For Shayla Douglas, success after college meant finding a way to give back to the state she calls home and working toward a better future for North Carolinians.
The double Tar Heel is doing just that as the downtown and small business development manager in Garner, North Carolina. Douglas is working to revitalize the downtown area and strengthen the economy of the Wake County town of 31,000 by supporting small businesses and attracting new ones to establish roots in the community.
“We always focus on federal and state, but we don’t talk about local government as the one that touches us the most every day,” said Douglas ’17, 22 (MPA). “I just wanted to focus more on that. Being able to see the impact your local government makes was really important to me.
“It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding.”
Lead for North Carolina
Douglas has always wanted to help people.
Growing up in Hamlet, North Carolina — a town of 6,000 people near the South Carolina border — Douglas had also dreamt of attending Carolina. She wanted to earn a law degree as a Tar Heel, so when she transferred to Carolina from Richmond Community College in 2017, she majored in political science and history to prepare for her future career as a lawyer.
Through her political science courses, she began to see a career outside of the courtroom where she could help make the impact she was hoping to make. Douglas saw there was a chance to help thousands as a public servant in local government, and Lead for North Carolina, a program coordinated by the UNC School of Government, gave her the opportunity to try.
Lead for North Carolina places some of the state’s top recent graduates in paid local government fellowships across our state to help strengthen communities through public service and create the next generation of leaders for our state’s future.
Since launching in 2019, Lead For North Carolina has placed more than 50 fellows in public service roles throughout the state — largely in distressed counties.
After graduating from Carolina in 2019, Douglas joined the program and was placed in Pembroke, North Carolina, where she worked on special projects. During that time, she helped write a grant that brought $150,000 into the town to improve sewer infrastructure, launched a plan to ensure more properties were ADA-compliant and created a comprehensive master plan for the town’s parks department.
Little by little, Douglas saw the benefits she was bringing to the town and its residents.
“It’s something small: Getting funds to redo a sewer system, so we put this grant together and dig better ditches to improve our drainage,” she said. “It seems like something small. But something that small makes such a big impact because now there are drains, and now 50 people’s homes won’t flood and be displaced. Once I started seeing that and saying, ‘OK. We actually do have an impact on people’s everyday lives.’ That thought solidified that I wanted to keep doing local government.”
After a year in Pembroke, Douglas returned to Carolina to earn a master’s degree in public administration from the UNC School of Government. She drew on her experiences in Lead for North Carolina to maximize her learning in the classroom.
Two years later, after graduating in 2022, she began her role in Garner.
Supporting a town’s economy
In Garner, Douglas has one primary objective: get people downtown.
“Downtown Garner is really small. We have 17 businesses in the district,” she said. “A big challenge is getting people to know downtown Garner. It’s kind of being overlooked.”
Douglas has organized networking events and even worked to establish the area as a social district that allows open containers of alcoholic beverages purchased from a licensed ABC permittee to be consumed outdoors. In addition to encouraging new businesses to set roots in Garner, Douglas directly supports the downtown businesses by helping them find resources for renovations, guiding them through government regulations and serving as a mediator between businesses and neighbors.
“It’s really being a vital source of support for the businesses downtown,” Douglas said.
That ability to support and give back, Douglas said, is something she believes will keep her in local government and in Garner long-term to continue building the town’s economy.
“When I’m walking and talking to businesses, and they say how thankful they are for the support and trying to publicize them, it’s really genuine appreciation,” she said. “That thought makes it worth it to come in every day and see that I’m actually impacting people. I’m helping people every day.”
Originally published by UNC Chapel Hill – March 20, 2023