Mitchell Whitley – a Greensboro native and Raleigh resident – visited Mount Airy earlier this year, spending a few hours on a Sunday afternoon in town.
He also visited Elkin in the spring and more recently returned to Surry County to spend a few hours at Pilot Mountain – and he hopes to return to that part of the state to visit Dobson.
He also visited nearby Sparta, North Wilkesboro, and other towns scattered across North Carolina from the mountains to the coast. In total, Whitley visited more than 150 cities in North Carolina, meeting specifically with the mayors of each community.
That’s his goal: to meet with the mayors of incorporated cities in North Carolina.
All 551 of them.
Its goal ? It’s a bit nebulous, though Whitley said he wants to know more about the challenges local city governments face, how they overcome those obstacles, and he wants to be “a better advocate for local problems”.
He’s also developed a cool looking website called Mitchell’s Mayors and he aims to write a book about his experiences once he does.
Given that the project is a weekend-only pursuit, it’s likely been a few years before his work hits the shelves.
“I spent all of my college years pursuing political opportunities,” he said, explaining that he volunteered for several state and federal campaigns and was an intern for the senator. Thom Tillis, in the office of the United States Secretary of Labor in Washington, DC, and for six months in the North Carolina General Assembly.
“But I never had the chance to experience municipal government.”
So Whitley said he thinks the best way to learn about local government, to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities facing cities big and small, is to meet with the mayors of those towns and cities. All.
“So, I started calling the mayors, to see if they would agree to meet me. I thought they could give me great insight.
This month marks a full year since the beginning of his quest. At first he was free to visit a few towns on weekdays, but he soon worked full-time, making visiting mayors a weekend project.
In January he visited Mount Airy and spent a few hours with Mayor Ron Niland. Unlike most mayors Whitley has met, Niland has been a city manager and an entrepreneur providing services and advice to other cities, so his background was a bit broader.
“We were one of his first visits,” Niland recently recalled. “It was a very interesting visit, he came, it was actually on a Sunday. I met him at the town hall… I enjoyed our visit, we spent an hour, an hour and a half talking about the problems of the city, of other cities. It’s a big business; I think it’s an interesting project.
At this time, Whitley was doing his thing, with his father accompanying him on trips, but few knew of his project.
“I encouraged him to start a webpage, which I think he did,” Niland said. “He has kept in touch with me from time to time, mostly by messaging, especially when he meets a mayor who knows me.”
“My visit was amazing,” Whitley said of her time at Mount Airy. “My father had been there many times, but I had never been there before. Visiting the town that Mayberry is written after is truly something special.
He said that despite the overcast and cool weather, he was surprised by the number of people shopping on Main Street downtown.
He particularly felt that the meeting with Niland was instructive.
“He spent so many years in city manager positions in other communities, working for cities across…the state. It gave him a really good idea and perspective on how he could become mayor and work well with people… getting things done in a positive way on behalf of everyone. When a mayor has such experience, it’s great, he can get off to a good start.
Whitley was particularly impressed with the planned downtown hotel and visitor center, part of Spencer’s larger rehabilitation project.
“I’m thrilled for your city, more people should be able to come and stay and learn how special your community is.”
Whitley was also appreciative of his time at Pilot Mountain, meeting Mayor Evan Cockerham.
“I had been to the mountains, of course, to the national park, but I had never been to town.”
He said Cockerham had spent time with him, talking about the changes in the town, all the weekend events scheduled throughout the year, and had been with him until he called a “very, very good restaurant”, the Tilted Ladder.
“I hadn’t heard of his project until he contacted me,” Mayor Cockerham said of their August 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, let alone visit them. I just thought it was a very fascinating project, I had never heard of anything dealing with municipalities on this scale. He spent a few hours with me… Majority of the questions were 50/50, about my personal story, what makes someone become mayor, and then he gave me the opportunity to tell the story of our community , which brought us to where we are today.
So far, Whitley is nearly a third of his way to meeting all the mayors – and he’s already met some unexpected stories and people.
“There are a lot of things that stand out,” he said of the cities he’s visited before. These include being asked to drive the mayor’s car in a Christmas parade; meet a man who worked on Air Force 1 for seven different presidents; learning of an unsolved passenger plane crash in the city of Bolivia in 1960; one of the largest collections of Americana memorabilia in the United States – including a smashed beer can from the plane flight the Lynyrd Skynyrd Group was operating when it crashed; a paranormal museum; and a mayor who spends some of his free time chasing Big Foot.
“Who could ever see something like this unless they take the opportunity to travel across the state, talk to people in the communities?”
Whitley said the project has evolved since it started. First, it was simply a question of meeting the mayors, of learning about their cities. From the beginning, he started the website suggested by Mayor Niland and added plans for the book.
He can’t say whether the visits could launch Whitley into a political career.
“I don’t know myself exactly,” he said of any potential future in politics. “I wouldn’t want anyone to think that the only reason I’m doing this is because I want a political career. I’m doing this because I love our state and want to listen and learn from mayors, be a better advocate for them.
Mitchell’s mayors, including photos and information on all towns Whitley visited, can be found at: https://www.mitchellsmayors.com/