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Why Ohio communities are turning down dollar stores

A Dollar General store, tan with a bright yellow sign, sits on a main corridor in Canton.
Kendall Crawford
Ohio Newsroom
Dollar General, along with other discount retails stores, will not be able to open in Canton due to a temporary ban on small box retail.

As Canton city planner Donn Angus steers his car onto one of the northeast Ohio city’s main corridors, he’s welcomed by the bright yellow facade of a Dollar General store. When he swings around the block, it’s only a couple of minutes until he’s greeted by another discount retailer. And then another. And a few more.

“In a little under two-mile drive, we have five,” Angus said.

There’s around 20 dollar stores within Canton city limits, Angus said. The businesses argue they’re increasing food options for underserved areas, but Angus said it often has the opposite effect: local grocers in the area can’t compete.

Since I've been here, three [groceries] have closed and left the city, and each time one of them closes, this is what pops up, a discount store,” he said.

Last week, Canton became the latest Ohio city to pass a moratorium on dollar stores.

Maumee, Findlay and Broadview Heights all have placed temporary bans on the cheap retail stores in the last five years. Many towns, including Canton, say it’s a matter of community health.

Limiting food access

Research shows dollar stores often open shops in so-called ‘food deserts’, where access to fresh, healthy food is limited. Their presence can then deter new groceries from coming in.

But you can’t find the same kind of food in dollar stores as in supermarkets. Although Dollar General has added some produce to its shelves, dollar stores historically have limited fresh food offerings. They typically carry processed foods with low nutritional value, according to Jill Clark, who researches food system policy at Ohio State University.

“They're playing an increasingly important role in household purchases,” Clark said. “So, what they offer, it really matters.”

A Dollar Tree in Alliance, Ohio.
A Dollar Tree in Alliance, Ohio.

Dollar stores, specifically Dollar Generals, are expanding quickly. While Dollar Tree and Family Dollar have recently announced some closures, Dollar General plans to open up 800 new storefronts across the country this year. More than 150 Dollar Generals came into Ohio from 2017 to 2022.

But Ohio communities are pushing back. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy group, has tracked 18 local governments in the state that have instituted some sort of restriction against dollar stores in the last decade.

The food retail environment often used to be thought of as just a private marketplace,” Clarks said. “But I think people are now recognizing the role that the food environment plays in community health and well-being.”

Taking back control

The solutions differ by city. Cleveland and Akron set limits on how close dollar stores could be built to one another. The town of Brunswick requires any new dollar stores to increase healthy food offerings.

Most started with moratoriums like Canton’s before they decided on the specifics. Canton’s temporary ban lasts until next January, and in the meantime Angus says the city council is considering a combination of other cities’ strategies – plus requiring small box retail storefronts to better match their neighborhoods aesthetically.

The hope is to slow their proliferation – which Angus said is impacting Canton’s low income areas and communities of color the most.

Dollar Tree, who also operates as a parent company to Family Dollar, say their discount stores provide accessible and affordable products for communities that are often underserved.

“We firmly believe restrictions bring more harm than good to the very communities they claim to support, and we will continue working with local leaders to address their concerns. At the end of the day, we remain committed to investing in our people, our stores, and the communities we serve,” a company spokesperson said.

Dollar General did not respond to a request for comment.

Bad for business

Dollar stores’ footprints are increasing the most in rural areas, including in Ohio’s small towns.

Archbold, a small village of 4,000 people in northwest Ohio, put a moratorium on new dollar stores last year. For a long time, the village had just one dollar store. Then, in 2022, a second one cropped up. Then, Mayor Brad Grime said he began to receive even more inquiries from more discount stores wanting to set up shop.

As you're driving around the state of Ohio, it seems like, every community that you go into, about the first thing that greets you is a Dollar General store. They pop up everywhere,” Grime said.

A navy blue sign that reads "Welcome to the Village of Archbold" sits on a stone platform.
Village of Archbold
Archbold mayor Brad Grime said the small village doesn't need any more discount stores.

He doesn’t want his village to be defined by its discount stores. Grime said, unlike locally-owned businesses, dollar stores don’t support high school sports teams or volunteer their time at the food pantry. And, he said, their employee wages are notoriously low.

“They are not contributors to the community outside of the fact that, yes, they sell products and they have to pay city tax – which doesn't amount to a whole lot, to be quite honest with you,” Grime said.

Dollar Tree and Family Dollar say their businesses spur on economic development by creating direct and indirect jobs in areas communities that would otherwise have limited food access. They say they also contribute to community vitality through partnerships with non-profit organizations, like the Boy and Girls Club of America.

Still, Grime said the companies are a bad fit for Archbold. Its moratorium expired this year, but the village council used the time to put new rules in place. Discount stores now have to make their case to the local planning commission before they can set up shop.

That, he said, makes them feel a little less powerless.

“They can ask to come into town, but at this point another dollar store would probably have a pretty hard time getting into the community.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.