Local leaders position Harnett County’s biggest city for a robust future as the Triangle sprawls south.
At a cozy tavern on Dunn’s East Broad Street, Willie Nelson shuffles across the varnished concrete floor, greeting patrons with their pints of amber. Heads turn. There are smiles. Willie Nelson’s short stature and bristly face command attention on this Saturday night.
When he pops up on the back patio, the proprietor calls out, “Hey Willie.” Willie takes a seat, adding not a word to the chatter and hearty laughter. And for good reason — he’s a dog: a black dachshund that shares a name with the Texas crooner whose twang goes well with a cold one.
Willie belongs to Brad Hawkins, 41, owner of Lucknow Bottle and Tap. Garbed in an untucked flannel shirt and jeans, Hawkins digs country music and beer crafted in North Carolina. On this Saturday night, it seems as if everybody who’s anybody in Dunn has poured into his gathering place to toast his grand opening.
Mayor William Elmore drops in. Wesley Johnson, president-elect of the Dunn Area Chamber of Commerce, is seated on the patio, nursing a round with friends and business partners. A baker named Joy Dodson, who started a business during the pandemic — Joy by the Pound — has her pound cakes on display, ready for the slicing. The owners of bed and breakfast Simply Divine, tattoo shop Heart and Hammer Tattoo, and art boutique Whimsical Creations are all mingling.
“Our brand is really kind of family-friendly, kid-friendly, dog-friendly, and this area really needed something like this,” Hawkins says. “We’re just really trying to create this fellowship type of vibe down here. I don’t consider this like a bar type of scene.”
Hawkins owns a similar venue in Garner called 42 Craft Beverage. He grew up in Four Oaks and now lives in neighboring Benson. He saw Dunn as ripe for an after-hours, Cheers-like hangout. “There’s no place to decompress when you get off work,” he says. “You talk to some familiar faces, coming on your good days, coming on your bad days.”
So in March 2020, he began renovations in a building dating to the late 1800s, a space that sat empty for decades. Its old-timey tin ceiling tiles and patches of exposed brick in the wall are just the right rustic decor for a laid-back watering hole. Johnson encouraged Hawkins to bring his taps to town “to help be an anchor business and get other businesses involved,” he says.
The name Lucknow was one of the original names of Dunn, settled in the mid-1800s as a logging town and turpentine distiller, tapping into the region’s bounty of longleaf pines. As the railroad came through, its builders reportedly named the community Luck-now after the 1857 siege of Lucknow in Northern India following a rebellion against British rule. The settlement’s name was changed to Dunn in 1873 as a salute to Bennett Dunn, who supervised the railroad’s construction.
PEOPLE AND ROOMS
The railroad still bisects Dunn, the largest city in Harnett County with a population of about 9,750. But Interstate 95 has eclipsed it as the primary transportation artery. Dunn sits right off the interstate, seven miles south of the Interstate 40 interchange, a spot boosters call the “Crossroads of America.” Dunn is a maze of construction and bridge demolitions on a highway that has undergone little improvement since it was built in the late 1950s. The outdated bridges were too low, the exit ramps too short, the median too narrow. With roughly 58,000 vehicles passing by every day, traffic has long felt squeezed. That’s changing as the interstate transforms from four lanes to eight lanes, a 26-mile project from Fayetteville to I-40 expected to be finished by 2025.
The city put up a billboard announcing all exits to Dunn are open, in hopes of steering drivers to stop for a coffee at the new Starbucks; an omelet at Triangle Waffle; or an overnight hotel stay. Better yet, there was hope that visitors would venture downtown for a slice of multilayer cake at Sherry’s Bakery — a must-stop for its irresistible menu of honey buns and red velvet cupcakes — or a tour of the Gen. William C. Lee Airborne Museum, honoring a native son who became known as the “Father of the American Airborne” during World War II.
National furniture retailer Rooms to Go broke ground in 2014 on the largest furniture distribution center in the Southeast. The center sprawls across 1.45 million square feet and fills a half mile of frontage along I-95. It is an imposing presence: a big white box, trimmed in blue and yellow, with a long line of loading dock doors. Capitalizing on the junction of interstates, the warehouse and retail showroom opened in 2015 and employs about 220 people.
Another large warehouse nearby has an even bigger payroll. About 750 people work at the Food Lion distribution center, which serves nearly 300 stores across North Carolina.
Manufacturing also has a foothold in Dunn. Godwin Manufacturing, which builds steel dump bodies, platforms and hoists, salutes travelers with a billboard along I-95: “Welcome to Dunn, North Carolina, The Dump Truck Body Capital of the World.” It employs about 500 at four U.S. factories. Pat Godwin, who was raised on a sweet potato farm a few miles from the Dunn plant, founded the company in 1966. At 80 years old, “I go to work every day,” he says. “And I’m very, very active in the company. It’s just something I wanted to do, and I don’t know when to quit.”
Dunn and its neighbors along the interstate are angling to haul in more business. Late last year, Dunn, Benson and Four Oaks formed the I-95/I-40 Crossroads of America Economic Planning Alliance with the goal of working together to land new businesses and provide more attractions. Benson withdrew in May, citing concerns about funding and oversight. Dunn also has its own initiative: the Imagine Dunn Strategic Vision Plan, which aims to market and add a new shine to the city.
As part of the plan, city leaders are seeking out the smaller-scale businesses that can make Dunn a destination. Mayor Elmore, who grew up in the city, ran for the city’s top job in 2019 because “I wanted to make things happen in Dunn.”
DUNN’S TO-DO LIST
The downtown has a polished, lived-in look, populated with brick storefronts housing clothing boutiques, a salon and day spa, and a craft shop named The Gigglin’ Pig. There’s an old movie house called the Stewart Theater, remodeled with a stage for live shows. There’s the Dunn Area History Museum and The Organic Butcher Shop, which was opened in 2017 by Dorothy and Tony Adkins, first-generation farmers who raise their own livestock.
On Saturday afternoons after 3 p.m., downtown Dunn dozes. Most businesses close shop about that time, leaving sidewalks empty and the streets hushed. Stores stay open longer on weekdays, but even then, downtown after dark is drowsy. “We hope to change that,” Elmore says.
Pull up a seat next to Johnson, the chamber’s president-elect, and he’ll describe plans to convert the old General Grain Cotton Gin into a 9,000-square-foot brewery and entertainment complex called Grain Dealers Brewery. “It’s a gorgeous building,” he says. He envisions rooftop dining “where you can look up and down the railroad,” he says.
Johnson and his partners are generating funds for the project through crowdfunding, which involves small money donations from individuals. He sees it as a prime way for the community to take ownership of important developments.
Johnson, 33, founded his information-technology firm called TeCHonfidence and is chief operations officer at East Coast Hemp Supply, which he started with Keith Dunn, a friend he’s known since Cub Scout days. Their 7,000-square-foot retail space on Broad Street sells a trove of products made from hemp grown on Dunn’s local farm.
Johnson has master’s degrees in environmental management and entrepreneurship, giving him the expertise to assist small businesses. “Anybody who wants to do business in Dunn, I’ll write the business plan, talk with the bank,” he says.
“These small towns are perfect incubators for them because you’ve got a nice, tight network of people who want to support local, and you’ve got affordable real estate.”
Locals are cheered about a soon-to-open restaurant that has garnered rave reviews at its original location in Fuquay-Varina. The owner of Garibaldi Trattoria is renovating the old Sunbelt Press building on Broad Street to house another eatery, serving Italian and French cuisine.
“We’ve sat between Raleigh and Fayetteville,” Mayor Elmore says. “We’re getting a tremendous amount of folks looking at us now. Residential housing is really moving our direction now. The real estate market is on fire.”
Back at Lucknow, Willie Nelson works the crowded bar. Conversation and laughter flow smoothly. Dunn has its phalanx of franchises out by the interstate, but head on into town and the fast lane fades into the rear view. In a new bar inside a cozy old building, it’s as if everybody knows your name. ■