They have become a defining feature of Vermont village life, a familiar presence on the modern landscape from Bennington to the Northeast Kingdom. I speak not of covered bridges, white clapboard Congregational churches or tidy town commons, but of Dollar General stores. It's nearly impossible to drive anywhere in Vermont today without coming across the familiar yellow signs with black block lettering.
Vermont has 31 Dollar General stores, twice as many as it contained three years ago, and more than any other New England state. Colorado, which has a population eight times that of Vermont, also has 31 Dollar General stores.
Granted, the company doesn't have a monopoly on the Green Mountain State's corporate dollar-store market. There are 14 Family Dollar stores in Vermont, and eight Dollar Trees, according to company documents.
Still, expert observers say Dollar General has been the more forceful presence. Speaking about Family Dollar, Paul Bruhn, director of Preservation Trust of Vermont, said, "They're way less aggressive about building stores than Dollar General is. Dollar General is the big player in the state."
The stores' seemingly inexorable proliferation has stirred familiar fears that they will chip away at the state's character and jeopardize local business. And yet, when one compares the case of Dollar General with its most obvious parallel — the arrival of Walmart — the lack of visible opposition is striking.
Vermont famously fought the superstore's advent tooth and nail, remaining the last state in the country without one until 1995. The Walmart in St. Albans opened in 2013 only after a 20-year legal battle. In both 1993 and 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the entire state on its annual list of the 11 most endangered sites in the country, citing the threat from big-box stores.
All over Vermont, Dollar Generals, which follow the same low-cost, cookie-cutter model as Walmart, seem to have sprouted overnight. How did they get past Vermonters' fierce protectiveness of their landscape?
To begin with, it's a size issue. Most proposed Walmart stores average about 100,000 square feet and sit on large enough tracts of land to trigger Act 250 review, Vermont's notoriously stringent land-use approval process. Dollar General stores, by contrast, range between 8,000 and 10,000 square feet and almost always require fewer than 10 acres, one of the primary thresholds for Act 250 review.
As a result, the only hurdles new Dollar Generals have to clear are local zoning and planning ordinances. And those have proved to be little impediment.
"When citizens try to use local zoning or town plans [to oppose the stores], they often find these documents are not written in a way that is useful," said Bristol attorney James Dumont, who has assisted citizens' groups in several communities in their fights against Dollar General. "A lot of them have standards in them that our supreme court has said are not enforceable. Well-intended citizens in good faith rely on the zoning ordinance, and they go to court and find out the zoning ordinance isn't worth the paper it's written on."
In Fairlee, for instance, the town had zoned the entire Route 5 corridor for commercial use, without strict limits on building size. When Dollar General announced plans for a store in that corridor in 2014, citizens' options were limited. Opponents such as Susanne Pacilio, who owned a home across the street from the proposed Fairlee location, were forced to pin their hopes on a vaguely worded slice of zoning code stating that new development must be "harmonious" with the surrounding area. They failed, as Pacilio acknowledged they figured they would all along.
"The zoning in most towns in this state is pathetic," Pacilio said. "Dollar General must have seen that when they first started exploring Vermont and decided this was the place they were going to conquer."
Still, citizens' groups have fought back. The most intense battle occurred in Chester, where a group of activists spent four years fighting plans to bring a Dollar General a stone's throw from the town common and just eight miles from an existing Dollar General in Springfield. Critics said the store would destroy the village's character and homogenize an area that relies heavily on tourism.
"These things come into the community and basically don't do anything for the community," said Shawn Cunningham, who led the resistance. "They don't participate in the local economy except to take money out. Chester is very charming. If [Dollar General] begins to make the town like every place that people are already familiar with, it becomes a less attractive spot."
The Chester Development Review Board approved the store, but opponents, citing what they believed were violations of local zoning laws, appealed to environmental court and, eventually, to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Last summer, the Vermont Supreme Court gave the green light for the store — concluding, among other findings, that Chester's zoning ordinance was too vague.
Now the skeleton of Dollar General is rising on Chester's Main Street, in anticipation of a scheduled opening in the fall. And locals are nervously wondering whether local commerce will be affected.
Cunningham said he gets calls from across the country from citizens seeking advice on how to stop Dollar General. He tells them to hope their local regulations are strong enough to beat back the company's army of lawyers and development professionals.
So far, the most successful opposition effort occurred in South Hero. When a group of local citizens got wind that Dollar General was considering moving in, they quickly passed a zoning law restricting commercial development to 3,000 square feet, successfully keeping the store at bay, according to Vermont Public Radio.
"We are glad to be able to provide Vermont residents with the everyday low prices and value we offer our customers," company spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi said. "We do take community concerns into account when we are choosing store locations and look to be long-term, positive corporate citizens and community members."
Dollar General is considering building new stores in Castleton and Pittsford, she said.
Roughly 70 percent of the 12,400 Dollar General stores nationwide are located in communities with fewer than 20,000 residents. Their primary customers, according to statements from the publicly traded company, are low- and fixed-income Americans desperate to keep their spending in check.
The pattern holds in Vermont. There are no Dollar General stores in Burlington, South Burlington, Montpelier, Waterbury or Stowe, but Dollar General is open for business in Rutland, Bennington and the Northeast Kingdom.
Ground zero for the company's expansion in Vermont appears to be downtown Barre, which has two stores within a mile of each other. None of them seems to have engendered much protest from locals.
On a recent weekday afternoon, I visited the dueling shops, located on South Main Street and North Main Street, to try to understand the appeal that has catapulted Dollar General from a single store opened in Kentucky in 1955 to a corporate colossus with stores in 43 states and $20 billion in annual sales.
My first impression was surprise at how accessible the stores felt. Walmart, with its shelves stretching skyward and football-field-size layouts, can intimidate and overwhelm the senses. Dollar General, by contrast, feels cozier.
Yet the range of items available for purchase seemed strikingly similar to Walmart's. Within a few square feet in the North Main Street store, I found a book by Joyce Carol Oates for $3, a tube of frozen ground beef for $4.25, a $1 jar of pickles, a box of 24 crayons for 50 cents and a quart of motor oil for $3.60.
Enticing you to grab all these items are yellow and black signs tucked discreetly atop shelving units:
"Wow, Simple Prices You Can Add Up in Your Head."
"Wow, We Accept Manufacturers [sic] Coupons."
(Dollar General seems to be a big fan of "wow.")
"More deals for your dollar every day!"
"We Always Stretch Your Dollar."
Each store I visited appeared to have only two employees on duty, and there were minutes-long spells when no one staffed the cash registers.
When the employees were at their posts, they often didn't seem too happy to be there. "All I want to do is crawl under a rock and not deal with anybody," a twentysomething female cashier murmured to a customer. "Or go into a room, close the door and not deal with the world."
That didn't deter the steady trickle of customers, most with carts full of cheap groceries and other supplies.
In the parking lot, I found Celine MacDonald, who owns Jerry's Sports Tavern in downtown Barre, loading bags of groceries into her trunk. She said she buys everything at Dollar General, from snacks to juices and sodas for her bar. It's usually cheaper than what her suppliers offer, she explained.
No wonder Dollar General stores have provoked Vermonters' age-old fears of watching mom-and-pop businesses go dark. But experts say the stores' actual economic impact in Vermont is unclear.
Jack Garvin, chair of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores and general manager of the Warren Store, said his organization's members are aware of Dollar General's proliferation but have not voiced significant concerns.
"We're more of an attraction," Garvin said, referring to the typical rustic country store's appeal for tourists and passersby.
Country stores that sell more sundry-type items could be impacted by competition from Dollar Generals, he acknowledged — then admitted to having bought decorations for his own store at a Dollar General.
"I am a culprit," Garvin said. "When you live in Vermont, you have to watch every penny."
Bruhn said his organization sees value in Dollar General stores — when they are located in downtowns and don't contribute to sprawl. For example, Bruhn described a Dollar General in Bennington as having "been a good addition to downtown."
"We understand that there are a lot of people that want that kind of shopping experience," Bruhn said. "It's not unlike the old five-and-dime stores. Our concerns have more to do with location and scale. The issue for us is, do we need one every eight miles?"
Even Dollar General's detractors say they are learning to make their peace with the stores. Pacilio said she took some solace from the fact that her legal fight persuaded Dollar General to keep several trees and bushes the company had wanted to uproot at its new Fairlee store. It also scrapped plans for a 16-foot illuminated sign in favor of a much smaller design.
"People have told me that's the nicest-looking Dollar General store they've ever seen," Pacilio said.
But she has urged her tenants not to shop at the store. And Pacilio hasn't forgotten the lessons of the Dollar General fight — she recently secured a seat on her town's planning board.