Stephanie Edwards’ devotion to community benefits us all
Story by Brittany Conley
Photos by Chelsea Cronkrite
What makes a great community? That question is perhaps as multifaceted as questions come. For some, the answer lies in the quality of schools, healthcare facilities, shopping, recreation options or other concrete particulars. But truly, although it is all those things, at the heart of a great community is great people—people who want the best for those who call their community home. Oftentimes, these people are working diligently behind the scenes, helping others succeed as opposed to standing in the spotlight themselves. One of those hard working, community-minded people who toils away for the betterment of the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau is Stephanie Edwards, Executive Director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce.
Stephanie first found a heart for service at her childhood home in the Sunshine State. She grew up in Central Florida surrounded by a veritable menagerie and developed a profoundly soft spot for Tennessee Walkers and Shetland ponies, though she also deeply loved the pygmy goats and Saint Bernards. Caring for the well-being of these magnificent creatures from such a young age gave Stephanie an appreciation for hard work and putting others' needs above her own, as well as an abundance of wonder and adventure. “It was a great experience and helped my brother and me learn the importance of responsibility and compassion and instilled a lifelong love of animals,” says Stephanie.
As incredible as her lessons learned in horse stalls and the saddle were, it was only the beginning of what would become her passions in life. Travel was a major piece of the puzzle for Stephanie. It was during her many childhood travels that she was first introduced to the Western North Carolina mountains, but our little corner of the world was hardly the only place she visited. Family road trips were a common feature of her youth, including a summer-long trip in a Winnebago from her childhood home in Florida all the way to Washington State. “I definitely credit my early travel experiences for my eventual life path,” says Stephanie. With dozens of stops along the way, Stephanie got a firsthand glimpse of the myriad ways communities come together, how people connect, and the beauty in what makes places unique.
As she grew older, her penchant for helping people grew stronger. “I volunteered for many civic and charitable activities and was a member of service clubs. Even then, I had a sense of responsibility to help meet community needs,” says Stephanie. In high school, she worked with the YMCA and Civitan International. Getting to meet people from all walks of life with varied needs and interests began to shape the kind of person Stephanie wanted to be and what sort of impact she wanted to make in the world.
She worked her way through college, maintaining her studies while holding down a full-time job, and often working a second job at night. “I was very committed to getting an education,” says Stephanie. All the hard work and late-night study sessions paid off, and Stephanie graduated with a BA in economics from American University in Washington, DC as well as an MBA from the University of Central Florida in Orlando–which is also where she met the love of her life, Bill. After she married and had children, life undoubtedly became more complicated, as it does for everyone. Though family life was busy, and her professional obligations necessitated international travel, Stephanie’s longtime love of the Western North Carolina mountains never waned, and the Edwards family made the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau a staple vacation destination.
Still, Stephanie never allowed the hustle and bustle of family life to let her lose sight of her passion to help others through civic engagement. She remained hip-deep in her communities in Florida, involved in several art, cultural, and civic pursuits as well as influencing public policy through her community relations positions and even international relations within the tourism industry.
Doing good is hard work, but Stephanie always made time for her family. Our calm, idyllic mountains remained a beloved escape for the Edwards family. They looked forward to returning to the mountains as often as possible, getting excited over glimpsing a curious black bear or majestic hawk flying over Whiteside Mountain or wading in a cool creek on a hot summer day. Over time it became harder and harder to leave.
As fate would have it, in the summer of 2012, an opportunity knocked. The position of Executive Director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce opened, and all the local friends Stephanie had made over the years encouraged her to throw her hat in the ring. It was a perfect job suited to her talents and skills in what had become one of her favorite places to share with those she loved most. Settling into the position wasn’t difficult for Stephanie. It was as natural as the mountain landscape she’d known and adored since she was a little girl.
“Working with a great board of directors, we've grown into a strategically focused organization serving as a small business advocate, information source for the community and conduit for building destination awareness and responsible growth,” says Stephanie. Under her leadership, the Chamber expanded programming and benefits, launched numerous helpful websites and published guides to help connect both visitors and residents to the many offerings and services in the Highlands-Cashiers area.
Make no mistake—being the Executive Director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce is no easy task. Like most things worth doing, it’s complicated. Luckily, Stephanie isn’t the type of person to back down from a challenge. In an area straddling a fine line between its desire to protect its natural wonders and an increasing demand for commercial growth, Stephanie is determined to do what she can to help navigate the community in what can sometimes feel like murky waters. “In 2021, amidst unprecedented development proposals, we committed to recalibrating the public narrative on inevitable growth. The Chamber commissioned the internationally-renown Urban Land Institute to conduct a growth management analysis with expert and unbiased recommendations for how the Cashiers Area can best ‘grow by design, not by default.’ That was an extraordinary accomplishment for a rural community of our size,” says Stephanie.
“My hope is that all of our neighboring communities—Cashiers, Highlands, Glenville, Sapphire, Lake Toxaway, and beyond—will work together to enhance the plateau experience while preserving the heritage, character and natural beauty that is our hallmark,” says Stephanie. Outside her position with the Chamber of Commerce, Stephanie serves as Chair of the Program & Grants Committee for the Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation Board of Directors where she works diligently to promote health and wellness across the plateau and beyond.
Coretta Scott King once said that the greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members. It’s easy to surmise, then, that the Highlands-Cashiers Plateau and all its towns and neighborhoods are in the midst of an amazing era. Stephanie Edwards was born with a heart as warm as the Florida sunshine, and her commitment to serve her community is as limitless as the Carolina skies. You walk and live among the fruits of her labor every day. To find out more about what Stephanie and the team at the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce are working on, you can visit their website at www.cashiersareachamber.com
Executive Director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce
Hometown: Central Florida
Family: Married to Bill–recently celebrating 25 years! They have three sons, Anthony, Nick and Alex.
Education: Graduated from American University in Washington, DC with a BA in Economics and University of Central Florida in Orlando with an MBA
Favorite Quotes: To inspire creative thinking and problem solving: “Don’t ask why, ask why not.” & To encourage people to take responsibility for making the world a better place: “If not us, then who?”
Fun fact: Stephanie was a pianist and flutist and remains an enthusiastic music lover.