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Dollar store dilemma


Dollar stores have a problematic image--low rent, tacky, maybe even dangerous.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Vermont's struggle to keep such stores out of the state. Though Vermont has fought valiantly to thwart big box stores from becoming ubiquitous, it's facing a new "threat" from dollar stores. Where Walmart has just four stores in the state, various national dollar chains have 12.

A recent New York Times story shows just how much of a threat Vermonters feel dollar stores to be to the essence of their communities, and outlines their battle to keep them out. Because of dollar stores' small footprint, they're not as easy to block as giant big box stores that can be zoned out for size.

Here is Abby Goodnough writing for the Times:

Chester, with 3,000 residents, has a number of homegrown businesses, many located in Victorian houses along Main Street. But there is little in the way of generic commercial architecture here — a selling point that drew residents like Mr. Veliz and Mr. Cunningham, who moved his family here from Baltimore in 2004.


“Most of the people in Chester now are people who have come from someplace else,” Mr. Cunningham said. “It’s like a lot of Vermont. Why come to a place like this only to have it turn into the kind of place you were trying to leave?”

Nodding to that concern, the Development Review Board is requiring Dollar General to use certain materials — the wood clapboard siding, for example, instead of a vinyl alternative that the company wanted. Dollar General on its own proposed a building with a peaked roof, as well as a cupola and a faux hayloft door.

In their decision approving the project, board members noted that a retail store was an “allowed use” in the part of town where Dollar General wants to open. They also said that, by using wood siding, the store would meet a zoning requirement that new buildings “adhere harmoniously to the overall New England architectural appearance” of the town.


Tawn Earnest, a spokeswoman for Dollar General, said the company had a long history in small towns and rural communities, often serving customers who have few retail options. Opposition to Dollar General, which is based in Goodlettsville, Tenn., is “a rare exception,” Ms. Earnest said, adding, “We have been very thoughtful in the placement and design of the store to benefit Chester.”

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said opposition to dollar stores has sprung up in at least four other towns in the state. Mr. Bruhn’s group, which seeks to protect what it calls “the essential character of Vermont,” has been tracking the spread of dollar stores since 2010; it provides grant money to citizens’ groups that oppose them, including Mr. Cunningham’s.


“The dollar stores have proliferated in a way that seems a little extreme,” Mr. Bruhn said. “One of the things I think is crucial for Vermont, in terms of maintaining this very special brand that we have, is we don’t want to look like Anywhere, U.S.A. And homegrown businesses are a crucial piece of that.”

The spread of dollar stores has come during a period of decline of the general store, a Vermont institution that in many towns served as a meeting place and all-purpose emporium. This week, the Barnard General Store, not far from Chester, closed after 180 years. Its owners cited the twin blows of Tropical Storm Irene, which badly flooded parts of the state last summer, and a nearly snowless winter that kept skiers away.


Lonnie Lisai, whose family owns Lisai’s Market, said he was already strategizing about how to survive if the Dollar General store opens. A lunchtime salad bar, a selection of fancy cheeses and lower-cost alternatives to popular brands are in the offing, he said.

“If you pay a buck over at Dollar General and you’re going to pay a buck eighty-nine here, it’s, boy, what do you tell the customer?” Mr. Lisai said. “I can’t compete. And hopefully they’ll understand that.”


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