Sonker Festival resuming after 2-year halt



Mitchell Whitley — a Greensboro native and Raleigh resident — visited Mount Airy earlier this year, spending a few hours one Sunday afternoon in town.

He also visited Elkin in the spring, and more recently swung back through Surry County to spend a few hours in Pilot Mountain — and he has hopes of getting back to this part of the state to tour Dobson.

He’s also visited nearby Sparta, North Wilkesboro, and other towns flung across North Carolina, from the mountains to the coast. All totaled, Whitley has visited more than 150 towns in North Carolina, specifically meeting with the mayors of each community.

That’s his goal — to meet with the mayors of North Carolina’s incorporated towns and cities.

All 551 of them.

His purpose? That’s a bit nebulous, though Whitley said he wants to learn more about what challenges local municipal governments are facing, how they are overcoming those obstacles, and he wants to be “A better advocate for local issues.”

He’s also developed a cool-looking website called Mitchell’s Mayors and he has his sights set on writing a book about his experiences once he has done.

Given that the project is a weekend-only pursuit, he probably has a few years before his work will be available on bookshelves.

“I’ve spent all my college years following political opportunities,” he said, explaining he volunteered for several state and federal campaigns, and interned for Sen. Thom Tillis, at the US Secretary of Labor office in Washington, DC, as well as for six months at the North Carolina General Assembly.

“But I never got a chance to experience municipal government.”

So, Whitley said he figured the best way to learn about local government, to get a feel for what challenges and opportunities face towns large and small, was to meet with mayors of those towns and cities. All of them.

“So, I started calling up mayors, seeing if they would meet with me. I thought they could give me great insight.”

This month marks a full year since starting his quest. Early on, he was free to visit a few towns during weekdays, but he was soon working fulltime, thus visiting the mayors became an every-weekend project.

In January, he visited Mount Airy and spent a couple of hours with Mayor Ron Niland. Unlike most mayors Whitley has met, Niland has served as a town manager and as a contractor offering services and advice to other towns, thus his experience was a little wider.

“We were one of his early visits,” Niland recently recalled. “It was a very interesting visit, he came up, it was actually on a Sunday. I met him down at city hall…I enjoyed our visit, we spent an hour, hour and a half, talking about issues in the city, other cities. This is a great undertaking; I think it’s kind of an interesting project.”

At that time, Whitley was out doing his thing, along with his father who is accompanying him on the trips, but few knew about his project.

“I encouraged him to do a web page, which I think he’s done,” Niland said. “He’s stayed in contact with me occasionally, mostly through messaging, particularly when he runs into a mayor that knows me.”

“My visit was amazing,” Whitley said of his time in Mount Airy. “My dad had been there plenty of times, but I’d never been there before. To visit the town that Mayberry is written after is really something special.”

He said despite the day being overcast and cool, he was surprised at the number of people shopping on Main Street downtown.

He particularly felt meeting with Niland was educational.

“He spent so many years in roles as town managers in other communities, working for towns across…the state. It gave him a really great idea and perspective of how he could come in as mayor and work well with people…positively get things done on behalf of everybody. When a mayor has experience like that, it’s great, they can get a jump start.”

Whitley was particularly impressed with the planned hotel and visitor center downtown, part of the larger Spencer’s reclamation project.

“I’m excited for your town, more people should be able to come and stay and learn just how special your community is.”

Whitley was equally complimentary of his time at Pilot Mountain, meeting with Mayor Evan Cockerham.

“I had been to the mountain, of course, to the state park, but I had never been to the town.”

He said Cockerham spent time with him, talking about changes in the town, all of the weekend events scheduled throughout the year, and walked him to what he called a “very, very good restaurant,” the Tilted Ladder.

“I hadn’t heard of his project until he reached out to me,” Mayor Cockerham said of their Aug. 27 visit. He was impressed with the scope of Whitley’s plan.

“It’s kind of a daunting task to make contact with every mayor, much less visit with them. I just thought it was a very fascinating project, I had never heard of anything that dealt with municipalities on that kind of scale. He spent a few hours with me…The majority of the questions were about 50/50, about my personal story, what leads someone to become a mayor, and then he gave me an opportunity to tell the story of our community, what brought us to the point we are today.”

Thus far, Whitley is nearly a third of the way through his goal of meeting all the mayors — and he has already come across some unexpected tales and people.

“There’s a lot of things that stand out,” he said of the towns he has already visited. Among those is being asked to drive the mayor’s car in a Christmas parade; meeting a man who worked on Air Force 1 for seven different presidents; learning of an as-yet unsolved passenger jet crash in the town of Bolivia in 1960; one of the largest Americana memorabilia collections in the US — including a crushed beer can from the plane flight the band Lynyrd Skynyrd was riding when it crashed; a paranormal museum; and a mayor who spends some of his spare time hunting for Big Foot.

“Who would ever be able to see something like that unless it took the opportunity to travel across the state, talk to people in the communities?”

Whitley said the project has evolved since it began. First, it was just about meeting with the mayors, learning about their towns. Since starting, he’s started the website Mayor Niland suggested, and has added plans for the book.

Whether the visits might springboard Whitley into a political career he can’t say.

“I don’t know myself exactly,” he said of any potential future in politics. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think the only reason I’m doing this is because I want a political career. I’m doing this because I love our state and I want to listen and learn from the mayors, be a better advocate for them.”

Mitchell’s Mayors, including photos and some information on all the towns Whitley has visited, can be found at: https://www.mitchellsmayors.com/

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *