Fielding questions on a variety of topics from education to economic development to racial divisiveness, nine of Dunn’s 10 candidates up for election told a crowd of less than 45 voters why they were right for the job at a panel Monday night.
Joy Williams, who lives in Dunn, said the small turnout reflected a reluctance among residents to get involved or think things will improve for the city that “hasn’t grown” in 25 years.
The population in Dunn was 9,338 in 1992. In 2017, it was estimated at 9,734.
“We need businesses here to help people. We need good housing. We need good communities. We need growth,” Williams said, looking to the one candidate running for mayor, William Elmore Jr. “What are you definitely going to do to help the situation in Dunn? ... (Dunn) has not grown any in 25 years. ... If you were any political person in Dunn, you would have to ask yourself, ‘Why is that?’ Everybody else around us is growing and Dunn is not and we’re sitting on two interstates.”
“Dunn is growing, but not in the city limits,” Elmore replied. “If you look at our surrounding areas right outside of town, there’s quite a bit of growth. I think we need to do some things to bring in more restaurants. We need more retail in Dunn. ... We need better housing in Dunn... I think we need to look in terms of finding and putting new construction in our city.”
He suggested the city start “a recruitment program” to spur economic development.
“I think we’ve got to start selling our community with the positive ... we have here,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I will listen and will plan and will seek ways that we can bring new things to our town.”
Jennifer Fortin, a Vermont native who now lives in Dunn and is running for the Ward 4 seat on the council, said improving the city is her main goal.
"I have worked with municipalities over 10 years in New Hampshire, in Florida and in North Carolina," Fortin said. "I would like to see a difference with more businesses coming to the area and youth activities and help bring the properties up. I think that’s a big thing with neighbors getting upset and properties not being cleaned and we all need to work together to have this happen."
Councilman Billy Tart, who currently holds the Ward 4 seat and is running for another term, was not in attendance at the Meet the Candidates panel inside the Dunn Community Center, due to another engagement. The Dunn Area Chamber Of Commerce hosted the panel and filmed it to appear on the local government cable TV channel 7.
Allison Fenderson, a small business owner in Harnett County, stepped up to the microphone wearing a ball cap and a shirt stamped with the word “ARMY.”
“My question is a roundtable question. As you can see, I’m an African American woman — a proud African American woman,” she said. “What (do) you think you could do to impact or improve racial relationships?”
“The city of Dunn and the surrounding area is very fortunate that we don’t have some of the racial tensions that you see on the news from other big cities. So, we are winning in that respect,” said J. Wesley Sills, an unopposed candidate running for the Ward 1 seat. “Is there a racial divide? I would say, ‘yes.’ I saw that when I was in the classroom. I see that with our housing patterns. I see that with the enrollments in our public schools. You can’t deny facts.”
He doesn’t have a plan to address the racial divide, he said, but it will take more than one man to do it.
“If we want to ease some of those racial tensions that do exist, we can do that through economic prosperity. We can do that through equal and fair enforcement of codes,” he said.
Incumbent Councilman Chuck Turnage told Fenderson that he looks beyond color or creed, which was a valuable lesson he said he learned long ago in the Army. He said that the city has a diverse workforce.
April Gaulden, who is running for the Ward 2 seat, said that she, too, doesn’t look at race.
“We should look beyond color,” she said.
“We can pretend there’s no diversity all day long, but there is,” said Councilman Frank McLean, who is running to keep his Ward 3 seat. People of color are sentenced differently than their white counterparts and aren’t on the same economic setting as white people, he said, suggesting the city follow the military’s example of looking beyond color.
His fellow councilwoman, Dr. Gwendolyn McNeill, agreed.
“Until you face something, you will never resolve it,” said McNeill, who is running against Gaulden to keep her Ward 2 seat.
Elmore suggested the city work with others to provide opportunities to all kids.
Councilman Dr. David Bradham, who is running unopposed for his Ward 6 seat, said that the schools, though integrated, are still in many ways segregated here. He said that the city should look at more ways of including kids of color or lower economic status in sports to erase the divide among kids who will be the city’s future. He suggested the city’s parks and recreation department go to schools to recruit more diverse all-star teams and look at grants to help the lower income kids afford to play.
Education in Dunn
Two candidates were asked about education. Chamber officials say it was the No. 1 topic among residents polled over what to ask the political contestants.
What role does the city and you, as a candidate, have in ensuring the success of our local Dunn area schools?
“There’s no doubt we have a problem with the schools in our area,” Elmore said. “Our problems began a few years ago when the board of education allowed our parents to begin moving local children out of our school district, creating the loss of some of our best and brightest kids. It’s my understanding that this is no longer allowed ... and we cannot afford for this to happen again.”
Elmore said the city will need to partner with others to fix the problem.
“Together as elected officials, the chamber of commerce and the citizens, we need to create a force of unity to turn our schools around,” Elmore said. “We need to discuss this situation honestly and openly. We can no longer sweep this under the rug.
“We have some of the finest and most caring instructors that are available in the school system. We have great facilities and new programs in place,” he continued. “This has become a problem, ... but the burden of correcting the problem must fall on the board of education and as mayor I would start the conversation on this immediately. We must hold the board of education responsible and hold them accountable for this situation.”
Vincent Pressley, who is running against McLean for the Ward 3 seat, said that he is an alumnus of the Harnett County Schools system. He graduated from Triton High before attending Campbell University.
He knows education is an investment, he said, and city leaders should ask themselves if they are doing enough to support the county’s efforts to provide a safe and relevant education to make students productive in a community after graduation.
Dates to remember