Marine Corps members train at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling 244-square mile military campus located both in and outside of Jacksonville city limits. (Photo courtesy of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune)

Residents of the Cape Fear region have become accustomed to growth in recent years. They see it in new developments, clogged highways, and razed woodlands.

That’s why it may seem peculiar that the nearest urban neighbor, Jacksonville, has seen the most population loss in the state in recent years.

Onslow County’s population has grown about 17 percent since 2010, and all of its municipalities have expanded–except Jacksonville. 

The military community is home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, and active duty members and their families make up the bulk of the city’s coastal population. (Onslow County’s median age of 28 is the youngest across the state’s aging counties.)

The military is the city’s largest economic engine, said interim city manager Ron Massey. It’s “contributed significantly to the swings in our population estimates,” he said.

The U.S. Census estimates Jacksonville lost about 2,220 people between 2020 and 2022, bringing its population to 70,420. The state demographer’s office, which uses a different and more complex methodology, clocks the downturn at about 640. But both counts would still put Jacksonville as the state leader in municipal population loss. 

Movements of military units affect Jacksonville’s numbers, Massey explained, but the city hasn’t seen an impact on its revenues or any service reductions: “Many revenue sources are not based on population.” 

While a lack of developable land in Wilmington aided the explosive growth in its neighboring communities, that sprawl hasn’t quite reached Jacksonville, which is about 40 miles north. 

Over the past decade, about half of the state’s counties have shed population. Growth has been concentrated in the south-central, southeastern, and Triangle areas of the state.

Changes in group living settings, like military bases, nursing homes, prisons and colleges can cause a noticeable blip in municipal population data, according to state demographer Michael Cline. 

For example, unincorporated areas of Hertford County, a northeastern county that borders Virginia, saw a dramatic dive after 2020 according to the state’s count. That decline was driven by President Joe Biden’s decision to nix contracts with for-profit prisons, prompting the closure of Rivers Correctional Institution, the state’s only private prison.

Cline notes that the municipalities that have experienced population decline are “typically small and distant from major urban centers.”

Jacksonville is known for its barber shops, chain stores, and strip clubs. And while it hasn’t experienced the frenzied growth of its neighbors, it seems to be doing just fine without it. The Marine Corps estimated Camp Lejeune’s annual economic impact at $2.2 billion as of 2021. 

– Johanna F. Still

We won’t be in your inbox next week for Thanksgiving, but we’ll see you the following week. Catch up on an audio conversation on last week’s edition of The Dive here, or contact us with story ideas and feedback at

Duke’s Nuclear Ambitions

There was much fanfare when the state legislature passed a bill in October 2021 requiring utilities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 70 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.

But less than two years later, Duke Energy asked the state utilities commission to relax its decarbonization schedule. Duke’s preferred approach would not reach a 70 percent cut until 2035. Key to Duke’s plan is completing two advanced nuclear power plants, one by 2034 and another by 2035. 

These reactors seek to improve on old technologies, and engineers believe they can be smaller, safer, and more efficient than the current fleet–the oldest of which is Duke’s Brunswick Nuclear Plant near Southport.

Duke says it’s considering nuclear designs by Wilmington-based GE Hitachi, among others. For The Assembly, Daniel Walton details Duke’s nuclear ambitions.

Up and Atom?

Duke Energy is leaning on advanced but unproven nuclear technology in its plans to decarbonize North Carolina’s electricity. Environmental advocates say that will delay meeting climate goals. 

Pick a Side

Since the election results that rolled in late last Tuesday made it clear Democrats would sweep the Wilmington City Council race, plenty of people have remarked that it was a very partisan non-partisan election.

Off-year municipal elections–which is kind of a rude term, like describing a bad vintage–are almost always non-partisan. The local Democratic and Republican parties have historically had some hand in the campaigns, but it’s nothing like the arms race of rhetoric, fundraising, and advertising that we see in state and federal races. 

While we’re not there yet, something felt different this time around. Perhaps it was the Democratic Party’s decision to winnow its roster from four to three, or the GOP door-hangers presenting their slate of three candidates. 

Incumbent Republican councilman Neil Anderson, who lost his seat after three terms, decried the shift in an interview with WECT. Voters in both parties likely simply went with a slate and didn’t “do their homework,” Anderson said. “I don’t think that’s good. I think that’s why it was designed to be unaffiliated.”

Carolina Beach Mayor Lynn Barbee told WHQR he is still processing his mixed feelings about the uptick in partisanship. Like a lot of people–myself included–Barbee is a fan of Carolina Beach’s enthusiastic lower-case-d democratic spirit. 

“Our custom has always been that every candidate erects a tent and we treat voting day as a celebration of democracy. We are all there thanking voters for coming out to vote. Minimal electioneering happens,” Barbee wrote in an email that he shared with WHQR. “We share coffee, donuts, and show unity among all competitors. It has been cathartic for everyone, that no matter what happens we are neighbors.”

Barbee is an unaffiliated voter and says he has no connection to either party, nor does he have any desire to criticize others’ campaign strategy. 

But he couldn’t help notice that this year, both parties handed out sample ballots with their chosen candidates. In Carolina Beach’s mayoral race, Democrats supported one Democratic candidate and two unaffiliated candidates–including Barbee, who won reelection by a safe margin and acknowledged he probably benefited from their endorsement. 

Barbee also noted that the Carolina Beach Republican candidate managed to earn 7 percent of the vote despite the fact that “he had no real campaign, didn’t show for any of the chamber of media forums, published no platform, no advertisement of any kind.”

On the one hand, Barbee said he saw the possible benefits in terms of improved voter turnout. On the other, Barbee feared that party affiliation could distract from candidates’ actual policy ideas. And, as an unaffiliated candidate in a town with eclectic political views, he feared it would “be very difficult for unaffiliated candidates to compete in the future.”

It’s unlikely the partisan genie can be put back in the bottle. But a little nostalgia for a less partisan age is understandable.

– Benjamin Schachtman

Around the Region

Muddying the Waters: Two state agencies have enacted conflicting rules for certain recreational fishing species, Coastal Review Online reports. One says catching striped mullet is OK, while another bans it.

Plugged In: The state is seeing a flurry of investment announcements in the electric vehicle industry. The StarNews details how stakeholders hope to transform the local workforce in preparation for those jobs. 

A Squeaker: Southport still doesn’t know who won the mayor’s race. Incumbent Joe Pat Hatem currently holds a three-vote lead over Rich Alt, The State Port Pilot reports. Official results are expected Friday.

Mental Health Crisis: WHQR has a two-parter on the lack of local mental health care. There aren’t any nearby behavioral health urgent cares, a preferred option to a hospital for someone in crisis.

Around the State

Conclusion, But No Closure

A Davidson County murder case drew international media coverage, but the conclusion brought little closure.

Can Charlotte Re-Sort Itself?

One year ago, the city passed a landmark zoning reform aimed at reversing a century of segregation. The battle still rages.

Press On

One of the state’s oldest Black newspapers is clinging to life in Wilmington, but some are optimistic for its revival.

The Assembly is a digital magazine covering power and place in North Carolina. Sent this by a friend? Subscribe to The Wilmington Dive or to our statewide newsletter.