MED Week update: Social and economic improvement, one block at a time

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty in the Sewing Department of Eagle Market Street Block-by-Block Industries

Stephanie Swepson-Twitty, president and CEO of Eagle Market Street Development Corporation, was a 30-year veteran of “banking, finance and retail” when she switched gears and went to work for the nonprofit she now directs as an AmeriCorps intern. “I served them two years as an intern,” she said. “And then one thing led to another, and now I’m sitting six years as their CEO.”

As part of Minority Enterprise Development Week in Asheville, Swepson-Twitty led a Sept. 12 open-house tour that highlighted the organization’s latest projects — from Eagle Market Place, a multipurpose development that includes retail and residential space; to Block By Block Industries, a job-creation initiative.

EMSDC  has been around since 1994 and was created, according to Swepson-Twitty, “specifically to address the blight and slum that had come to the Eagle/Market Street district as a result of urban renewal.” Last year, the nonprofit was a recipient of a N.C. Community Development Initiative’s 2013 Community Enterprise Fund grant for its social enterprise project — a commercial sewing business and workforce development program called Block by Block Industries.

The nonprofit has three components: business development, workforce development and property development. The business side works with Individual Development Accounts, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, to help low-to-moderate-income resident become entrepreneurs, Swepson-Twitty explained.

The property-development component is also coming to fruition in a big way: Eagle Market Place — under construction on the corner of Eagle and Market streets — is slated to be completed in January 2015.

“It’s going to have 62 residential units at workforce rates,” says Swepson-Twitty. “And another 9,000 square feet of retail space.”

Perhaps Eagle Market Street’s most interesting aspect, however, is its business component, the highlight of the tour. “Today is really just showcasing Block by Block Industries and giving the community a chance to see how it works, [to see] the center itself, and to give those who would be interested an opportunity to understand how you can have ‘hybrid’ operations — hybrid operations are not-for-profits [or nonprofits] that have for-profit programs or businesses that feed back to the [organization],” she explained.

Block by Block Industries, a sewing company that’s part of Eagle Market Street, employees five people, creating handbags, book bags, purses — even hybrid swaddling-clothes/towels for tucking a baby in after giving it a bath. In its first year, it produced $10,000 for the nonprofit, according to the NC. Community Development Initiative.

“This right here is the Sandy Hall collection,” said Swepson-Twitty, indicating stacks of purses and handbags along the edge of the cutting table. Other employees worked on lining for backpacks, or snap together buckles for adornment. “Almost all of our business is local,” she said.

“We’re trying to change the business,” she continued. “As early as 2004, [nonprofits] understood that they could not fund themselves through grants into perpetuity. Then came the sea change in 2008.”

The effort, she said, is a way to fund nonprofit goals outside of traditional means like grant funding and instead (or additionally) seek diverse options.

“It was a chance to us to find a way to make ‘mission’ and ‘business’ come together,” she says. The industrial aspect started when Eagle Market Street bought the production side of Liberty Street Baggage Company and remains its  exclusive client.

“We saw a 77 percent increase in unrestricted revenues this year,” Swepson-Twitt said.

All of that revenue, she said, will be poured back into operations, allowing Eagle Market Street to continue to invest in communities. The next step, Swepson-Twitty hopes, is moving into McDowell County and expanding the sewing industry, “probably in 2017 or 2018.”

“McDowell County certainly lacks employment and economic development as much as anybody,” she said. “In fact, it’s the rural communities who got hurt the most with the defunding of nonprofits” — which leads back into the effort to fund nonprofit enterprises in creative ways.

“I’m very humbled and moved by the ability for nonprofits to continue to rise to the occasion during tough times,” Swepson-Twitty said. “We’ve always managed to use social enterprise to drive us out of these doldrums.”

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