City sets priorities for Dunn 2.0

Entertainment district, passenger rail stop envisioned for city

Managing editor
Posted 2/23/21

How about a city with a movie theater, more full-service restaurants, a passenger rail terminal, made over strip malls and a downtown entertainment district? Those were all needs added to Dunn's to-do list during the Imagine Dunn visioning process.

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City sets priorities for Dunn 2.0

Entertainment district, passenger rail stop envisioned for city


WILMINGTON — What will Dunn look like in 10 or 20 years?

How about a city with a movie theater, more full-service restaurants, a passenger rail terminal, made over strip malls and a downtown entertainment district? Those were all needs added to the city’s to-do list during the Imagine Dunn visioning process.

Eight months into the yearlong planning operation, conducted in the throes of a global pandemic — city leaders now have an idea of what comes next and what to do about it after getting 62 draft recommendations from Arnett Muldrow & Associates during a Dunn budget retreat Friday in Wilmington.

The Greenville, South Carolina-based planning firm, conducted community surveys, met with stakeholders and studied market and demographic details to lay the “foundational framework of the strategic plan.” The plan was presented via video at the retreat.

The study drew the eyes of more than 3,000 community members in the city of 9,680 residents.


“Some of the demographic takeaways that we saw was that Dunn’s a little bit older. The median age is just above 40,” said Aaron Arnett, a partner with the firm, in the video. “Your income levels lag in the region and you have higher poverty rates than other communities within the region. But you’re also in a fast growth area. You’re growth rate is slower than that of the region, but the growth is coming and is projected to continue.”

About 70% of Dunn’s housing units are single-family homes.

43% of Dunn’s residents are renters.

53% of renters spend more than 30% of their monthly income on housing costs (rent and utilities) in Dunn; 30% of those renters spend more than half of their monthly earnings on housing. The rent standard for most rental housing programs was capped at 30% of a renter’s total monthly income in 1981. That standard remains in place today. Those who spend more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities are considered to be “cost burdened.” Those who pay more than 50% are considered to be “severely cost burdened.”

21.32% of families (one in five) live below the poverty line in Dunn.

Dunn’s median household income is $33,340.

Population has increased by 4.5% in the past 10 years.

Retail leakage

A market study conducted through Imagine Dunn revealed the city lost nearly $35 million in retail to full service restaurants within a 25-minute drive. The retail leakage study also reflected a $32 million loss to other communities in the same area when it came to clothing stores.

“Essentially, it’s a supply and demand analysis that helps us identify what opportunities there are for growth in a number of retail categories based on current demand,” Arnett said of the retail leakage analysis.

Other retail losses were reported in electronics stores ($10.6 million), furniture shops ($8.1 million), specialty food stores and shops selling sporting goods (each with more than $5 million in leakage).

The retail losses were mirrored in answers to an Imagine Dunn community survey question polling people on what types of retail and restaurant businesses are needed in the city. A movie theater, family-friendly restaurants, fine dining restaurants, family-friendly entertainment and clothing stores made the top five suggestions.

Imagine Dunn drafted 62 strategies for growth. Council and city staff narrowed down the 62 goals into the following 12 high priorities:

  • Update the comprehensive land use plan and development ordinances: Review existing development regulations and ensure the type and quality of development is permitted in the city; update ordinances to comply with current state codes; and align the vision, goals and initiatives of this plan to update the comprehensive plan.
  • Continue to implement the goals and objectives of departmental strategic plans to accommodate sustainable growth: including improvements to water and sewer systems and fixes to stormwater issues.
  • Expand market-rate residential by recruiting developers that will build new products: Engage landowners in discussion of development opportunities and pair with local or regional housing developers; identify nodes within the city that can accommodate medium-density, market-rate housing such as townhomes, condominiums and apartments; recruit developers that will build new products and expand housing choices; and consider initiatives for private developers to encourage diverse housing options through incentives like a reduction in permitting fees or rehabilitation grants.
  • Continue to support efforts of Harnett County Schools and Central Carolina Community College to ensure programming meets the needs of residents and businesses: Conduct annual meetings with the Harnett County Schools administration to share goals and progress of the Imagine Dunn plan and identify partnership opportunities; and continue to strive for quality and excellence in education and help the school system communicate success stories to residents, current and future.
  • Expand and improve events with active promotion: Conduct an annual food truck rodeo to highlight local restaurants and recruit new ones; expand and enhance the Farmers Market as a destination; create regular food or craft beer or music events in downtown focused on targeting regional patrons; and consider an annual recreation-based event that begins and ends in downtown Dunn such as a bike criterion or a triathlon.
  • Create entertainment district in downtown: Develop a downtown entertainment venue similar to Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount, Virginia; support the revitalization of The Stewart Theatre and create a physical connection to new venue; and recruit supporting businesses such as restaurants, a brewery and lodging.
  • Recruit businesses based on gaps identified in comprehensive market analysis: Key opportunities exist in full-service restaurants, entertainment, clothing, specialty foods, coffee shops and sporting goods; create a business opportunity one-sheet for marketing; identify properties in and outside of downtown that would be ideal for these uses; engage property owners in discussion about potential and connect with entrepreneurs; and determine potential for start-up incentives.
  • Partner with Harnett County Schools to incorporate entrepreneurial training in their curriculum. Coordinate with the chamber and Dunn Downtown Development Corporation to encourage youth business startup or mentoring with existing business.
  • Establish a consistent and unified market position: internal messaging based on building community pride of place; “Success begins here” and Family begins here” external message focusing on bringing in new investment with businesses and residents.
  • Implement a comprehensive wayfinding system directing locals and visitors to cultural, parks and recreation and civic destinations: banners, high and low-speed trailblazers, pedestrian and parking signage and gateway signage.
  • Create economic development planner position to recruit desired business and market development opportunities: In small towns, economic developers are a critical need that often needs to be creatively addressed based on local dynamics. In some communities there is designated staff, while others partner with or engage chambers and downtown groups to lead economic development efforts.
  • Create mechanism to evaluate the implementation of this plan: Establish baseline metrics and benchmark indicators; facilitate annual report card evaluation of this plan and its implementation; and develop tool for city to measure resident satisfaction of individual services.

Emily Weaver can be reached at or at 910-230-2028.


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