WILMINGTON — Businesses in downtown Dunn suffered mightily since the COVID-19 pandemic struck nearly a year ago.
Some managed to stay open thanks to a reimagining of services while others faced more dire consequences in 2020.
As Harnett County meanders through the slow-moving vaccination phase of recovery, Kaitlin Adkins, Downtown Dunn coordinator, said she expected the rebirth of Broad Street (the city’s main street) to follow a similar path.
“I’m not sure we’re going to see a ‘boom’ it all goes back to normalcy type of thing,” Adkins said. “I think it’s going to be one of those things that is very gradual. I’d love to see it boom back in, but I just think it’s one of those things that everybody has their different opinions and everyone is skeptical a little bit, so I see it coming back gradually.”
Downtown events disappeared in 2020 as staple attractions like The Stewart Theatre shuttered and the Cotton Festival canceled. Adkins said the Downtown Dunn group relied on input from local businesses to plan the few events it could. Many shifted to online or virtual events while others simply wrote 2020 off.
“People got really creative this year in the things they were able to do,” said Adkins. “That’s one thing that is really great about being a Main Street community is we have input from all of these other communities that are also struggling with this as well. People are planning and just kind of waiting to see. We really have our businesses to consider and we try to bring their input in, too, as much as possible.”
Downtown managed to close the year with a Christmas tree lighting in December that produced an encouraging turnout and Adkins said the plan moving forward is to gradually introduce more things people can do safely. Expectations are that as more people get vaccinated and the weather warms up, downtown can start coming back to life.
“They say the pandemic lasts two years, so I’m hoping toward the end of this year people will start feeling a little more comfortable,” Adkins said. “I think people are ready to do something that they are comfortable doing. I think people are ready to see us start to do some things. We are in [the] planning process of possibly a 5K or 10K race that ends in downtown, maybe over the summer, when cases typically seem to be a little bit lower.”
Since taking the position in July, Adkins said she found downtown businesses faced a mixed bag in dealing with the pandemic. Restaurants initially shifted services to takeout and delivery as health restrictions prevented indoor dining for much of the year. Other retailers faced much more difficult choices.
“Some businesses are very optimistic and some say, especially around Christmas time, that if things got bad enough they weren’t sure if their business would survive,” said Adkins. “We try to keep that in mind with the events that we have. There are so many rules and regulations to abide by at this point and they just want to do what’s best for their business to stay afloat. We’re not trying to do anything to hurt that, but we’re trying to bring people as safely back to downtown as we can. It’s a split: half the businesses are optimistic, half are a little worried and scared and are not sure if their business can take another hit. I think with the vaccine, there is more positivity coming.”
Despite the current pandemic, Adkins said the Dunn Downtown Development Committee still plans to move forward with its goals and priorities. During the Dunn City Council retreat in Wilmington on Saturday, Adkins outlined objectives the group wants to accomplish this year such as creating additional event space, making alleyways more pedestrian friendly, livening downtown up with free WiFi and music, placing public art throughout the area and hanging wayfinding signs across the city.
A return to normalcy probably isn’t in the immediate future, but Adkins believes downtown Dunn can get there eventually.
“I’d love to see a big nice event downtown when it’s all over and hopefully we can have that,” Adkins said. “But until then we have to keep it moving forward and if we slowly do those things it will make people comfortable. You don’t want to start it too fast. You want to ease into it with some smaller events, some COVID-friendly events. We’ll get more people vaccinated and we can start doing some events downtown, slowly.”
Eliot Duke can be reached at email@example.com 910-230-2038.