By DEUCE NIVEN
“Elvis has left the building.”
Al Leonard wasn’t born when a Louisiana State Fair announcer uttered those words in 1954, but the self-described fan of “The King” Elvis Presley has left the building, too.
Leonard, who became Tabor City’s second town manager in March 1987, retired quietly last Wednesday, not quite 37 years after taking the job.
“I told you I would slip out the back door,” Leonard said when asked of his low-key departure.
Josh Ward, who has been wearing several hats in town government for about 18 months, including Assistant Zoning Administrator, has been named Interim Manager.
Council, next week, will likely agree to begin a wide search for a new manager, Mayor Royce Harper said Tuesday.
“I hope we will have some good candidates,” Harper said.
A decision on a new manager will likely come later this year, possibly after the town’s new fiscal year begins on July 1, Harper said.
Ward said his focus for now is day-to-day management, and that he has not yet decided if he will apply for the permanent position.
Leonard also serves as a consultant to the towns of Fair Bluff, Cerro Gordo, Brunswick, and Boardman. Federal retirement rules will require him to step away from those duties for 30 days. Leonard said he does not know, yet, if he will return to any of those towns.
His focus, Leonard said, will be his grandchildren, and his mother, who still lives in Burlington.
“I’d like to spend a lot of time with them,” Leonard said. “Go to ball games and dance recitals and try to relieve that.”
Al’s been an amazing manager,” Harper said. “He’s given us a lot of years. Whoever comes next is going to have some big shoes to fill.”
Harper said council, and others, wanted to send Leonard into retirement with some fanfare.
“He wanted it quiet,” Harper said.
Two of the town’s longest serving employees, Public Works Director Donald James and Finance Officer Dianne Ward have retired in recent months without fanfare.
Ward’s official retirement came at the end of 2023, Harper said, but has not been publicly announced.
Grants and projects have been a cornerstone of Leonard’s tenure with town government, one interrupted for a single year when he served as manager for Anson County.
During his years in Tabor City the town was awarded nearly 150 grants totaling more than $71 million, including nearly $1 million just last week.
“If we’ve had any success, and I think we have, then I give all the credit to the councils that employed me, and the employees who worked by my side,” Leonard said. “If we’ve had any failures, then I take responsibility for those, because I was in charge of the day-to-day operations.”
Easily the biggest effort by town government paid off with a ribbon cutting and open house in 2008 at Tabor Correctional Institution.
That effort began a decade earlier, Leonard said, when the town developed a proposal for state government where leaders were considering opening privately owned prisons.
That effort failed, but town leaders kept working with state lawmakers, including the late R.C. Soles Jr., then a state senator; and the late Dewey Hill, then a member of the state House.
Tabor City became the first, and perhaps the only municipality in North Carolina to buy land for a prison and donate it to state government.
“Counties were supposed to do that,” Leonard said.
Leonard said he will miss town employees and council, and the challenge of the job.
“There’s nothing more challenging than being a small town manager,” Leonard said. “You never have enough resources. Going out to get those resources is something I like.”
What will he not miss?
“I don’t believe there’s any part of it that falls into that category with me,” Leonard said. “Ever since I was in the ninth grade I wanted to be a city manager, and Tabor City gave me a chance to do that. I’d say 99.9 percent of it was good.”
Though Ward said he hasn’t yet decided on applying for the town manager’s post permanently, his career goal is to work in or near Columbus County.
A native of the Old Dock Community and a 2016 Early College graduate, Ward holds a Batchelor’s degree in Public Policy and Administration from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where he earned his Master’s Degree in Public Administration in December 2022.
Ward began work as a consultant to the town during the summer of 2022, while he was completing his degree work at UNCP, and was hired full time in January 2023.
For more on this story see this week’s Tabor-Loris Tribune in print and online.