SHARPSBURG -- Town Manager Elton Daniels couldn't walk 10 steps last week without hearing the same question: "When is that grocery store going to open?"
He heard it on the street and inside the convenience store, and he answered the same way every time — with a wide grin of satisfaction — that the store is scheduled to open in a few days. It was the kind of response that made the questioners smile, too, because this is news an entire community can celebrate.
Sharpsburg, a town of about 2,000 that stretches across Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties, has been without a grocery for nearly three years. Daniels played a large role in attracting the store, reaching out to a business owner in a nearby town about expanding into the empty storefront.
For Daniels, who earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, this retail success story is exactly the reason he chose to work in small town management.
"You can literally see the fruits of your labor," he said.
Daniels, 30, has been on the job in Sharpsburg for more than a year. Originally from Leland in Brunswick County, Daniels knows small towns and how to get things done inside them. In his time on the job, he has made a special effort to get out and meet with townspeople.
"People here," Daniels said with another smile, "know me by my first name."
In building his career in public service, Daniels has worked closely with the Rural Center on a number of projects. He graduated in 2012 from the center's Rural Economic Development Institute, a program that trains small town leaders. When he recently started a business that connects economically distressed small towns with professional expertise, Daniels turned to the Rural Center and New Generation Ventures, a program that helps young entrepreneurs.
Daniels said he feels invigorated each time he visits the center in Raleigh.
"The Rural Center creates an atmosphere where you want to get to work. When you get home, you want to hit the ground running."
So far, townspeople seem to appreciate his approach.
"He's energetic. He's brought a lot to the town," said Mayor Pro-Tem David Pride, noting that in addition to the grocery store, a new pizza shop just opened on the town's main drag. "He has a lot of new ideas and we haven't even scratched the surface yet."
Prior to arriving in Sharpsburg, Daniels worked for the Local Government Service Corps, which matched new master's of public administration graduates with groups of small towns in need of professional staff. Daniels advised three towns: Bolton in Columbus County and Navassa and Northwest in Brunswick County.
The Service Corps was administrated by the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and funded primarily by Golden LEAF. It grew out of the Rural Center's Small Towns Initiative, which focuses on the growth and development of small towns.
Daniels said the Service Corps helped sharpen the skills he needs to be an effective manager. When you manage the affairs of a small town, it's more than a punch-the-clock job.
"I know these people. They aren't just random citizens," he said. "I feel obligated to give them my all."