Most with aspirations as large as Elon mayor-elect Emily Sharpe’s would be noted as having big-city ambition, but that’s not where her sights are set.
“Even four years ago, people said, ‘What’s next for you?’” she said, recalling her election to a first term on the board of aldermen in 2017. “I said, ‘This is it. The town of Elon is it.’
Sharpe, 36, had been making her mark long before moving to the town with husband Logan in the summer of 2014, having served within West Virginia’s state government, where she spent much of her time in community outreach. After leaving the state, she began work at TIAA Financial Services in Charlotte, where she’s still employed as a program director, and spent two years living in the Queen City, never quite finding the sense of community that she was seeking.
Upon moving with her husband to Elon, a middle ground between her work and his, and starting a family, Sharpe sought out ways to get involved in the town. She looked first to Impact Alamance, where she served on a committee to build Newlin Elementary School’s playground, before volunteering on the town’s recreation and parks board.
“From there, I just got more and more interested in the decision-making process,” she told The Alamance News. “Of course, my loyalty was with the recreation and parks board, so I was going to run for office because we were going to spend more money on recreation and parks. That was my goal, right?
“Then you start running for office, and you get educated on what actually happens, and you realize, ‘Oh, it’s not actually because the board doesn’t want parks or sidewalks. It’s because there’s all these other priorities.”
Rather, Sharpe explained, her four years serving on the board of aldermen paved the way for her mayoral campaign this fall. Though she initially considered running for
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mayor during her first campaign in 2017, she now reflects on the learning curve associated with joining the board.
“You have to rely on your town manager, your town clerk, and the staff to answer a lot of the questions, and that’s why, for me, it would’ve been like going into it blind if I would have run for mayor after not being on the board,” she said.
But, upon outgoing mayor Jerry Tolley’s announcement this year that he wouldn’t seek re-election, she determined that someone from the board should “step up” and campaign for the position. After consulting her fellow board members about their plans, that someone, she decided, was her.
“I think that with any new leader there’s new perspective,” she told the newspaper. “I think that Mayor Tolley has been in that role for a long time. He does things his way, and I’ll do things my way.”
One of Sharpe’s first anticipated changes is “bringing more formality” to the board’s semi-monthly meetings by beginning with the Pledge of Allegiance and giving the mayor a more involved role in leading the meeting.
“Then I’m going to talk to the town staff about why do we do things the way we currently do them,” she added. “Is that just because we’ve always done them that way? And, to me, I don’t think that’s a good reason to do anything – because that’s just how it’s always been. I think that there’s always room for improvement and for things to evolve.”
Sharpe also wants the board to go out to residents and get their input, a component that she said is lacking with low attendance at the board’s meetings. Some of that outreach, she suggested, could be organized through homeowners’ associations to place a direct focus on individual neighborhoods.
“The needs of Forestview versus Mill Pointe versus Cable Square can differ, so to hear from all those different groups, I think, is important,” she said.
Another area of focus for the mayor-elect is the relationship between residents and Elon University, namely what Sharpe terms a misunderstanding of the institution’s role in the town’s decision-making. Responding to claims that the university controls the board’s actions, she said, “It’s just simply not true.”
“There’s always room for improvement – no matter what,” she added, referring to the relationship between the town and the university. “Nobody’s perfect. No relationship is perfect.
“If we can reduce that animosity that some of the residents have for the university or for the university students, we can start to work on some of the other issues.”
Those other issues include adding sidewalks and improving streets, finding new means of revenue like U.S. Department of Agriculture grants, asking residents what amenities they want and how they’d like to see them paid for, recruiting “niche-style small business” to downtown, keeping residents up-to-date on events, and discussing the pros and cons of starting a regional water system with other municipalities in the area.
At the root of all her goals, however, is her mission statement of sorts, formed out of her own desire to find community: “Feels like home.”
“I never really found that place that I truly felt at home – until I came to Elon,” she said. “My mission would be that when people are here that they feel at home. That they feel that their needs are met and that this is the place that they can be for the rest of their lives.”