Op-Ed: On Wabasso & the Dollar General

Scott Sobocinski

I think most of us have done this: driving past a small town, we note the empty buildings on a deserted Main Street. Maybe there’s a bar with a couple pickups parked outside, the last living piece of a busy downtown.  We shake our heads and think to ourselves: “That’s too bad.”

The vehicle is still moving. We turn our attention back to the road ahead. We drive on and leave behind the reminder that so many small towns and local economies across rural America are fading.  That is, until we pass through the next small town 20 miles down the road. Another empty Main Street. The problem seems so pervasive and inevitable. This time we mutter: “Such a shame…but what can you do?”

Well, the City of Wabasso now faces a crossroads. If the decision is made to annex farm land and let Dollar General come in, I believe our town will have taken a wrong turn.

I know there’s an argument to be made for a free and fair marketplace, but let’s think about this: there are over 16,000 Dollar Generals in the lower 48 states alone. Dollar Tree, their competitor, also has just over 15,000 locations which includes the 8,000 Family Dollar locations they acquired in 2015 when they bought out the Family Dollar Company for $8.5 billion. So, we are looking at approximately 31,000 Dollar-themed stores out there in the lower 48. Also, there are 3,108 counties in the lower 48 states. If you do the math, that’s an average of 10 Dollar-themed stores for each county in the continental United States.

There is also a documented phenomenon of small businesses (especially local grocery stores) folding a couple years after a Dollar franchise moves into or outside of a small town. Does that sound like a free and fair market to you? When does it become a restricted and unfair marketplace for the little guy? When ALL the independent family owned grocery stores in our area have folded? I guess we can always declare a monopoly when that happens, but the damage will have already been done because of the years that it took for us to realize that we were contributing to an increasingly captive market.

In our area (Wabasso), we have a Dollar General 25 miles away in Springfield, a Dollar Tree 20 miles away in Redwood and another one 30 miles away in Marshall. Most of us travel that distance already for the shopping needs that can’t be met in Wabasso, and most of us make several stops when we go, which may include a Dollar store of some kind. I doubt we will save much on gas money by having a Dollar General in town.

Wabasso is the type of town that is becoming rare. We have over a dozen businesses on Main Street alone. Most of them are family-owned. Compared to other towns our size, we have a lot going for us. 

For example, during this pandemic, Salfer’s Food Center has been delivering groceries to those in quarantine, as well as the homebound they had been delivering to before the pandemic even happened. How about the fundraisers Salfer’s has donated supplies  or money to over the years? The Library, the Lions, the Fire Department, as well as donating to Senior Dining, ECFE, school functions, sports, etc. A severe drop in sales will affect Salfer’s ability to donate to lots of different organizations and causes. When you think about it, this issue will not just affect Salfers. Does anyone seriously believe that Dollar General will reinvest back into the community the way our local grocery store has (beyond the scope of tax revenue)?

I think we would happily welcome a new business in Wabasso, but an independent startup is very different from a Fortune 500 conglomerate opening its 16,000th branch. I pity the person who can’t or refuses (to) acknowledge the difference. We should not simplify our situation by asking “do we want new business in Wabasso?” Of course we do. Given the circumstances, however, the more pertinent question is: “Do we want this type of business in Wabasso?”

Towns like Redwood Falls or Marshall with thousands in population can handle the economic impact of a Dollar franchise better than we can.  If we let Dollar General into Wabasso, we run a serious risk of impacting and potentially losing some of the local businesses we already have. This phenomenon of Dollar Stores setting up shop and siphoning sales from local rural businesses until they go under is a well-documented practice throughout the Midwest. Critics as well as researchers putting together grocery retail data have described this type of behavior from Dollar General as “predatory.” Their words, not mine. Please don’t sue me.  

It is likely Salfer’s Food Center would be the most severely impacted over the next five years, but again, this isn’t just about Salfer’s. Small town economies are very much like ecosystems. When one business closes, it impacts the others and increases their risk as well. We really don’t have to travel far to find small towns that are experiencing a progression of local businesses closing up shop like some kind of domino effect. Many have already experienced this domino effect across several years and have been limping on ever since.

The long and short of it is that our Main Street, such as it is, is becoming a rare thing for towns our size. We have a choice as it relates to letting Dollar General come to town, and frankly we should stand by our local businesses and protect what we have. Otherwise, we risk becoming yet another small town where others will drive through, shake their heads, and mutter: “Such a shame…but what can you do?”