When Susan Stilwell left the area in 1965, she swore she’d never come back. After attending UNC, she became a microbiologist working with infectious diseases. When she was offered a job that paid half of what her male predecessor was paid, she left that field and turned to her second love, historic homes. In 1978 she went into real estate in the city of Durango, Colorado, and made it a point to educate herself to the fullest extent on the subject of revitalization. There, she was a key player in the pilot program for the National Trust’s Main Street program, a project that would give her the experience and knowledge to bring back to Danville — if she could be persuaded to return.
When her second marriage ended, she called up an old friend to see what he was doing. He told her he was waiting for her to move back to Danville and marry him. And so she did.
Upon arriving she was heartbroken to see what had happened to her hometown. She immediately put her hard-earned skills to use and began her fight to bring Danville back. The city government was resistant at the time. They saw the downtown area as “an old maid. Everyone sees her and nobody wants her.” At a time when other real estate agents avoided showing homes in the area, Susan took the opportunity to make a niche for herself. She began not only showing homes in the neighborhood, but selling them. Since returning, Susan has served as Director of the Danville Downtown Associates, head of the Downtown Development program, and spent a decade with the city’s planning commission, where she found that many of the city’s codes made restoration and revitalization difficult, if not, at times, impossible. She began working to amend those codes, as well as finding creative ways to work around them. “There’s a way to make anything work.”
Today Susan lives in the River District, occupying 301 Craghead, a large storefront and the lofts above it. When she first moved into the building people thought she was crazy. Craghead Street was thought to be a dangerous place. It was an erroneous title, Susan assured me. “It was quiet and safe. There was no one down here.”
When asked what her predictions were for the area, she said she believes that the improvements in the Five Forks area will prove a link between the River District and the Old West End. “They feed off one another, and what happens in one area, benefits the other.”
Susan has made a name for herself as a passionate advocate for the revitalization of all of Danville’s historic areas. She’s a fierce woman with a great story to tell, particularly as she’s found so much success in her endeavors. Fierce though she may be, she is also warm and engaging, and always willing to share her knowledge with those of us picking up the torch of Danville’s future success.