By Laurie Paolicelli
The Manager of Orange County is a woman named Bonnie Hammersley. You’d be forgiven if you don’t know her name, because she’s not the sort of leader who looks for press. She’s the kind of leader whose “actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.” In other words, she’s here to take care of the county’s business, and to protect her teams, the elected boards, and her staff.
Before joining Orange County in 2014, Bonnie worked in Muskegon, Michigan where she served as the first female county administrator in Muskegon County. Prior to that, she worked for 21 years in the Dane County (Madison) Wisconsin government.
Former Board of Commissioners Chair Barry Jacobs, who was part of the 2014 selection process when Hammersley was hired, said he was immediately drawn to Bonnie’s background in Wisconsin, which mirrored many of the attributes found in Orange County.
“It was clear from the start that Bonnie had proven experience in working in a community that has a large university — a large state university, because she spent most of her life in Madison, which is also a very progressive community, just like Chapel Hill-Carrboro,” said Jacobs. “So we thought, not only would she be comfortable with the dynamics, but she grew up on a dairy farm, so she understands the changing dynamics of agriculture and the soul of a farmer.”
Bonnie was a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, as was her husband, Gery. They might have remained there all her life, but tragedy struck: kidney cancer claimed Gery’s life in 2012. After this heartbreak, Bonnie began to wonder what her future looked like without him.
“When I was contacted about the position in Orange County I was intrigued because of the location to the Triangle and its reputation for attracting a quality workforce. Suffice it to say I’m grateful that things worked out the way they did.”
I love my home in Hillsborough and have met many wonderful people. Just hanging with friends and family, as well as the many animals I’ve adopted throughout the years, has been a daily pleasure,” said Bonnie. “Not to mention the warmer climate.”
When she joined Orange County in 2014, Hammersley got to work on the county’s priorities, which included an affordable housing plan, economic development for the rural areas, strengthening Orange County’s relations with the school districts, and building strong and positive relationships with other leaders.
“Orange County has always drawn a very committed board of commissioners that listen to residents,” said Hammersley. That has not changed under her tenure.
One vital task Bonnie was charged with was diversifying the tax base to lean less on property taxes. To this end, Orange County has worked to attract many businesses here.
In 2019, Orange County Economic Development partnered with Mebane on ABB, Inc.’s expansion in Orange County, where more than 400 jobs were created; Medline completed a 1.2 million square foot distribution center; and Piedmont Metalworks LLC chose Orange County, as well.
Further, in November 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in coordination with Thermo Scientific, announced its investment of $192 million in Orange County (northern Mebane area) for a new manufacturing facility.
This is just a sampling of some of the real but quiet growth that has been occurring in Orange County. But that’s not all. Hammersley also increased funding for the Arts, has encouraged more festivals, and helped to move Orange County’s Arts Commission to its new location in Hillsborough.
Hammersley was also an integral part of the Visitors Bureau’s new Welcome Center at 308 W. Franklin Street, providing greater accessibility to visitor and relocation services.
All well and very good. But then came the task of navigating a global pandemic and its impact on Orange County’s 150,000 residents and 900 employees. No government leader could be fully prepared for that.
“During this pandemic, Orange County had a special challenge,” she says. “We have needed to quickly make decisions that impacted thousands of lives and livelihoods with limited, shifting data.”
“Bonnie’s leadership on behalf of Orange County and the region has been critical in extraordinary times,” said Renee Price, Chair of the Orange County Commissioners.
Orange County employees and residents have adapted to unprecedented change in work, technology, health care, and civic life, Hammersly says. Orange County’s focus now is on personal and economic recovery.
“I won’t be the first county manager to say how proud I am to lead a county with such a great past, present, and future, and I won’t be the last. How fortunate I am, how fortunate we all are, to live in a place so farsighted, so inclusionary, and so fair.”
Editor’s note: Last week’s Orange Slices ran a photo of Steve’s Garden Market in Mebane but identified the photo as the Steve’s Garden Market in Hillsborough. We apologize.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.