GREENSBORO, N.C. -- She describes her professional career as being like a small tugboat navigating the waters alongside some very big ships. She’s one of the only African-American women to run a for-profit development firm. That’s not bad in an industry full of heavy-hitting, experienced and wealthy people.
Evon Smith is now a key figure in one of the largest and most dynamic projects of its type in Greensboro: the Union Square/South Elm Development Group initiative just south of downtown.
Smith and her family moved to Southeastern North Carolina (where her grandmother lived) from Massachusetts when she was in her teens. In Duplin County, she came face-to-face with poverty.
“Understanding that families were still living without indoor plumbing, utilizing outhouses,” she told me. “Even my grandmother had an outhouse at that time. I was there when my dad put in her first bathroom.”
Impressions like that stayed with Smith when she arrived in Winston-Salem to become the executive director of the Goler Economic Development Corporation. It’s the nonprofit that helped secure the funding and oversaw the construction of housing and other buildings in what was an economically depressed northeastern downtown area once filled with R.J. Reynolds factory homes.
“With Goler, we were able to put over 150 people in the area with almost 200 new units of housing,” she said.
But as the recession hit, Smith realized funding for nonprofits to do Goler-type projects was drying up. So she decided to form her own for-profit development firm, Sustainable Community Resources. Its focus, like Goler, would be primarily disadvantaged areas.
Smith’s company would become part of the South Elm Development Group, a consortium of area developers that won the bid to develop seven acres of land off East Lee and Arlington Streets. On this land, UNC-Greensboro, A&T University, GTCC and Cone Health are planning to build a nearly 100,000 square foot building to offer nursing and health care educational programs. The South Elm group is developing the land surrounding the building. A hotel, apartments and retail are all possibilities.
“[This development] is very important because this particular project will be an extension of downtown,” she told me. “It will improve property values for the area. It will also remove blight that has been in existence for some time in this particular part of downtown.”
Groundbreaking for the Union Square building is set for April 7 with the completion date set for August 2016. Smith and her partners are now in the design phase for the retail and residential projects. They have also been talking with hotel chains that have expressed interest.
For more information on the South Elm Project, check out this website at southelmstreet.com.