By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
What has seemingly become interwoven into the fabric of Dunn and the surrounding areas is 30 years old, believe it or not, and the company will celebrate the anniversary in private ceremonies Thursday.
Food Lion Distribution Center Four began operations at its location on Arrowhead Road just south of Dunn in January of 1988 and — despite a few setbacks caused by Mother Nature’s fury — it has continued to flourish.
After opening, the center began to slowly gain momentum as it expanded its distribution range over the next few years delivering Food Lion inventory from the East Coast westward.
The building itself saw growth, despite suffering a setback in April of 2011 when a tornado ripped the building apart. Instead of packing up and finding another location, Food Lion officials opted to temporarily close the facility in order to rebuild. And rebuild they did, expanding the center to where it now stands at approximately 1.4 million square feet and more than quadruple the number of employees.
Not only has the distribution center stood the test of time and a tornado, it has survived flooding caused by hurricanes that left their mark as well. The company has been forced to halt operations, only to make the needed repairs and continue to be a stable employer and economic entity in the Dunn landscape.
“Food Lion recently celebrated our 60th anniversary and we’re incredibly proud to mark the 30th anniversary of our distribution center in Dunn this week,” said Mike Dickey, general manager of the distribution center. “Our 800 associates working at the warehouse are committed to ensuring Food Lion’s stores have the products our customers expect and the quality they deserve. We’re proud to call North Carolina home and look forward to continuing to be a large part of the community in Dunn in the years ahead.”
The center came to Dunn at a time when the economy was in need of a boost. According to former Dunn City Council members, it was just what the town needed.
“I would venture to say it was pretty exciting because we felt like there was going to be some jobs for our constituents here in town,” said former Dunn Council member Dallas Dafford. “We knew it would certainly help the tax base.”
And help it did. When it opened the center immediately began to make an impact. Food Lion brought 200 to 275 jobs to Dunn and gave workers something former city council member Carnell Robinson said was welcomed with open arms.
“I think the thing that was most impressive is that it was a major step for economic development in this area,” he said. “And the company, when they got here, were indeed an equal opportunity employer. That’s the kind of company we wanted to get in this area and Food Lion was a great asset for this area and the starting salary was really great for this area.”
Mr. Dafford agrees with his former colleague’s assessment and noted the need for such jobs in the area as well as the boost to local businesses as a residual effect.
“The excitement level was pretty high because a lot of our residents were able to secure decent- paying jobs with some benefits,” he said. “It was something that was lacking in our area. We had Morganite, of course, but that was one of the very few at the time.”
From those beginnings, the center has blossomed into the third largest employer in Harnett County supplying more than 1,000 jobs. They are only exceeded in that standing by Harnett County Schools and Campbell University.
“I think it was a tremendous boost from the standpoint of the number of employees it brought on board,” Mr. Robinson said. “Not all of them lived in Dunn, so it helped with the commerce in this area as well. They buy gas, they buy food and they shop here.”
The introduction of the infrastructure required to build the distribution center also provided a future bonus as well. It laid the groundwork for the future businesses that would eventually take over the adjacent property.
Current Harnett County Commissioner Abe Elmore, who at the time was not mayor then, but did play a role in securing the funding necessary to get the distribution center here, said Food Lion had a hand in bringing other facilities to their neighborhood.
“All of those industries across the street that’s out there now are there because we had the water and sewer for them to tie on to and made it an industrial area out there,” Mr. Elmore said. “Water and sewer brought Food Lion, but it opened that whole area up for other businesses to come there.”
How The Distribution Center Came To Be
• Local, state officials teamed to make it happen.
By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
At the time it seemed like town officials were taking a chance on a pig in a poke, but when it was all said and done, the City of Dunn — and Food Lion — came out smelling like a rose.
After 30 years of providing jobs to area residents and becoming the third largest employer in Harnett County, almost forgotten is how the Food Lion Distribution Center came into being.
The year was 1985 and the City of Dunn was looking to bring good jobs and a good industry to its nest. There were just a handful of employers who could provide what workers in the area needed, good jobs with good benefits. So, it was only natural when city officials were offered an opportunity, they would do all they could to make it happen.
What they had been told was a major company wanted to locate a facility in Dunn. They had been told it would require the town extend water and sewer lines south of the city and that it would eventually bring 900 jobs along with it. Only trouble was they didn’t know who or what the company or industry was unless they could guarantee the infrastructure.
Late Harnett County Commissioner Jesse Alphin approached local businessman, civic leader and former Dunn Mayor Abe Elmore to help with the dilemma.
Mr. Elmore, who at the time was serving on then-Gov. Jim Martin’s Committee for Business Development in North Carolina, was challenged by Commissioner Alphin to find the needed funding. He had explained to Mr. Elmore the company needed water and sewer lines along U.S. 301 and it would cost a million dollars.
“I asked him who the company was and he said he didn’t know,” said Mr. Elmore, who is now a Harnett County commissioner. “I asked him what kind of industry they wanted to bring and he said he didn’t know.”
Mr. Elmore then asked the commissioner what he did know. “I know they’ll bring 900 jobs if we’re able to put it together,” Commissioner Alphin told Mr. Elmore.
The Dunn business and civic leader then put the contacts he had made on the governor’s committee to use. He knew the best way to get the money would be through some sort of grant program.
Fortunately, Mr. Elmore remembered a woman who was involved in getting grants for such purposes.
After telling her of the situation — including the deepening mystery over who the company was — the woman called him back 15 minutes later.
She didn’t have the full million, but she told Mr. Elmore she could secure $850,000 with some stipulations.
“She told me she could only find us $850,000,” he said. “And then only if they were good people and if they could deliver the 900 jobs. So, I called Jesse back and told him I could get the $850,000.”
Commissioner Alphin then invited him to a meeting on the top floor of what is now the General Lee Museum to meet with town and business leaders to discuss the situation. It was only after he arrived at the meeting was the name of the company revealed.
“I got there and there were a bunch of folks in the room, most of them I didn’t know,” Mr. Elmore said. “They had this little TV screen there and when they turned it on it was Food Lion. That was the first time we knew who we were dealing with.”
As the old adage goes, from there it was history.
The state provided the funding, the city provided the water and sewer hook-ups and Food Lion provided the $38 million to build the center.
Mr. Elmore said it took some work, but thanks to some good engineering — and the gas company providing their own funding to get lines out there — two years later Food Lion Distribution Center Four was a reality.
“I knew if Food Lion was involved it would be great for us here in Dunn and it has,” Mr. Elmore said. “They’ve been a wonderful addition to our area.