Jim Kenyon: The almighty Dollar General on hold in Royalton

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/3/2022 10:55:10 PM
Modified: 9/3/2022 10:51:38 PM

The arrival of a Dollar General discount store in Royalton, which has been rumored for months, is now on hold.

That’s either good news or bad, depending on how you feel about a large patch of grass off Route 14 being plowed under to make room for a national chain retailer that sells everything from frozen fish sticks to antifreeze.

Dollar General is “reviewing the opportunity to add a new store in Windsor County, but we have not committed to doing so just yet,” a spokesperson said in an email response to questions I sent to the company’s headquarters in Goodlettsville, Tenn., on Thursday. “Based on our current timeline, we anticipate having a final decision by late fall 2022.”

Part of me wants to believe there’s an upside to adding another Dollar General to the eight— by my count — already in the Upper Valley.

For bargain hunters, particularly folks struggling to make ends meet, Dollar General is a go-to stop for lower-priced household supplies and groceries.

On the other hand, how many more stores do we need pitching 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew at “3 for $5” and cheap cigarettes?

It’s hard not to see Dollar General as an evil empire. The company, which boasts 18,000 stores in 47 states and reported $34.2 billion in sales last year, can take a toll on small, locally owned retailers.

And judging from its history, Dollar General won’t be up for employer-of-the-year anytime soon. In 2017, workers at a Dollar General in Missouri voted to unionize. When a federal judge ordered the company to bargain with the union, it shuttered the store.

“The dollar-store business model — to attract consumers in rural areas and neighborhoods with fewer shopping options by offering prices that are lower than at local retailers — is designed to work even when its customers are hurting financially, as many are with inflation running stubbornly high,” The New York Times wrote last month in a story about the dollar-store industry’s recent higher profits and sales.

Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, account for the vast majority of the 34,000 dollar stores in the U.S., although their moniker is often a stretch. At the Dollar General stores in Randolph and Windsor last week, I didn’t find much for a buck, other than cans of green beans and toothpaste.

The Upper Valley already has about a dozen chain dollar stores. Apparently, Dollar General and Aubuchon Realty, a Massachusetts real estate investment company, think there’s room for at least one more, and they have eyes for Royalton, population 2,800.

Town records show the two companies initiated plans last year for Dollar General to set up shop in a yet-to-be-built store adjacent to the former Welch’s True Value Hardware store, north of the South Royalton village.

Last December, Dollar General filed a “memorandum of lease” with the Royalton Town Clerk’s office, indicating it had reached a 15-year agreement with Aubuchon Realty to occupy the proposed building.

But first Aubuchon Realty, which is based in Concord, Mass., had to finish buying the site. It wasn’t until March that Aubuchon Realty completed the $800,000 purchase of the hardware store and the 14-acre parcel it sits on from longtime owners Charlie and Kathy Welch, according to property transfer tax records.

The former Welch’s store is now part of the Aubuchon Hardware chain, which has grown to 100 stores in New England and upstate New York since its founding in 1908. Aubuchon Realty came along in 1932. The companies remain separate businesses run by different parts of the Aubuchon family.

Since Royalton doesn’t have a zoning ordinance, about all that stands in the way of Aubuchon Realty getting its way is Act 250, Vermont’s land use law.

But maneuvering the project through the state permitting process hasn’t gone as smoothly as Aubuchon Realty originally envisioned.

It’s led Dollar General to walk away from the deal, Aubuchon Realty President Eamon Moran told me in a phone interview last week. “We didn’t deliver the store” in the time frame agreed upon, he said. “I have to get the permits before I can get a tenant.”

It sounds to me like Aubuchon Realty and Dollar General are playing a we-can’t-believe-the-hoops-Vermont-is-making-us-jump-through game to pressure state officials into speeding up the permitting process. I have trouble believing that if and when Aubuchon Realty passes Act 250 muster, Dollar General won’t be back in the picture.

The predicament that Aubuchon Realty finds itself in is arguably of its own doing. The company didn’t check in with Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, which monitors Act 250 proceedings.

At an Act 250 public hearing last month, the regional commission came out against the project. Executive Director Peter Gregory said it doesn’t conform with the regional plan, which calls for limiting retail development to villages and areas already built up.

Aubuchon Realty argues Royalton’s Town Plan, which the regional commission signed off on in 2020, allows for the construction of a large retail building adjacent to the hardware store.

With the Act 250 application still under review for another month or so, both sides have lawyered up.

Aubuchon Realty and Dollar General could also be looking at grassroots opposition. On Thursday evening, a dozen Royalton residents met on the village green to talk about ways to keep Dollar General at bay.

“You don’t have to do much research to see what Dollar General does to communities,” said Nancy Wuttke, of South Royalton.

The group is interested in talking with Aubuchon Realty about options other than bringing in a national retailer. To help get their message across, the residents have started a “we don’t want Dollar General in our community” petition drive.

The petition “doesn’t have any teeth,” acknowledged Hoyt Bingham, who has lived in town for 34 years. “But it does give us a voice.”

And it will be an uphill battle, which is usually the case when going against the almighty dollar.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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