VIEWPOINT: Would a Mercantile Suffice?

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By Shawn Cunningham

We’ve been hearing many valid arguments for and against a Dollar General locating in Chester. One of the arguments for a national discount chain is that there is a need for such a store in town; that a number of our residents can’t or don’t wish to drive to Springfield or New Hampshire to buy inexpensive goods that aren’t offered for sale in Chester.

Small towns across the country have the same problem. In the west, and soon in Saranac Lake, NY, a novel concept is providing quality merchandise at reasonable prices without bringing in an out-of-state retailers. A community owned store – a mercantile– just might be the answer for Chester.

WHAT IS A MERCANTILE?
A mercantile is a dry goods store owned by local investors – you and your neighbors. By selling merchandise that local retailers don’t carry, the mercantile rounds out the mix while not competing with existing stores.

A town full of owners ensures that the store will respond to the needs of Chester and guarantees a customer base that is vested in the store’s success. Suggestions and complaints would not fade into thin air over a long distance telephone line or get lost in a full email in-box.

A Chester Mercantile would carry inexpensive but quality necessities alongside premium items, for sale to both locals and tourists. The profits from premium items would give the store the flexibility to keep the prices of necessities low. A mercantile could also offer old-fashioned services like layaway.

Not only would the store be owned by the community, its full-time manager and its employees – several of whom would likely be full-time – would also be local. And these jobs would offer a better quality of life, with higher pay, more benefits and better working conditions than big box, discount stores.

WHERE SPENDING DOLLARS GO

National chains consolidate functions for many stores in a corporate headquarters and purchase supplies and services on a national level. Local stores tend to secure services such as bookkeeping and legal advice locally.

They tend to buy more of their supplies nearby and their profits stay in town rather than going to corporate headquarters in another state. Several studies have indicated that for every $100 spent in a chain store, about $15 stays in the local economy. By contrast, if that same $100 is spent in a locally owned business, almost $45 remains to fuel the local economy.

It would also save our residents time and the gasoline that it takes to get to Springfield and New Hampshire.

Ideally, the Chester Mercantile would use an existing structure to preserve the pleasant, small-town character that makes Chester an attractive place to live and visit. Because the Mercantile it is not run from a one-size-fits-all business plan, it can be flexible in growing and meeting the needs of Chester.

WHAT WOULD A MERCANTILE SELL?

Again, working with established stores to avoid direct duplication while offering Chester residents products that they can’t find elsewhere, the Chester Mercantile could offer:

Shoes — Socks — Underwear — Sewing notions — Over-the-Counter Medicines — First-Aid Supplies — Cosmetics — Hair Care Products — Office Supplies — Art Supplies — School Supplies — Party Supplies — Toys — Games — Puzzles — Seasonal Items such as Halloween costumes and Christmas decorations — Towels and other Linens — Candles — Outerwear — Sporting Goods – some Local Food Products — Work Clothing — Bath supplies — Hats/Caps — Cooking Tools — Small Appliances — Craft/Scrapbooking material …

A number of small communities have or are creating mercantiles.

Shawn Cunningham is a member of Smart Growth Chester, a citizens group that advocates for business and residential development and growth that reflects and enhances “the social, environmental, cultural, and economic values of the Town.” In coming weeks, he will examine other issues concerning growth and development in Chester.

MORE COMMENT WANTED FROM ALL SIDES

The proposal to build a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General Store at the Zachary’s Pizza House property has drawn a lot of comment on this blog. Most of those who have written have been against it. But to create a lively dialogue where all sides can understand one another, the views of others are needed as well. Out and about, it’s encouraging to speak with those who are also for the store’s construction. Their views are valid. Yet they — and others — need to be given a forum.  So, whether you are for it, against it or have a view that counters all, I encourage you to gather your thoughts and tackle the issue head-on, in writing.

I reserve the right to edit for spelling, grammar and length. (Prior to publication, you will be informed by email if your comment contains a factual error.)

I only ask that you act in this forum as you would in our grandmother’s living room. Keep it civil: No name-calling, no fighting, no yelling, no kicking, no flinging of food. And keep your feet off the furniture. In return, I will post your comments as soon as possible.

Cynthia Prairie
editor

DRB HEARING ON  SUBDIVIDING ZACHARY’S

The Chester Development Review Board will hold a hearing on subdividing the Zachary’s Pizza House property to accommodate a 9,100-square-foot Dollar General store to Monday Sept. 26. The meeting will take place at 7 p.m. at Town Hall, 556 Elm St.

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  1. Chris says:

    Instead of debating over a Dollar General or not, how about put something else into that spot? (hint for potential business owners or self starters). I moved to this wonderful town two years ago and am amazed that we don’t have a pharmacy or car-wash.

  2. Carrie says:

    Thank you so much for reporting on the DRB meeting. It is so helpful to get a rundown on what is happening in local politics and commercial development in town. I would so appreciate getting a regular update on these town hall meetings since I cannot always attend. I have always wished we had a local newspaper that covered select board and DRB meetings and would keep people abreast of town developments and proposals. This type of factual reporting (aka a local newspaper that covers municipal issues) is sorely lacking in Chester and is a hole that needs to be filled. I hope sharing the facts and the jist of these meetings and neighborhood happenings will keep people informed, which will in turn promote more civic involvement and strong community organizing. The more informed and educated I am about any issue – the better I am able to make good choices, decisions and actions for myself. Big Props to ChesterUnited for getting this community communication ball rolling in a positive and civilized way.

  3. Kathy says:

    We are all stewards of our communities. What we decide upon today impacts generations to come.

    Springfield has chain stores and a rather depressed looking downtown with many empty storefronts. The transient tenants and low property values are a direct reflection upon this.
    Chester has a bucolic appearance that draws tourist dollars, attracts people to move to it and increases property values.

    Do you own your home? Should you ever decide to retire somewhere warmer, you might need the equity in your home. If your home is losing value as a result of poor decisions for the town’s development, what do you do?

    Apparently the DG in Springfield is close enough that folks in Chester don’t mind traveling the 7 miles or so to get there. You saw the woman in one place — what’s not to say she didn’t go to McDonald’s, Peebles, Radio Shack or Shaw’s, too? That DG was not her only stop. These are all large corporations (in some cases multi-national), which are missing from Chester. Should Chester welcome DG, you can expect more of the same.

    As Joni Mitchell sang in Big Yellow Taxi: “Paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

    When we are long gone, what will our legacy be?

  4. Shawn Cunningham says:

    It’s rc – “residential commercial”

  5. Ron says:

    CVPS outgrew the location on Main and School street. What alternative businesses have the obstructionists brought to town? Main Street over the years has had dozens of little stores that have failed. Few have any employees and many offer items made cheaply overseas. What value have they been to the town?

    In my 60 years here I have seen hundreds of people move here and stay a few years before moving on. They get involved in local affairs, get things changed and then move on leaving us to deal with their mess. … Again, if all the people against Dollar General came together as a group and brought some business to town I would applaud. All you do is complain and obstruct. Bring something to the table, not ideas or suggestions but a business.

    Trying to talk with these people is about as successful as debating politics or religion. DG would not cause one lay off in town or stop one house from being built. Chester is stronger then that. By the way, I was recently at DG in Springfield. Guess who I saw there? One of the women opposed to it at the last DRB meeting, and she was filling her cart!

  6. Kathy says:

    With all due respect Ron, you mention CVPS but do not mention why they left. Would you please share any background as to what caused the company to depart from the area? Thanks!

    I appreciate capitalism but when you pit a national corporation against a locally owned store, the national will win out. You would be gaining a handful of low paying retail jobs at the risk of losing locally owned businesses.

    Empty store fronts and a buzzing box store — where have we seen this before? Springfield — less than 8 miles away. Residents can have 24/7 access to DG online — it doesn’t get anymore convenient than that. (As someone known to online shop in her jammies, I can personally attest to that!)

    Wanting to become more familiar with the generic dollar store model, I went to visit some dollar stores in towns close-by to my primary home. Scouring each aisle I found lots of cheap tchotchkes imported from China, off-brand canned and jarred food products, some brand and off- brand toiletries, off-brand cleaning supplies, and a bank of refrigerated cases of unhealthy, fat- or sodium-laden prepared foods.

    The cases were prominently labelled “EBT ACCEPTED” We have working poor who need EBT to supplement their income to buy food — I would never deny anyone that — but what was being offered is anything but healthy. In the long run this will create other health related issues: obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol not withstanding.

    What redeeming quality did the dollar stores offer? Many of the items were seasonal — nothing that would last for years. A number of the housewares were made in countries that have relaxed views as to using lead and other poisons in their wares. Cheap, heat-and-eat food is not a long-term solution to hunger and good health.

    My town was faced with a problem. Several of us got together with a reasonable solution, which the other party accepted. Instead of placing the problem in an area that was a poor fit, we found a location acceptable to all and in the end, actually benefited both sides. We weren’t obstructionists, we weren’t NIMBYs. We were practical, level-headed and forward thinking.

    Ron, you referred to the people who opposed the DG and past town situations as obstructionists. They are offering up an alternative that you may or may not care for, but has a much better overall benefit for Chester. I, for one, believe Chester needs jobs and a robust commercial tax base, but have my doubts a DG is going to fire up any economic engines.

  7. Kathy says:

    Is the Zachary’s property zoned C or RC?

  8. Ron says:

    Shawn, there is a group of people in Chester that always organize to oppose something: Dollar General is one thing; the gravel pit another. It’s always the same people. I’d like to see those people organize for something. They don’t seem to have any ideas. They are obstructionists. We should be in favor of competition. We do have a capitalist economy. Competition makes us stronger not weaker.
    In the 1960s to early ’70s, Central Vermont Public Service was on the Green where the Message currently is, and parked its trucks on School Street and elsewhere. If CVPS tried to move there today, it would be opposed by these same people. Chester always was a working town and should remain so.

  9. Shawn Cunningham says:

    Hi Kathy, The zoning regulations and the town plan are on the town website (http://chester.govoffice.com/) just click on Ordinances and Regulations. Chester has a very good set of zoning regs and a forward looking town plan and we believe these have the muscle to turn DG away.
    Shawn Cunningham is a member of Smart Growth Chester.

  10. Shawn Cunningham says:

    Hi Melody. Thanks for taking time to read the blog and especially to comment. Each of these stores has its own business model based on the desires of the community. It’s a matter of getting priorities in hand and creating the merchandise/pricing model to do what we want. Convenience, low price, jobs, etc all work into the mix. Obviously the mercantiles don’t have the buying power of a Dollar General so they’re not able to compete penny for penny, but prices can be very reasonable and there’s the convenience of not having to go to Springfield or beyond. At nearly $4/gallon, gasoline has to enter into the equation.
    Shawn Cunningham is a member of Smart Growth Chester.

  11. Cynthia Prairie, editor says:

    Thank you for your comments, Ron. Those who have been following this blog know that this website has not taken a stand against or for the Dollar General store. We have provided a forum for open and civil communication about the issues. And we are happy to provide a platform for the kind of civic discourse that is needed in Chester. Again, we encourage those with viewpoints on all sides of the issue to send in their comments.

  12. Shawn Cunningham says:

    Hi Ron,

    The Development Review Board does indeed make the decision according to the zoning regulations. Our reading of the regs says that the submitted design does not pass muster. This is a case of interpreting the regulations and citizen input has a place in this process.

    You are right that Dollar General shouldn’t be our first choice. Most Dollar General stores provide 2 full-time and 5 to 7 part-time jobs — not the 15 that developers have claimed at every meeting. Take a look at the new store in Pownal. And it’s easy to find a lot of complaints by DG employees about its employment practices.

    If DG cuts into established, local businesses, which then have to lay off workers, we trade local jobs for national discount retail jobs.

    Also, if the new, 9,100-square-foot Dollar General convinces half a dozen people not to build or not to improve homes in Chester, the property tax benefit is offset — not just for those people but many more for years to come.

    I am completely in favor of growth and development in Chester, but we should do it in ways that improve the town economically, socially and aesthetically so we don’t degrade the place that so many people have worked to create.

    This is a great opportunity to ask ourselves how we want the town to move into its second 250 years. What businesses should Chester recruit to create jobs and make a bright future for our town?

    Shawn Cunningham is a member of Smart Growth Chester.

  13. Shawn Cunningham says:

    I had a long talk with the president of the board of the store. She had a lot of good advice and said we were welcomed to visit anytime, but that we should shoot for a time around the opening in November. Talking with some foundations that are interested in downtowns, this concept seems to be getting traction. All I can say is “Road Trip!” Stay tuned for a date and time.
    Shawn Cunningham is a member of Smart Growth Chester.

  14. Ron says:

    I find it ironic that ChesterUnited, which took $1,000 of Town funds and thousands more from the USDA to promote business in Chester is opposed to business in Chester. Selectively choosing business for the town is something I don’t believe USDA would approve. While a Dollar General would not be my first choice for a business in Chester, it would be 15 jobs and many thousands of dollars in property taxes. The important thing to remember is, it doesn’t matter what any of us think or want. The decision will be made by the DRB using the current regulations in force. Screaming at them will not change the regulations that they have to follow.

  15. Claudio Veliz says:

    One aspect to consider when comparing Manchester and Chester is the proportion of contemporary corporate retail content to small town, local business. Manchester has compromised much of its character due to allowance of a corporate, out-of-state retail infusion. To add another scrap of litter into a full garbage can (the existing strip mall east of Malfunction Junction, for example, composed of architectural elements that are more Disney stage set than any genuine architectural interpretation) is relatively insignificant, much we’d all agree, as in North Springfield. To toss a piece of litter on a clean floor is more noticeable. Chester is at a tipping point in this regard. To those who might suggest that a Dollar General or any other corporate retail store has done no harm to a community such as Springfield, I’d challenge with the question: How has the uncontrolled strip mall growth in North Springfield helped the area? Welfare families have increased there in the past decade. (What’s happened to the claim that cheap goods stores help the economy?) The downtown is a classic case of post-industrial struggle, despite its having wonderful potential. Had smaller, locally owned businesses been aggressively attracted instead to the center of town, together with imaginative parking and pedestrian amenities (a well-known and successful design process) the whole region – including Chester – may have been weathering the current Depression (which I think we all know it really is) much more robustly. Diverse communities of small businesses and retailers have been shown, nationwide, to be a much healthier environment for small towns than singular corporate entities that have no vested interest in the communities. They encourage pedestrian traffic, they enjoy a far lower crime rate, the monies stay in the communities, the tax base is much more stable, the property values rise, not decline, employment tends to increase, not decrease, more residents and successful businesses are attracted to the community … the list is very long and uplifting.
    Claudio Veliz is an architect and member of Smart Growth Chester.

  16. Shawn Cunningham says:

    There are several models for mercantiles. Saranac Lake formed a group that developed a prospectus to make a stock offering legal. Then they offered the stock to the community with the intent of raising $500,000 before they acted further. Since the recession hit, it took longer than expected to meet the threshold. But they did, then found a store manager, an assistant manager with a merchandising-buying background, existing space and wholesale products. Their philosophy is to offer good, inexpensive products. They expect to open in November. It’s a cutting-edge idea that many foundations are interested in. Anyone can get involved — and many people should. But there is no doubt that it will take a lot of work.
    Shawn Cunningham is a member of Smart Growth Chester.

  17. Barbara says:

    The Mercantile is a good idea, in theory. Is there a person, or active group of people who could get this started and going? If not, how would this person or group be found?

  18. Nancy says:

    I also like the community store concept. It would be interesting to visit one or talk with the organizers of one to learn more about making such a concept a reality. Thank you Shawn.

  19. Judy says:

    I love the idea of the mercantile. The aestetics and keeping money local is of great importance to me, and I would support such a business even if prices weren’t as cheap as at the dollar store. But some people might not. How do small mercantiles compete with national chains, which do the volume allowing them to purchase at low prices and then sell at low prices?

  20. Kerrie says:

    Can it be as simple as a cosmetic, fit-the-town facelift? You may be right Melody.

  21. Wendy says:

    Thanks for the blog! True, there is a need to keep such shopping local. I can also agree to the points of not wanting such a chain development — or “cookie cutter” marketing, and the very real problems that could arise from a chain. In the case of a town-controlled mercantile, however,(with 30% more return), there could be a good compromise with less risk of compromising Chester’s charm. Chester’s Farmers Market, if resumed there could help meld this into more of a success. Let’s keep hammering at this.

  22. Liz says:

    A mercantile store for Chester is so much better than a national chain like Dollar Store. You know that the Dollar store is an in-and-out affair, with no care for the community. I love Chester and value its unique character. We certainly could use a handy store, and a mercantile venture sounds more grounded, if it meets the needs of the community.

  23. Scott Morgan says:

    At the last meeting, I pushed hard suggesting a more aesthetically pleasing building with architecture matching the local style. My reasoning was that if they failed and closed, an ugly cement block ‘box’ building would only be attractive to similar businesses in the future, making it difficult to bring in positive, community-minded companies that better served the local community. I’ve since learned a lot about the Dollar General corporation and their history of mistreating employees, leading to associated rise in local crime rate, etc. Of course, I now regret requesting that they change the facade of their building. I would not want their store in our town even if it was slate, stone and cute as a cottage. There is a very good chance that they will be presenting an aesthetically ‘improved’ version to appease us. Let’s not be taken in by this.
    Scott Morgan is a member of Smart Growth Chester

  24. Gail says:

    Dollar General in Chester? This is just nuts. Some people think that a Dollar General store would bring jobs to Chester. How many people have you ever seen working at the Springfield store? It takes 15 minutes to drive to Springfield. What’s the big deal? The mercantile idea has merit. However, I don’t believe a Chester store would have enough customers to sustain it. Chester is perfect just the way it is now. We don’t need a store that sells cheap junk. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  25. Kathy says:

    Thank you Shawn for bringing the Mercantile concept to our attention. It would be the ideal compromise — locally owned, carrying sorely needed merchandise our current shop owners do not sell, convenient. And re-purposing an existing building for the Mercantile would help preserve the Chester so many of us love and seek to preserve. It would set Chester apart from other nearby communities that have allowed out-of-state businesses to come in.
    The fact that 45% of each dollar spent remains in the community is a true plus when compared to the meager 15% an out-of-state business would leave behind.

    Coming from a suburban community and raised with NYC roots, I can aver that many of my friends of similar mind would find a Mercantile utterly charming and above all — unique. Housed in an older building (something that smacks of Vermont’s heritage) stocking all the sundries a community requires as well as a showcase of gifts and crafts appealing to tourists — it’s a winning concept!

    Melody, I am very familiar with the McDonald’s in Freeport over by the Harraseeket Inn. There’s one in New Hyde Park, NY on LI that keeps with the colonial building it is housed in and does not have any arches or typical colorful McDonald’s signage.
    Can anyone enlighten me as to what Chester Code is concerning signage and business districts? How much control can the Board exercise over a large, national corporation AND does the town have the means to fight them in court if they dispute local code?

  26. Melody says:

    I like the mercantile idea. It’s important to keep more dollars circulating in the immediate economy.

    Prices of goods would need to be as inexpensive as the Dollar Store franchise though or people will just keep going to Springfield. Aesthetics are important and certainly should be in a town as quaint as Chester, but isn’t there an approval process? What if the Dollar Store was required to look like a quaint country store? Maybe it would make a difference in how people feel about it, regardless of losing some of those local dollars. Anyone ever see the McDonald’s in Freeport, ME?

    You’d never know it was there, small golden arches, white clapboard building…you get the point. I’d much rather have the mercantile but only if the goods are reasonably priced.

  27. Mike says:

    I would not really consider Manchester quaint. It’s a destination for shoppers and bargain hunters. “Convenience” has been the only justification I have heard from endorsers of the Dollar General. Those who rate convenience so highly might find a larger city to their liking. I have never heard anyone list convenience as a factor for living here. If you don’t believe our town has the population to support a large box store, why do you suppose a 9,000-square-foot Dollar General wants to come into town? Do we opt for community or for convenience? Fast food is convenient right?

  28. Kerrie says:

    I’ve thought about this for some time. While I understand the reasons why we should have Dollar General in Chester, the conclusion is that it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
    This quaint little town is splashed with history and homes steeped in the “old ways” for very good reasons — it’s Chester’s charm!
    Bringing Dollar General will, I believe, take away from the small-town feel of our little corner on the map.
    Now, one might argue that the two gas stations and banks steal a bit of that charm. But they do however bring necessities, where the Dollar General will only succeed in taking business away from already established businesses like Lisai’s. We lost Gould’s; Is Lisai’s the next victim of “growth?”
    I just don’t see how opening a Dollar General will entice small-town tourism or enhance Chester’s unique magic. I respectfully request we consider these thoughts and I hope I’m not the only the one who feels this way.

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