mission Statement: Transforming individuals into Assets: Investing in Sustainable Personal, Economic and Community Development. “I’ve been enthralled, excited, rewarded. My passion is to see people elevated and empowered out of their places of oppression and disenfranchisement. Nothing gets me more aggravated than to think I’m not going to be able to do that!”

See details of the original development proposal at
www.mtnhousing.org/eagle-market-place-7/

A Bit of History

In the1960s, Asheville began implementing plans for two major projects; the Civic Redevelopment Project and the East Riverside Urban Renewal Project. (For an excellent and detailed examination of Urban Renewal and it’s impact on both downtown Asheville and the African American community, see Steven Michael Nickollof’s Master’s thesis from Western Carolina University on the subject at: libres.uncg.edu/ir/wcu/f/Nickollof2015.pdf)

Stephanie tells me that prior to that time, the Eagle Market Street area, “in its heyday, had about 50 original housing units and about 50 thriving businesses. The EMSDC project returns 62 housing units and about 20-25 businesses back to the area.

“The area is designated as the oldest thriving African American commercial district in the United States. Even in the downturn that happened with urban renewal, we still had a thriving People of Color business district in the area. One barber maintained his business; the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of Charlotte and Eagle Streets stayed in the area; the YMI, being the cultural icon it is, was also helpful in keeping that designation.

“Urban renewal displaced and relocated the majority of residents and businesses in these areas, effectively dismantling almost every African American community in Asheville.” Nickollof’s thesis states that at the time of Urban Renewal, “Southside, arguably the poorest of Asheville’s black neighborhoods, had a home ownership rate of 58%. Years later, only 44.3% of Asheville’s black residents owned their homes.”

Historically there were food stores, services, retail and historical preservation in the Eagle Market Street area. The EMSD project was born of a “great desire to re-ignite those things.”

Goals of the EMSD project

“Our overarching goal was to create a destination hub that would be equal to none. One that would entice visitors from afar to come and see how an urban infill model could work. In addition a goal was to help people of color spur small business development. Currently we represent about 2% of businesses in Asheville/Buncombe County. A lot of that is due to lack of capital and lack of opportunity. So, EMSD’s commercial property could serve as a launching pad or stepping stone to people looking for retail space downtown… the opportunity to have their businesses in a highly visible area. And, as people come to Asheville to shop we would be a cultural center/cultural experience. Also, local residents want a central area to shop for food, clothing, that sort of thing.”

Challenges abound, along with Opportunities

“The number one challenge has always been that there was fear and trepidation on the part of all parties that development might not yield a return on investment.” A suit by one fearful partner and a concrete pour that went badly “strangled us for about 16 months.”
There were positives as well as challenges: “City council and community support for the project was always there. That is what kept momentum high.” And there were, “magnificent arms around the project at any time to move it along. Mountain Housing has been a partner like none other.”

Stephanie tells me how challenges turned into opportunity: “In my culture, we often think about adversity not always being adversity but a path to opportunity. For instance, the delay with the concrete pour actually provided us with an opportunity to have the project become mixed income housing. For me personally, I am adamant this is the way we need to proceed as we move forward in society; not just this project but overall as we look at development for housing… we need to be thinking about how we can do a better job.”

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty’s journey to here

“In my community, growing up, there were several doctors, several attorneys, nurses, firemen, teachers; so I have all those role models. Not all of them looked like me but I saw them in their occupations and had parents who said to me, ‘No they may not look like you but you can aspire to that nonetheless. All you have to do is get a good education.’ So, seeing the guy down the street go to work to earn a living could inspire someone, just as, unfortunately, the opposite is true.”

Stephanie was born in McDowell County, the eldest of four children of blue collar working parents. “My dad went on to college, graduated and went into management as the OSHA director in a manufacturing facility, United Merchants, in McDowell.” Stephanie is married with one grown child, and, “three grandkids who are the apple of my eye!”

High school was in McDowell and college at Montreat’s program for professional and adult studies. She was working on a degree in management when Mountain Housing hired her to work on this project.

“I had spent most of my working life in banking, finance and retail.” Her last position was at United Service Credit Union, later bought out by Self-Help Credit Union. “At age 52 I decided I would retire since I’d been working since I was 15 years old! I took my 401K and sat down with the hubby, who unfortunately had suffered a massive heart attack in 1999 and was struggling a bit. I thought it would be great to be together every day… well, about six days of that and I said, Oh, no, this isn’t going to work. I had to find something else to do.”

They hit on the idea of opening a company together. The result was Stevie’s Originals, which sold soapstone and home décor from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. They opened their shop on Eagle Street as a cooperative along with the Urban News, a bookstore and a small candle boutique. While working in Stevie’s she met Elizabeth Russell, the executive director of Eagle Market Street. Elizabeth was looking for an Americorp worker and although Stephanie had no idea what that was she did know about the Peace Corps which was the international precursor to the
domestic Americorp.
A strong, sisterly, relationship developed between them. Both were nervous on that first day of work, unsure what they were doing! “Elizabeth handed me this 500 page binder about economic development… I thought, this woman is trying to run me off, but she doesn’t know whom I am. I have a lot of things in me, but quit ain’t one of them! So, I open it and can’t put the dadgum thing down. I wrote down 25 questions and took them to her. That was my introduction to the world of non-profits and I never looked back.”

Eagle Market Street Development is now ready to further its mission and goal to maintain and enhance the local community economically and culturally. Stephanie considers this work to be her crowning achievement in life.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker