New Leadership and Justice for Rocky Mount Is At Hand – Thanks to Investors with Vision, The Reimagining and Revitalization of Main Street Is Picking Up

Let us look to New Orleans for preservation inspiration with this trio of mid-19th-century buildings that sat vacant for decades. Even in their key location, the buildings suffered the indignities of leaking roofs, rotting floors, and termites. This situation sounds familiar to us on Main Street.

**Constructed in 1858 during the city’s booming antebellum years, this visually united row of three four-story masonry stores stood for decades as dismal reminders of the bad things that happened to downtowns in the 1960s. Neglected, unused and failing structurally, the buildings overlooked a vast parking lot. Taking advantage of the economic benefits of federal historic rehabilitation tax credits and the Preservation Resource Center’s façade easement program, the developers crafted a successful mixed-use development of 16 spacious apartments and three ground-floor commercial spaces. The new development is called 419 Carondelet. (This same concept is being developed here.)

The same successful preservation and repurposing of buildings can be ours. We thank the investors who have embraced the promise of Rocky Mount and will not be deterred. Read about: A hallelujah chorus of bright, young entrepreneurs that have come home.  We have a newly energized, emboldened citizenry that will be voting this fall and will prevail. I believe the investigation will bring justice and remove the obstacles of mismanagement and corruption that have prevailed. Our word and agreements with ECC will be restored. There will be no public housing sited on Tarboro Street.

Before long, we will have photographs of our own newly restored and repurposed buildings to brag about. Ours can be the most beautiful Main Street in North Carolina. PLUS – Our existing affordable housing will be saved, restored, and safe to live in again. I hope you will join me with an AMEN! to that.

**Information about 419 Carondelet came from the article – Honoring Top Historic Preservation Projects in New Orleans • Hillary S. Irvin, Sally Reeves, and Michael Duplantier • April 2019, Preservation in Print. I subscribe to this excellent magazine and follow their Facebook Page, an endless source of delight and research.



A successful approach to urban infill 




Posted in Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings, Preservation Rocky Mount, Preservation Success | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Help Me Write – The Story of the Kyser Drugstore Family

“It was frustrating to gather bits of disconnected information without understanding how it all fits together.”
― Wendy Percival, Author


I readily identify with the Percival quotation as I begin to write about the Paul Kyser family. Because I don’t know enough, the storyteller that lives within me wanted to create my own tale. With a fascinating historical backdrop, (the 1890’s when Paul Kyser moved to Rocky Mount, I could carry on from there. We have some idea of the manners and fashion of that decade. I could write a whole chapter about the 1890s through 1905 as part of the Edwardian era, also known as the Gibson Girl era. Dana Gibson created the iconic Gibson Girl look with extra wide puffy tops and blouses paired with a curved corseted waist, A-line skirts, voluminous Gibson hair topped with a large flower and feather hats. Men’s style was still formal from the Victorian era but growing more relaxed. You see how easy it is to set the stage for the beginning of our Kyser story.

Did you ever play one of my favorite games of making up the beginning of a story and dropping out, letting the next person continue on, and the next and next? It’s great fun with children, but this time I am going to play the game with you. I’ll give you some details about Paul Bynum Kyser (1856-1937) and his family, and from what you’ve been told, who you might have known, please help me understand how it all fits together. ThePaul Kyser family keeps on giving with multiple generations of interesting people who left a great mark on Rocky Mount. Connected by marriage in ways you may not have known or forgotten, this has the making of a long tale. Help me with it.

(Use the COMMENTS section below: to write what your contribution. Thank you!)

Recently I wrote about Andrew Clark, Investor, who is renovating two commercial buildings on Main Street. The Kyser Drugstore building is pictured here at 135 S.E. Main St. In 1979, Kate Meams wrote in a Central City Historic Buildings Inventory about this building.

“The Kyser Drugstore was established in the 1890s by Paul and Emily Kyser* and moved to its present location c. 1912. Mrs. Kyser has the distinction of being North Carolina’s first licensed woman pharmacist, though family tradition states that she never practiced. The building, altered somewhat over the years, retains two cast iron pilasters manufactured by Mesker Brothers, a firm well-known for this type of ornamentation. The building also possesses one of Rocky Mount’s earliest neon signs, recently put back in working order.”  *Emily Royster Howell 

This photograph says: Main Street looking North, showing the Kyser Drug Co. Rocky Mount, NC. (Corner of Main and Tarboro St. )

The Kyser home at 219 Sunset Ave

Two notable chapters in this story are Paul Kyser’s son and youngest child, James Kern “Kay” Kyser, who became a noted entertainer, which included musical comedies. His daughter, *Virginia Kyser, who married Walter Carleton Noell. Walter became one of the first franchisees of Hardees Foods, and with his two nephews, Nick and Mayo Boddie began  Boddie-Noell Inc. The downtown Carleton House Motel and Restaurant were named for Walter Carleton Noel.   *Virginia Graves Kyser + Walter Carlton Noel

Below: This is what The Carleton House once looked like. An important place marker in Rocky Mount. It has been bought by Jesse Gerstl and his investment group and once underway will be saved. There are exciting plans and hopefully, it won’t be long until we are headed to the restaurant again as in earlier days.  We will raise a glass of sweet tea to Walter Carleton Noell and to his wife Virginia and the Kyser family.                                    

After Paul Kyser’s death, one of his sons-in-law, James Stanley Pierce I (1897-1965) took over management of Kyser Drugs, which was probably the 135 Main St location.


Charles Dunn -Way Back When Provided This Clipping


Posted in People Making A Difference in Rocky Mount, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings | 11 Comments

Celebrating A New Investor – 131 and 135 SE Main Street – A New Life

Easter Week: Rocky Mount, NC – Beautiful Day on Main Street. Gorgeous pink Iris blooming in my garden. The gift of Lent this year; to realize that I need to stip away things, that in the end, do not matter. Monday night’s Council meeting (4-22-19) threatened to reel me in with the “How dare you” speech, and what followed afterward, but today I am sitting on a Main Street bench celebrating a new investor who is helping save Main Street. You and I, we must keep our eye on the ball and let those in charge of investigating bad manners and self-serving decisions bring the bad gals and guys to justice.  (Definition of keeping one’s eye on the ball: to continue thinking about or giving attention to something important: to stay focused.)

Join Andrew Clark, Rental Property Investor from Raleigh, NC sitting with me on a bench out in front of his two newly acquired commercial buildings on SE Main Street. Andrew lives in Raleigh with his wife, who is a scientist at RPT, and a new December born baby. He was drawn to the affordability of our Main Street property for investment.      Now, this is important!

Andrew shares with us: Active investors are all over Rocky Mount. I can personally attest to having friends who have in the last 18 months purchased 15 + downtown commercial buildings, 150+ single family homes, and many multifamily units. My wife and I bought two commercial properties on Main St (Music City & Lights buildings). We are currently doing full gut rehabs on both buildings financed by a local Rocky Mount bank. We will have two 2000sqft+ luxury lofts on the second floors and two commercial spaces on the bottom. We plan to attract restaurants on the bottom of each of these buildings.








The Rocky Mount story as seen and told through Andrew’s eyes calls to other investors and should energize us anew to believe in the revitalization of downtown. Rocky Mount has opened its 165,000 sqft indoor Event Center which can seat 4000+ people. It is literally 2.5 blocks from my buildings. That will become an economic powerhouse of the downtown area. The Event Center is NCAA certified, can host 16 volleyball courts, 8 basketball courts, music concerts, and has a video arcade, a ropes course. All of this is walkable to downtown.

Rocky Mount Mill has purchased entire streets and renovated all the houses (front porch rockers and kegerator included in all houses), they have 60+ condos they are currently renting/renovating inside the mill, and they have a community of 20+ TINY HOUSES they will be renting out soon. It not only sounds wonderful when Andrew talks about Rocky Mount, but it is wonderful. This is a fraction of other properties and projects that are being worked on in and around Main Street. (MacHaven is opening soon, one of the stars in Rocky Mount’s architectural crown.) We are blessed to have investors like Andrew Clark, saving two more buildings – Hallaluh!

NEXT TIME – Paul Bynum Kyser and family and the Kyser Drugstore


Posted in Economic Development in Rocky Mount NC, Preservation of Historic Commercial Buildings | 2 Comments

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 | 6 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 | 12 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