Consulting with Thomas Sowell on Rocky Mount’s City Government

Do you ever think about your ‘unlived lives?” When I do, it is more with curiosity than with regret. What would my life have been if I had pursued other avenues? We’ve come a long way from wanting to be a fireman or a professional baseball player; a ballerina, or a doctor with our plastic doctor’s bag and stethoscope. Now, if I had the money to do so, I would take myself off to SCAD in Savannah and enroll in their courses on historic preservation.  Short of that, like you, I am self-educated in ……you fill in the blank. My list would include gardener, flower arranger, and, and, and. Now I would like to be a writer with a keen enough intellect to add my voice to the political fray on Main Street in Rocky Mount, NC.

Thomas Sowell in 1964

Therefore, I have been revisiting by reading Thomas Sowell (/soʊl/; born June 30, 1930) an American economist and social theorist who is currently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. I couldn’t pick a better mind with my self-educated approach to local politics, joining all the others who want to Save Mainstreet and surrounding Edgemont Place and Villa Place, the neighborhoods that are waiting to play their part in affordable housing.

Mr. Sowell was born in North Carolina but grew up in Harlem, New York. Ultimately, he received a bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1958 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1959. In 1968, he earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago.

Sowell has served on the faculties of several universities, including Cornell University and the University of California, Los Angeles. He has also worked for think tanks such as the Urban Institute. Since 1980, he has worked at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He writes from a libertarian conservative perspective, advocating supply-side economics. Sowell has written more than thirty books. He is a National Humanities Medal recipient for an innovative scholarship which incorporated history, economics and political science.  I have deep admiration and respect for Thomas Sowell, the reason I have been consulting with him. I state my case again that until we have the results of the investigations, the current leadership must be put on hold in any major decisions and that the low-income housing on Tarboro street is the wrong answer in the wrong place. I put forth these three Sowell quotations as justification for my position in the matter.

One of the common failings among honorable people is a failure to appreciate how thoroughly dishonorable some other people can be, and how dangerous it is to trust them. Thomas Sowell

Posted in Preservation Rocky Mount, Stepheny's Rocky Mount Reflections | 5 Comments

‘The Telegram E-Mail Reveal’ Supports My Position

Paul Wolf is an attorney that writes about local government. He lists seven signs that indicate when a local government is dysfunctional with polarizing leadership. Rocky Mount City Council and attending leadership tick off every sign that is listed. Until this investigation ends, we cannot go forward allowing additional opportunities for the same people to keep on doing the wrong thing. Leading that list is the Tarboro Street site for low-income housing, which is the wrong solution built on the wrong site. When the investigation proves that grants and matters with HUD  and all the other skullduggery actually happened, there will be reprisals. There is also the matter that the Council and Mayor and others have been complicit; they’ve either been a part of it or have known what has been going on. There’ll be new leadership in the fall. When those responsible for graft and mismanagement are removed we will no longer be distracted from giving our attention to the fascinating job of preserving Main Street and our neighborhoods and promoting and encouraging the economic drivers coming our way. Affordable housing can be determined when it is no longer under the guise of bait and switch with ECC and put forward by those who have ‘done us wrong.’ We are expecting new arrivals that we must get ready for and who will need welcoming. We’ll get on with the invigorated preservation of our architectural assets. It is an exciting time, let’s get back to enjoying it and celebrating all our blessings. This is one of the many thresholds moments in our lives, right now, to step across into what the future holds that can be positive and beneficial for everyone. I believe this! If you believe, you must clap your hands. (according to Peter Pan and Stepheny)

Ivory tower effect. When self-important elected officials make decisions in a vacuum or otherwise barricade themselves in their offices, that creates a nasty cultural divide between management and employees. Not enough elected officials understand or listen to employees as part of their decision making process.

Warring Factions. In some communities feuds along with the political party, lines are commonplace and accepted as just the way government works. Warring factions are dysfunctional, divisive and they foster rivalry instead of cooperation.

Strategy du jour. When dysfunctional elected officials consistently overreact to a single data point and take the entire organization in a new direction. Often the result of the hallway or ad-hoc meetings in obscure places and making decisions in the absence of those who are actually responsible for that sort of thing.

Analysis paralysis. When elected officials, especially from warring factions, chronically debate issues to death, going down one rat hole or knock-down, drag-out fight after another without actually making decisions because there’s no clear leadership to drive consensus.

Walk on water behavior. When leaders either consciously or subconsciously hoist certain groups up on pedestals while denigrating others. Besides being divisive, that also creates “walk on water” behavior where exalted groups aren’t subject to standard processes like budgeting, for example.

Silo mentality. When teams, departments or entire divisions act as if they’re independent of the rest, usually in a defensive “it’s us against them” sort of way when fighting for resources. Often the result of being denigrated by dysfunctional and divisive elected officials. A.k.a. “bunker mentality.”

Pet Project. Usually supported by an elected official — that’s immune to criticism and the government’s standard processes. In other words, it continues to be funded long after it shouldn’t.


Posted in Economic Development in Rocky Mount NC, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Reimagining Rocky Mount | 4 Comments

Dang and Blast To The Tarboro Housing Street Project – Something Fabulous Is Happening – The Preservation of the First National Bank – Soon to Open Larema Coffee

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about coffee at Larema Coffee Shop?”
A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, and S.F. Houghtlin

I’m in the doldrums over this wrong solution for more affordable housing. When people have told me I can’t stop it, I refuse to believe it. Of course, I can! Can’t I? Move the cluster housing to Crossroads at 64,  In the now famous words of Lige Daughtridge, “We can build a grocery out there.” He is a much nicer person than I am. In the mood I’m in, I would edit his funny, logical, wonderful line to say, “We can build a damn grocery for heaven’s sake!” His reasoned line sounds nicer, BUT, I’m a  little? emotional when it comes to promoting what I believe to be the right solution. Save our neighborhoods by restoring the affordable housing we have that longs to be a useful and safe home to the singles, couples, workforce, retired, elderly and those new to the area.

The only thing that will help all of us in this moment of anger over another ‘decided upon and wrapped with a bow’ project is to celebrate together a great thing that IS happening on MAIN STREET. A gorgeous commercial architectural building has been reclaimed, history and all. I’m celebrating this investment, this new business, and the new owner, Kevin McLaughlin’s belief in the revitalization of downtown, which is the purpose of this blog. Though I can’t refrain from crossing the threshold into politics, political junkie that I am, my part in the chorus that we have talked about, is to proclaim the Good News of a coffee shop and community space in downtown Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The Coffee house is named, Larema, a word Kevin learned in Uganda which means, “my friend.”  Don’t you love it already?
Kevin says “The vision is for a safe, welcoming space for people to come together, see and be seen, hear and be heard, and enjoy delicious, hand-crafted beverages and foods. It is my belief that exposure to and appreciation of people and perspectives different than our own is essential to our growth as humans. This belief is what planted the idea in me over 10 years ago, and has caused me to seek out cafés everywhere my travels take me. I want to create a dynamic space which fosters these kinds of connections and conversations in Rocky Mount, a diverse city with a rich history – presently on the cusp of a rebirth.”


Constructed in 1910, the building housed First National Bank, prosperous furniture and undertaking businesses, and an underground pool hall speakeasy. Most recently, the building was used by Edgecombe Community College for classes prior to opening a new campus across the street.


I took these three photos when Jesse Gerstl (our investment her0 and really good guy) took me through this building. The other photos I lifted from the Larema Facebook Page. You are going to elevate off the floor when you see the interior of this building, What a place to gather. Saving this building is like winning the lottery for Rocky Mount. Here is FYI on THE VAULT: From centerpiece of the bank to the focal point of the coffee shop. The original vault’s interior space will be made available for the community to hold meetings at Larema. The vault was manufactured by Diebold Safe & Lock Co., founded in Cincinnati, Ohio (Larema owner Kevin’s birth city) in 1859. Made popular in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Diebold vaults and safes have an unparalleled reputation for protecting valuables from threats like hurricanes, fires, and bank robbers. Once used to keep the money safe, the vault will now be a safe space for conversation and collaboration.

Glass blocks lining the sidewalk are not only beautiful and one of a kind in Rocky Mount, but they also allowed light to enter the basement for liquor production during prohibition. Kevin says this is something to think on – and sit above – as we share a cup of coffee outside. Don’t you think it would be ‘way cool’ to have a prohibition party once a year with appropriate clothing and music? Our coffee will be laced with the new friendships Kevin is serving.


I assume these are Kevin’s boots ready to take the step from the past into the future. It is a preservation dream come true for all of us. This is the kind of restoration that is a positive economic driver for Rocky Mount. Welcome, Kevin hardly says enough. Thank you is a good start.





Posted in Economic Development in Rocky Mount NC, People Making A Difference in Rocky Mount, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings | 9 Comments

A ‘House of Cards’ – Tarboro Street Housing – Mr. Blackwell’s Rebuttal Has It All Wrong


“House of cards” is an expression that dates back to 1645 meaning a structure or argument built on a shaky foundation or one that will collapse if a necessary (but possibly overlooked or unappreciated) element is removed.


It is all the more apparent after last night City Council meeting and Mr. Blackwell’s rebuttal to the public comments, that he and I don’t agree on how to solve our affordable housing needs. There is no argument about the necessity to have this housing, but what type and where? If we can agree that no one is against affordable housing, we should be able to discuss how best to provide it. Especially now that I have calmed down. I left the  council chamber disappointed that the doors didn’t slam behind me in some dramatic flourish so people would say, “Stepheny’s ticked!”  Among other unexamined ideas, according to Mr. Blackwell, this housing will bring people who will spend money downtown on what I presume are our restaurant’s, shopping, coffee, and wine shops, et. al. To try and sell the Tarboro Street housing as an economic boon for downtown is quite a reach when this population lives on a limited budget. We must have people living and working downtown. Investors are at work converting some Main Street commercial buildings into apartments to live above the store. I acknowledge how important this is to the success of ‘Main Street’ revitalization. Thanks to the City Council, who voted February 25, 2019, to convey the Tarboro Street property via sale or lease, for the development of affordable housing contingent upon the selection of a qualified developer, we have the wrong solution in the wrong location. So, WAIT JUST A DARN MINUTE.

We already have established neighborhoods calling for preservation and restoration that would welcome new people. It is essential to maintain the quality of neighborhoods and improve those that are stressed. Do the people who have lived in these stressed conditions not deserve the same concern and help? They are low income/workforce people already in place. We have plenty of neighborhoods facing challenges related to general property upkeep and maintenance. Let the City Council and Management start with aggressive code enforcement and put on notice any landlord to pay a fine that is ignoring his or her housing stock. Help our investors with streamlined paperwork who are already buying affordable housing that will offer affordable ownership possibilities. Why aren’t the city councilman, where it pertains, as concerned about their impoverished areas where people are living in terrible conditions yet considered part of our low-income workforce population? Is it because there is no money to be made in considering other measures to improve the overall quality of these areas. No grant administration fees or under the table kickbacks? Does it keep our statistics depressed, which helps when applying for grants?

I am dumbfounded that cluster houses on Tarboro Street are DFI’s final recommendation when research shows across the board that this notion, left over from the ’70s, isn’t successful. Research indicates the high probability of creating another transient neighborhood, which invites crime and plops people into a contrived setting. Do we even have a waiting list for housing with people that qualify? This Tarboro Street project, based on the trend line, is another opportunity for skullduggery. It is not the best solution for this population. The revitalization of our neighborhoods will benefit from the energy new neighbors will bring. We want our singles, couples with or without children, those retired and the elderly living in affordable housing in recovering neighborhoods that are once again safe; everyone looking out for one another as in the days when these neighborhoods were formed. That’s what we need and this is what we shall have! As I said at the information meeting on the Tarboro Street housing,  thank you for all your time on this project, but this is not happening!  


Posted in A Rocky Mount Neighborhood, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Reimagining Rocky Mount | 13 Comments

Rocky Mount Is Being Lead Down The Yellow Brick Road Over Parking and Low-Income Housing

I have remembered the Yellow Brick Road song from the Wizard of Oz since I was a child. I used to sing it to my grandchildren when heading out in the car for an adventure. “We’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.” I never dreamed I would find it applicable, transpose and lift the lyrics, to describe where Rocky Mount’s City Government is trying to lead us now.  In your imagination, you can assign any face you like to the characters, Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodman, The Lion, and The Wizard of Oz. The good or bad witches.


Rocky Mount’s Wizard of Oz identities under investigation.


Perhaps you remember that The Wizard, who has not fulfilled his promises, is exposed when Toto pulls back a curtain, revealing that the “Wizard” is a middle-aged man operating machinery and speaking into a microphone. Play around with this for a minute and you will agree that our Wizard of Oz, who has various identities, is not fulfilling promises to the taxpayers of Rocky Mount, NC. either.


PARKING: Let us not lose sight of the February 14, 2019 Telegram article by Lindell Kay on the Downtown Parking Study. The goal of the study is to determine how best to use parking in support of downtown development, redevelopment, and revitalization. People have been in a dither about parking for The Event Center all along. How was the project allowed to be built in the first place without adequate parking in the plan? Parking on Tarboro Street became part of the answer, sited on property deemed a state environmental brownfield not safe for housing given that it was the site of a dry cleaner and was investigated by state environmental officials. The site has been reviewed and determined to be OK, but wells would not be allowed. Environmentalists question the safety of former industrial sites in connection with housing. On the Yellow Brick Road, we now find out that low-income housing would replace the Tarboro Street parking plan.

“Plans Change,” is what we’ve been told. “Parking on Tarboro was never set in concrete.” but it was the intent sold to ECC for the use of this property. Now we’ve got a proposed project map that includes two large parking garages. Titled the Douglas Entertainment and Business District, the maps show plans by Tennessee-based developer David Hunt to construct two parking decks, two hotels, a retail area, condos, a splash pad and a pedestrian bridge over busy train tracks. A five-level, 500-space parking deck is planned for behind the Event Center along Atlantic Avenue where St. John’s A.M.E. Zion Church is now. A second parking garage with 450 spaces is planned behind a retail and residential area where Tri-Faith now sits.

This is what we are being told. There is no more merrily, merrily on the yellow brick road until the investigation into the corruption and mismanagement is complete. First things first!

These new projects set off alarm bells. The current trend of graft and corruption by our own version of ‘the Wizard of Oz’ highlights new possibilities for further skullduggery. That is why nothing can go forward until the investigation of malfeasance is concluded. We must resolve the identities of those involved, and the extent of corruption by the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain.

UNDERSTAND: no one is against low-income housing! We agree on the need for parking. (Who isn’t for minimizing housing costs.) But cluster housing built on Tarboro street is the wrong solution.  More on housing tomorrow – because, because, because.




Posted in Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Preservation Rocky Mount, Reimagining Rocky Mount, Rocky Mount Event Center | 6 Comments

Tarrick Pittman – A Fine Man For Ward 1 and Rocky Mount – Things You Need to Know



“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”                                                                                          ~ John Quincy Adams.



Do you remember the Hallmark card advertising line, They cared enough to send their very best? I hijacked the idea years ago when I came to believe, that in my life, God has always sent his very best.  It has happened again. Tarrick Pittman and I had lunch at Chew and Chat, our first face to face meeting. I’m proud to write that he reads the blog and I have already written about him in the ‘Change Candidates’ piece. I discovered quickly that I was keeping company with an authentic, honest, self-contained man that feels deeply, believes deeply, and has discovered that his call is to live so others may live better. It was a privilege discovering these things about Tarrick.  I thought you might enjoy being included (after the fact) listening to some of the things he talked about. You will see why I think Rocky Mount has hit the Jack Pot with new leadership for Ward One and continuing his work for the entire community. This is a special man, Main Street readers. There is more to write about him and I will.

I am not running for City Council to dethrone my opponent. I’m running because I believe in my City and Ward 1. I have been contemplating running for years and one day I awakened frustrated at the current political environment in our community. I proceeded to pray and God let me know that it was time. I’d like to be an example for other young people in the community;  to fight for what they believe is right, to stand tall with no fear in their effort to bring forward change.

I’m not much of a talker, I’m a person of action. The idea that I’m running for the City Council out of anger over a court battle is not true. I have been entangled in this dispute while serving as the President of the Downtown Merchants Association. I have always been a champion for Downtown. I have continued to meet and work to bring progress to the city with the same people I have been battling in court. My personal business has never come before the citizens in my community. God has always allowed me to separate the two and focus on the greater good of our City. It hasn’t been easy but through the help and support of friends and family and my faith, I have always been able to overcome.

I believe in ONE ROCKY MOUNT. Working together in a transparent and collaborative effort in order to redevelop our neighborhoods, grow small businesses, combat crime, and to develop a comprehensive plan around job readiness skills and training for our youth. Creating creative spaces for our youth to collaborate and develop. Relationship building has always been a strong suit of mine. In my 25+ years of managing people I have learned that when you have a lot of unilateral power in a government system or any system for that matter that doesn’t lend itself to collaboration, it tends to lend itself to corruption or the appearance of it. I have always been known as someone who listens to everyone from all walks of life. This has allowed me to build a solid foundation for my business. I’ve become known as someone who listens to everyone and guides the community toward collaborative solutions. I’m very proud of that track record.

We all know that some still view the world through Jim Crow glasses, both blacks and whites in our community. It isn’t easy to navigate through this perception of things in order to build a solid community. In order for us to bring development to some of our predominantly African American communities, we must do better for ourselves. As African Americans, we must take ownership of the communities we live in and not point the fingers at others but look within ourselves.

Now is the time to usher in new leadership who will think outside of the box for creative solutions to some of the problems that plague us. I have no fear or worry what some may think when it comes to working on our problems. The goal is to find new and better solutions, not more of the same old same old. I’m talking JOBS, Collaboration, Caring for out neighborhoods and one another.  I am willing to sacrifice things in my personal and business life in order to give back to others because I accept God’s intention for my life, which is to serve others. 

Tarrick enjoying one of Stepheny’s downtown benches to sit and talk.

Posted in People Making A Difference in Rocky Mount | Tagged | 6 Comments

Saying NO to Tarboro Street Housing For At Least 3 Reasons


Affordable housing in historic districts and Wards should be looked at as a sustainable method of housing development. Buildings are durable commodities that can be used for decades. The addition of historic districts, which Rocky Mount has seven, into the housing equation is a win-win for the community. We already have in place guidelines that require close attention to the built environment as a whole, which helps to protect people’s investment in our housing assets. Rather than building affordable housing over on Tarboro St., plopped down in a transient setting, we want singles, renters, 1st-time homeowner, retired folks living in neighborhoods. There is affordable housing of different sizes that may not be at its best but is savable, and once restored, house by house you have a neighborhood feeling good about itself again. You have diversity, woven into the fabric of neighborhoods that have been home to our Rocky Mount story and are home again to our next chapter.


The PARKING that will be needed for a flourishing and successful Event Center, and a revitalized downtown, cannot be highjacked. Definitely not for the wrong answers to affordable housing. Evidently, there are members on the City Council and their insiders who no longer care about the needed parking, as if the success of the Event Center and Main Street no longer matter to them. This suggests to me that they have moved on to the next idea of taking what they can and leave the taxpayers with the bill. I suspect that this information meeting is a rouse to cover what they believe is a predetermined outcome. A large attendance saying no is necessary for these reasons and yours. Make the best case you can.


Taxpayers have no reason to believe the city forces will change their trend line in this latest proposal;  lining someone’s pockets, letting the taxpayers subsidize this housing.  In summary: We have a vote of no confidence in leadership, we must safeguard our parking, and pursue the right solution for affordable housing by investing in what we already have, which will restore our existing Ward neighborhoods and historic districts.

PLEASE NOTE: The location of a Tuesday information session on a planned multi-family workforce housing development on Tarboro Street has been changed.
The public meeting will now be held in McBryde Auditorium on the Rocky Mount campus of Edgecombe Community College. The time of the meeting hasn’t changed and is still set for 5 to 7 p.m.
The Development Finance Initiative at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government will facilitate the session with an hourlong open house followed by a presentation and question-and-answer segment. The City Council has committed to conveying property between 218-242 Tarboro Street via sale or lease to a development partner.


Posted in Preservation Rocky Mount, Rocky Mount Building Preservation, Rocky Mount Historic Districts, Stepheny's Rocky Mount Reflections | 10 Comments