While a slowly recovering economy leads many shoppers to look for cheaper options at the store, many Vermonters aren’t laying out the welcome mat for Dollar General.
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Dollar General, the top player in the dollar store industry, has been rapidly expanding in the Green Mountain State since 2006. By 2010, Dollar General had 11 stores in the state; now, there are 17 operating.
And some are saying that is more than enough.
Chester, located near the popular ski spot Okemo, is at the frontline in the fight against Dollar General. Lawyer Jim Dumont, who is arguing against Dollar General expansion in Chester, Ferrisburgh and South Hero, says the heart of the case depends on what many consider to be the essence of Vermont.
“What my clients share is their concern that Vermont needs to stay Vermont. A good part of our lifestyle and economy would disappear if, when people arrive in Vermont for vacation from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, the towns look exactly the same as the ones they just left,” says Dumont.
Fighting Dollar General
Smart Growth Chester has been fighting to keep Dollar General out of Chester, and they just had a big win: The dollar store’s zoning permit was reversed and sent back to the zoning board for more investigation, which is still underway.
In the other Vermont towns of Ferrisburgh and South Hero, Dollar General’s spread has also been halted, at least temporarily. Ferrisburg’s case is awaiting oral argument in front of the state Supreme Court, says Dumont, and in South Hero, the town managed to quickly pass a new zoning law forbidding new commercial spaces in excess of 3,000 square feet.
Shawn Cunningham, a leader of Smart Growth Chester, says there’s no place for chain stores in Chester.
“I’m opposed to it both in terms of tourism, and what it will do to other merchants,” says Cunningham.
In addition to turning off tourists coming to stay at one of Chester’s many bed and breakfasts, Cunningham is concerned about how the presence of a chain store like Dollar General might affect the second-home market.
“Second-home owners add a lot to the economy, because they pay full freight on all taxes. When you’re a resident, you can pay based on income … If [Dollar General] is going to put an $800,000 building and that means three to four people won’t build second homes here, we’ve lost that tax base forever,” says Cunningham.
In Chester, Lisai’s Market, the only grocery store, has the most to lose from Dollar General coming to town.
A family-owned establishment, Andrew Lisai helps his father Lonny run Lisai’s. “We have 23 employees,” says Lisai, “and I think we’d have to lay off a few if we lost a certain percentage of sales.” He estimates that the store could lose as much as $4,000 in sales a day.
“We know the town needs a drugstore … but these [Dollar General] stores just pollute communities. They pop up everywhere,” he adds.
The increasing presence of Dollar General across the state was a frequent argument made. There’s another Dollar General just seven miles away in nearby Springfield, and many say they understand the appeal of cheaper goods – but wonder why seven miles isn’t close enough.
“We have concerns about the number of dollar stores. Do we need one every five miles? I don’t think so,” says Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
Are Dollar Stores so Bad?
Other Vermonters can’t quite get behind the Dollar General outrage. William Austin Smith, the owner of the William Austin Antiques Store in Chester, says that while his business depends in part on tourists, there’s a definite need for a dollar store’s offerings.
“There’s no drugstore here, so if you need a pair of socks, or drugstore items, you can go into the Jiffy Mart, and they rake you through the coals,” says Smith. “There’s nowhere you can go to buy some reasonably priced batteries or shoelaces. You need to drive to Springfield.”
And in South Hero, Wendy Horne, the manager of Keeler’s, a market that would be in direct competition with Dollar General, says the dollar store doesn’t strike her as a major threat.
“We have a great business, and I can see people not wanting to travel so far,” says Horne.
For many, Dollar General’s biggest offense isn’t the stigma of cheaply made goods or of bargain-hunting, but simply the footprint of the company’s stores.
Bruhn, of the Preservation Trust, says his organization has been willing to compromise with big-box retailers – including Walmart – as long as they agree to open smaller stores in urban areas.
“I understand the need for the kind of shopping experience provided by Dollar General, and we can be supportive when they are located in downtowns. We have issues with their design [right now], which is not a design that fits in,” says Bruhn.
Horne agrees with the design issues, even though she isn’t bothered by the idea of the store itself. “I live in a rural community, and aside from being a business owner, I like the country. I don’t want to see McDonald’s here, and I don’t want to see box stores of any kind. I don’t like traffic lights or big city living,” she says.
And that feeling pretty much sums up the arguments made by Smart Growth Chester and the Preservation Trust.
“We have great historic buildings, great village centers and downtowns with a minimum of sprawl, and very strong working landscape farms,” says Bruhn. “One of our great attractions is that we’re not anywhere, USA. We’re our distinct own place.”