Seeking to reshape small towns


Dollar General has become a ubiquitous feature of America’s small towns. The discount retailer is opening about 1,000 stores per year, with more than 16,000 spread across the country.

Many local economic developers see the discount retailer as a threat to local retail.

Other economic developers argue that Dollar General creates jobs and helps keep shoppers in town. I get it. In thousands of miles spent traversing the rural Midwest, I have found myself in small towns with no other retail or grocery options.

The irony is that this solution makes the situation worse with low-wage jobs, loss of local ownership, and loss of local tax revenue when other businesses close or fail to open because they cannot, or don’t want to, compete with a corporate behemoth.

We must grow and nurture the communities we want to live in. Local ownership of small businesses, farms and ranches makes communities stronger. Local owners care about their towns, neighbors and customers.

Protecting our communities from these corporate interests is difficult, but here are a few strategies to consider.

End the common practice of awarding tax and development incentives. Subsidizing new stores is a cash transfer from local taxpayers to corporate shareholders.

Use local zoning codes to encourage good growth and discourage harmful businesses.

Raise the minimum wage. An increase will improve the lives of low-wage workers, and make Dollar General foot the real cost of labor.

Support local retail options when you can. We can each choose, when possible, to spend our retail dollars at stores that keep profit and ownership closer to home.

Write and call lawmakers to ask for stronger antitrust protections. While I am highlighting Dollar General, the same can be said about Walmart and Amazon. Elsewhere in the rural economy multinational meatpackers, seed companies, and input suppliers have hammered local business.

In the Dollar General model, large corporations and their shareholders get rich while workers and communities suffer. There is an alternative. We must work together to create it.

Brian Depew is the executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs. Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic and environmental issues.

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