RALEIGH — James “Monte” Montague made his mark as an entrepreneur in the Southeast Raleigh community where he grew up. He opened a salon at 20, built a shopping center soon after and eventually opened a retirement home.
But he was also aware that his corner of the world was small and somewhat isolated – and he wanted to try to change that.
“A lot of people, all they see is what’s in their own house,” says Montague. “I think it’s important that people, from this side of town and elsewhere, get outside of their communities and see that it’s a bigger world.”
Montague, 43, has been a key figure in building ties between Raleigh and the world in recent years. Since he joined the city’s Sister Cities Association in 2008, he helped create two new sister cities – Xiangyang (pronounced “Shawn Yawn”), China, and Nairobi, Kenya.
The sister cities program unites what it calls “citizen diplomats” across the world. Raleigh’s ties with Xiangyang earned both cities an award last month for the most innovative partnership from the Sister Cities International program.
The two cities have partnered with an African city to build a health center there. Students from a local charter school visited China. Businesspeople and local government officials have made several trips between the cities; most recently a delegation from Xiangyang that visited March 28.
In recognition of Montague’s efforts, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane named a day in his honor.
City Council member Eugene Weeks traveled with Montague to China recently and has known Montague for years. He was impressed, but not surprised, with his efforts abroad.
“Monte has always been a go-getter,” Weeks says. “He’s a man who’s been trying to help the quality of life in my district for some time, and he put all his heart into this. Now he’s one of the unofficial ambassadors for our city internationally.”
Businesses near home
Montague grew up in Southeast Raleigh, the oldest of four children and the only boy in the family. He describes himself as a tough kid, often in trouble and hard-headed, but also inquisitive.
As he got older, he sought to use those same attributes toward positive pursuits.
“I wanted to channel all that to be something,” he says.
He also had a strong entrepreneurial bent, which he put to use at the age of 14. He started cutting hair in his kitchen.
He went on to open his own shop, and started saving money to buy homes in the area. Those investments would eventually help him move on to commercial properties.
His first project was the Statue Side shopping center at Rock Quarry and Martin Luther King Jr. roads, which he opened when he was 26 and still owns.
He brags that the center, named for the statue of King on the corner, has helped launch small businesses in the area. Some of his original tenants remain; one of them is Monte’s Salon, which he still owns.
He quit cutting hair in his late 20s, when a stroke prompted him to give up part of the stressful mix that included a young family.
He says the idea for a retirement home came to him “in a vision.” Construction on the building, which houses 48 one- and two-bedroom apartments, was completed in 2004. He says it has been close to full occupancy ever since.
Montague is proud of the place, but he was also looking to branch out – both personally and on behalf of his community.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur, but I’ve also been kind of saddled to Southeast Raleigh,” he says, sitting in the recreation room at the retirement community on Creech Road. “I was raised three blocks from here.”
He started reaching out in several ways. One was what he calls “stupid phone calls,” reaching out to his elected officials and local leaders, telling them he’s a business owner in an area targeted as depressed, and asking for their advice.
Many of these calls were ignored, but several ended in lasting relationships. One contact he made through that effort was John Wei, a prominent Cary developer who became a mentor to Montague and proposed the idea of a Chinese sister city.
Montague also started traveling. Before 2006, his trips abroad were beach vacations to the Caribbean.
That year, he went to Cameroon, Africa, where he experienced the eye-opening poverty that planted the seed of getting involved in development efforts there. He also visited China to explore Wei’s idea of a sister city.
“I thought with the diversity we have in Raleigh, it made sense to have more of these places represented as sister cities,” he says.
A link with China
When Montague approached the local sister cities program with the idea of a partner city in China, all of its existing sister cities were in Europe: Kingston Upon Hull, England; Compiegne, France; and Rostock, Germany.
Looking back, he appreciates that the organization embraced his proposal.
“It had to sound like a crazy idea,” he says. “I wasn’t even on the board, and I came in talking about doing all this stuff in China and Africa. They could have just said, ‘No.’”
Wei worked with the Chinese officials as Montague worked the idea through the sister cities program and eventually the City Council.
The men agreed they wanted the relationship to be deeper than just exchanging emails and letters.
“From the moment we set up our new model, it was about getting people to meet in key areas like business and education and really share ideas,” says Montague.
One of their first initiatives involved partnering Torchlight Academy with a Chinese school, including the trip to China.
Once the relationship was established with the Chinese city, the two partner cities applied together for a $100,000 grant through Sister Cities International to build a health center in Africa. That project was completed in Osogbo, Nigeria, Asheville’s sister city, late last year.
Since then, the Raleigh sister cities group has found its own African sister city in Nairobi. Montague and Wei have also helped Durham establish a sister city in China using the same model.
Weeks, the mayor pro-tem, says the exchanges have helped widen his own perspective and that of others who participate in both cultural and practical ways.
Weeks says his Chinese contemporaries were interested in Raleigh’s street-sweeping technology, while he wanted to know how their building program moves so quickly. He recently helped a young college graduate land a job teaching English in Xiangyang.
“One you’ve established a good relationship, there will be things they can bring to Raleigh and we can bring to them,” Weeks says.
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