hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues June 2015


A poor fit?

In Schuylerville, some see ‘small-box’ retail king as a threat


Contributing writer



Byron Peregrim says his grocery store in downtown Schuylerville, which has operated under various owners since the 1920s, could be driven out of business if the Dollar General chain wins approval to build a new store on the outskirts of town. Thomas Dimopoulos photo

Byron Peregrim has much more than a casual interest in whether Dollar General comes to Schuylerville.

As the longtime owner of Byron’s Village Market, a grocery store in the center of this village along the upper Hudson River, Peregrim says he fears the arrival of the discount chain could herald the end of the business that has provided his livelihood for more than 35 years.

So when a crowd packed into Saratoga Town Hall recently to learn about a developer’s plans to build a 9,300-square-foot Dollar General on Route 29 at the western edge of the village, Peregrim stood to face the group.

“Anyone who believes a Dollar General is not going to hurt me, I don’t believe it in here,” Peregrim said, touching his hand to his chest.

Many in the audience of 75 people nodded in agreement.
Schuylerville is hardly the first community in the region where the arrival of Dollar General has been greeted with trepidation. The discount chain has expanded aggressively in the past few years, adding at least 20 new stores across the Berkshires, southwestern Vermont and the border counties of eastern New York.

In some communities, townspeople have organized to try to block the chain, arguing that its standard square-box stores – often built at the outer edges of town – are contributing to sprawl and detracting from the character of traditional New England villages.

But the battle under way in Schuylerville is unusual because Dollar General has drawn particularly strong opposition among local business owners – and because the chain is perceived as a direct threat to a long-established, locally owned store.

Dollar General doesn’t sell produce or meats, but its stores typically offer many other canned and packaged food items at steeply discounted prices. Peregrim and his supporters say that could be enough to push Byron’s over the edge, leaving the village of 1,400 people without a full-service grocery.

Peregrim began working at Byron’s, which was then known as Sully’s, as a store clerk in 1979, and wound up buying the supermarket in 1995. The store has existed under various owners since 1925. Of Peregrim’s 19 employees, 14 have been with him for more than a decade.
“Since this began, I’ve gotten an amazing response from the community,” Peregrim said.
But he said a chain like Dollar General, because of its many stores, has buying power he can’t match.

“We can sell the same exact thing, and what they’ve got it priced at -- I can’t even buy it at that price,” Peregrim said.

Dollar General’s arrival, he warned, could hurt rather than help a village that lately has been showing signs of a renaissance, with a new focus on historical tourism tied to its location along the Champlain Canal and near the site of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Saratoga.
“What’s the benefit?” Peregrim asked. “A newly built box store on the outskirts of our historic village? I know what the impact will be: Nineteen of our employees could be out of work.”


Saturation strategy
Dollar General, which already operates nearly 12,000 stores in 43 states, has said it aims to open more than 700 additional stores across the nation this year. In January, the company lost a bid to take over the competing Family Dollar chain, which will instead merge with Dollar Tree to form a 13,000-store competitor.

Chains like Dollar General and Family Dollar have been dubbed “small-box” retailers, in contrast to “big box” stores like Wal-Mart. Although it follows a discount pricing strategy similar to Wal-Mart’s, the typical Dollar General is less than one-tenth the size of Wal-Mart’s smallest stores. And because its stores are much smaller, Dollar General can set its sights on communities like Schuylerville that would be too small to sustain a retailer like Wal-Mart.

So around the region, new Dollar General stores have sprung up in just the past two or three years in the Massachusetts towns of Williamstown, Adams and Sheffield, the Vermont towns of Arlington, Pownal, Bennington and Fair Haven and the New York communities of Hoosick Falls, Greenwich, South Glens Falls, Queensbury and Valatie, among others.

The chain’s saturation approach in choosing new store locations appears to be working well financially. In March, Dollar General, based in Tennessee, reported its total revenue for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2014 rose 9.9 percent to $4.94 billion, while sales in stores open for at least one year climbed 4.9 percent. The company cited food and tobacco sales as particular growth areas.

Dollar General got its start in the Great Depression era when its founder, James Luther Turner, began acquiring merchandise by buying and liquidating general stores that had gone bankrupt. Today it employs more than 100,000 people, although its pay scale and employment practices have drawn criticism from some activists.

In December 2013, for example, the consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader said he calculated that Dollar General’s chief executive, Richard Dreiling, earns more in one day than many of his employees do over the course of an entire year. Dreiling’s pay package for 2012 was estimated at $22.5 million, while most Dollar General store associates and cashiers earned less than $8 an hour that year.

“When large, profitable corporations like Dollar General employ workers at shamefully low wages, employees are forced to resort to public assistance programs to provide their families with necessities,” Nader wrote in a letter to Dreiling. “Thus taxpayers end up footing the bill for your company’s poverty wages.”

Its defenders, however, say Dollar General helps workers of every pay scale by providing low-cost merchandise – and that by locating stores in smaller communities, it provides people in rural areas with the option of shopping closer to home.


Developer’s plans
In Schuylerville, Dollar General’s proposed store would sit on the north side of Route 29, between the Schuylerville Central School campus and the Saratoga Apple orchard.
Critics say the location is problematic because it’s near the brow of a hill, with poor visibility and sightlines on a stretch of Route 29 where many vehicles coming into the village from the west are still traveling at highway speed.

Developers plan to tear down an existing structure and garage on a four-acre lot and put up a new, single-story store. The building would sit within the village limits, but a parking area would extend outside into the town of Saratoga. About 1 acre of the 4-acre property lies within the village.

Chris Boyea, an engineer working on the project, said at a recent public forum that Dollar General plans to invest about $1 million “from the ground up” to develop the site. Boyea’s firm, Bohler Engineering, has worked with Dollar General and North Carolina developer Primax Properties on developing several other store sites around the region.

Boyea said Dollar General would pay about $20,000 in local school taxes annually. (In context, the Schuylerville district’s recently approved budget for the 2015-16 school year is $33.7 million.)
In Schuylerville, flyers opposed to the Dollar General project are plastered on some of the storefront windows along the village’s main street. An online petition against the store has garnered more than 350 signatures, and organizers have said they hope to reach 1,000 signatures by mid-June.

At a forum organized by the Schuylerville Area Chamber of Commerce in late April, Boyea drew the ire of some in attendance when he referred to the opposition flyers as a form of “bullying” and brushed off as “silly” the claims that a Dollar General would jeopardize the historic character of the village. Boyea did not respond to several messages requesting comment for this report.


Mounting opposition
Two days after Boyea’s April presentation, the chamber of commerce pointed out that 23 of the 24 public speakers at the forum were against the proposal, and the group announced it would likewise oppose it.

Among the concerns cited by the chamber are traffic safety and the fact that any jobs created by the project would be “at the lowest end of the wage scale for the area.” The chamber also said the project would disturb a historic viewshed at the entrance of the village and would have an adverse effect on the local supermarket.

The chamber board also contrasted Dollar General with other businesses in Schuylerville that mostly are locally owned.

“Dollar General is a large national chain,” the chamber’s board of directors said in a statement. “Their profits inure to the benefit of their distant CEO and anonymous shareholders. They are not reinvested in our community.”

But in other communities around the wider region, even well-organized opponents have yet to succeed in doing much more than delaying Dollar General’s plans.

In Sheffield, Mass., for example, Dollar General developer Primax Corp. took the town to court in 2013 after a town zoning board rescinded a building permit the town’s building inspector had previously issued for a store on Route 7. Although the store had drawn strong opposition from townspeople, the town’s voters eventually opted to cut off funding for a potentially costly legal fight, and the store opened earlier this year.

And in Chester, Vt., opponents waged a three-year legal fight to keep Dollar General from building a store on the town’s main street. A state Environmental Court judge dismissed the opponents’ objections last year, but the opponents have appealed that ruling to the Vermont Supreme Court.


Reviving a debate over zoning
Schuylerville at this point has little control over Dollar General’s actions. The village adopted a comprehensive plan about a decade ago, but in 2011, after two years of study at a cost of $50,000, the village board voted against implementing zoning regulations.

“That’s the problem you have,” said Thomas McTygue, a former Saratoga Springs public works commissioner who now lives in the town of Saratoga. “You’re going to see a lot of pressure put on this community in the next few years. This is a great area. They’re pushing a lot of people from Saratoga Springs that are coming this way and who want to live here. If you had the proper zoning in place, you could tell the developers, ‘You will put those sidewalks in. You will build to our standards.’ But you’re not in a position to do that.”

The 2011 plan, which would have created eight zoning districts in the village, lost in a 3-2 vote after a debate in which one village trustee who voted against it said the idea of a discount retailer like Wal-Mart coming to town was inconceivable.

“That idea is so far out there, it’s like being on Pluto,” former trustee Charles Sherman said at the time.

Village Trustee Jim Miers, who voted in favor of the zoning plan, was so incensed after the vote he made a motion to disband the Planning Board and abolish the village’s comprehensive plan, saying both were irrelevant without a zoning law to back them up.

Miers, who is still a member of the village board, said there is now some public sentiment in favor of revisiting the zoning proposal.

“Right now we’re between a rock and hard place,” Miers said. “Zoning was my baby. I wanted it so we could have some control over developers.”

Miers, who has been a trustee since 2003 and first proposed a village zoning plan in 2005, said he is considering asking the village to impose a commercial building moratorium of six months to a year while the zoning idea is revisited. He suggested the 2011 plan could be improved upon.
“It was a cookie-cutter zoning plan with a very few specifics to Schuylerville,” Miers said. “What may happen now is we pull together a committee and go through it with a fine-tooth comb. We can add to it or take away from it and adopt what we want to adopt.”


Stopping the clock
At least one public hearing would be required before the village could impose a building moratorium and start debating zoning, but Miers said it would be possible to start the effort in June because Dollar General has yet to make a formal proposal.

“They have not made a full presentation to say, ‘This is what it would look like,’” he said. “So if we can get that moratorium, Dollar General would have to build according to our process, and we would have some control over the height, the size and density, the aesthetic look.”
Without zoning, the village would lack even that level of control, he added.

“If they come in now and say, ‘Here’s our final plan,’ there’s nothing we can do except say, ‘Mr. Developer, can you please do it this way,’” Miers said. “All we have now is a Planning Board, whereas if you have a zoning plan, they would have to conform to those regulations.”
He pointed to the village’s efforts to cultivate history-oriented tourism.

“Dollar General will come in and wipe that all away,” Miers said. “It doesn’t fit the character of the village.”

Village Mayor John Sherman, who voted against the zoning proposal in 2011, says he is staying neutral on whether Dollar General should come to town. But if the chain’s plan comes to fruition, he said, he is concerned about the lack of sidewalks along Route 29 where the store would be built. He also said he would like to see the current 45 mph speed limit on that part of Route 29 reduced.

Because the project site encompasses land in both the village and town, planning boards of both municipalities, as well as the county’s, will be involved in the review process. But because the store building would be in Schuylerville, the village’s decision is the most critical.
Representatives of Dollar General may return to both the town and village planning boards in June.