Growing up in eastern North Carolina, Montrena Hadley might not have known she would one day secure her place in history in Mebane, some 120 miles northeast of her tiny hometown of Magnolia in Duplin County.
Hadley was elected to Mebane’s city council in the November municipal elections, becoming the first black female council member in the city’s history. She had been the city’s first black department head when she was hired as Mebane’s planning director in 2001; she retired from the city last year.
“Now that I’m retired, I can be responsive to the needs of citizens. I love Mebane; I love the community; and I want to be a voice for all. It’s home for me.” – Montrena Hadley, former planning department official and now Mebane city council member
Mebane voters also elected another political newcomer, Jonathan White, in addition to reelecting longtime incumbent councilman Tim Bradley, last month.
Hadley may be genetically predisposed to a public service and to blazing new trails.
Her father, Robert M. Wilson, now deceased, had been the first black fire chief and first black police officer in her hometown of Magnolia, which today has just over 1,000 residents, Hadley recalled in a recent interview with The Alamance News.
Wilson had retired from a 30-year career in public safety and was serving his second term as a Magnolia town commissioner (the equivalent of a town councilman) when he passed away at age 73 earlier this year, Hadley notes. An ordained minister, Wilson had also served as the pastor of Miller’s Chapel AME Zion Church in Goldsboro prior to his death.
Wilson’s fellow commissioners subsequently appointed his widow, Elvenia Raye Wilson – his wife of 54 years and Hadley’s mother – to serve the remaining, unexpired portion of his term on Magnolia’s board of commissioners, Hadley says proudly.
Wilson’s sister (Ethelene Southerland) was the top vote-getter in this year’s race for a seat on Magnolia’s board of commissioners; and a cousin (Perry Raines) came in second to win a seat on the town’s board this year, Hadley says, adding that another cousin (Gwendolyn Vann) is the town’s mayor.
Following her graduation from Kenan High School in Warsaw in 1985, the then-Montrena Wilson received a full scholarship to attend Shaw University in Raleigh, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in public administration in 1989. (Her first name was listed on the November ballot as “Montreena,” exactly as it had appeared on her birth certificate, in keeping with a requirement by the State Board of Elections. Hadley says a nurse had misspelled it when she was born, and neither she nor her mother had it corrected.)
She began her career in local government in Winston-Salem, first with the tax department and later with Forsyth County’s department of social services. In the late 1990s, she transferred to the Orange County DSS, where she worked four years as a child support enforcement officer while completing her Master’s degree in public administration at N.C. Central University in Durham.
A one-person planning department amid unprecedented growth
Hadley and her husband, Michael Hadley, put down roots in Mebane when she was hired as the city’s planning director in 2001. Over the course of the next 19 years, Hadley would help to steer the city through a period of unprecedented growth that shows no signs of slowing.
As “a one-person” planning department, Hadley recalls how she often wore many hats. “I was the zoning officer; the code enforcement officer; the planning director; and floodplain administrator,” she explains.
Given that Mebane straddles Alamance and Orange counties, the planning director had to know and be able to apply not only the city’s zoning ordinances and development standards, but also both counties’ land use regulations, to any proposals that landed on her desk.
“I stayed on top of all the things I had to know to make sure I was providing good customer service for the citizens of Mebane,” Hadley says.
Hadley became a certified planning officer in 2004 and later earned numerous other certifications and professional accolades. In 2016, the N.C. Association of Zoning Officials selected Hadley as their member of the year.
“It all began with the scholarship – that great opportunity,” Hadley recalls.
One of the largest development projects she oversaw during her tenure with Mebane’s planning department was the rezoning of the former Arrowhead golf course and subdivision, now home to one of the largest outlet centers in the state, Tanger, which opened in late 2009.
“[Renovation of White Furniture into Lofts at White Furniture] opened up other grant opportunities, such as the Main Street program. As a council member, I want to pursue those kinds of opportunities so we can continue to have a successful downtown business district.” – Montrena Hadley, newly-installed Mebane city council member
The former golf course and subdivision property was eventually rezoned for commercial, office/industrial development, and single-family and multi-family residential development, Hadley recalls. The first phase of that project included the construction of what she refers to as “the hospital,” an urgent care center that had been operated by Alamance Regional Medical Center and is now known as MedCenter Mebane, an urgent care center in the Cone Health network. That project was followed by construction of the sprawling outlet center.
Hadley credits her experience working in social services – where a 500-family caseload was typical – with teaching her the fundamentals of time management, organization, and multi-tasking. “The ones before me were very, very helpful to make sure I had what I needed,” she recalls, adding, “I was a stickler – very, very organized. I learned most of that on the job.”
In 2017, Hadley applied to have part of the city’s historic downtown business district designated as a “Great Place in the Making” by the state chapter of the American Planning Association, due in large part to renovations that were underway at the former White Furniture Company. The property – which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 but had fallen into disrepair – was rechristened as the Lofts at White Furniture, a 152-unit apartment luxury apartment building, once the renovations were completed a couple of years later.
“That opened up other grant opportunities, such as the Main Street program,” Hadley explains. “As a council member, I want to pursue those kinds of opportunities so we can continue to have a successful downtown business district.”
A sour patch
Yet Hadley’s relationship with the city suffered when she filed a lawsuit claiming that she had been discriminated against on the basis of her sex and/or race in the hiring process for two higher-ranking positions, for which she believed she had the requisite education, certifications, and experience.
Hadley and the city eventually reached an out-of-court settlement in the spring of 2020, but neither she nor Mebane city officials have disclosed the amount of the settlement in response to numerous public records requests by The Alamance News. North Carolina’s Public Records Law requires disclosure of “All settlement documents in any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivision . . .in connection with or arising out of such agency’s official actions, duties or responsibilities, except in an action for medical malpractice.”
Goals for her newest role
Most people might want to put their feet up for a minute after retiring from a 30-year career in local government. But the 54-year-old retiree again defied the norm in joining the race for a seat on Mebane’s city council earlier this year.
“I am looking forward to continuing to grow; most people are concerned about the growth – that we grow in a good way. I will be promoting [that we] maintain positive growth and maintain adequate infrastructure and make sure residents’ needs are met in the process.”– New council member Montrena Hadley
“I am looking forward to continuing to grow; most people are concerned about the growth – that we grow in a good way,” Hadley says. “I will be promoting [that we] maintain positive growth and maintain adequate infrastructure and make sure residents’ needs are met in the process.”
Mebane can continue to maintain positive growth, “If we enforce those things that Mebane residents said they wanted” during the development of the city’s comprehensive land use plan, Mebane by Design. That plan is due to be updated, starting in the spring of 2022, and Hadley says she hopes Mebane residents will again participate in developing the next iteration.
Though Hadley says she personally would love to see more family restaurants and family-oriented activities, she realizes her duty as an elected official.
“Now that I’m retired, I can be responsive to the needs of citizens,” says Hadley. “I love Mebane; I love the community; and I want to be a voice for all. It’s home for me.”
Hadley and her husband of 26 years, who works in Hillsborough at BioDot, a company that makes diagnostic medical equipment, have a 19-year-old daughter, Nina, who graduated from Eastern High School in 2020 and is now in college; a grown son who lives in Burlington; and two grandchildren. The couple lives at 212 Kit Lane in Mebane.
In addition to spending time with her family, Hadley’s hobbies include crossword puzzles, badminton, and bowling. Though she is still a member of an AME Zion Methodist Church in her hometown, she attends Kimes Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in Mebane, where she is active in revivals, Vacation Bible School, and other church functions.
In addition to Bradley and White, Hadley joined mayor Ed Hooks and incumbent council members Sean Ewing and Patty Philipps on the Mebane city council on December 6.