Waldo County gets its 'Walmart'

With big boxes out of the mix, dollar stores might be the next best thing
By Ethan Andrews | Aug 07, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews A Dollar General truck sits outside a new branch of the discount retailer in Winterport Aug. 1. The store is one of six to pop up in the Midcoast in the past year.

A week before the Dollar General store on Route 1A opened, Bub Saunders surveyed it from his porch across the road. Where there had been just pine trees a few months earlier, now stood a 10,000-square-foot brown warehouse with a bee-colored sign across the front and another on a post by the road. A lone sprinkler cast water over a patchwork of sod, into which some neat circles had been cut for shrubs.

When he'd heard about the store, he was wary, he said. But it came out better than he had imagined it would. He was even looking forward to being able to buy odds and ends without traveling to Hampden or Bangor.

"I consider it a mini Walmart," Saunders said. "That's how I equate it. And they're popping up everywhere."

"Dollar" stores, broadly speaking, aren't new to the area — Family Dollar has three stores here — but the influx by Dollar General over the past year has made discount goods available to rural shoppers who might otherwise have looked to big box stores. The new stores have also raised some of the same concerns, though not fatally.

Anyone who was in Waldo County a decade ago probably remembers the Belfast big-box debates. Walmart approached the city in 2000 to build a Supercenter on Route 3, and for the next eight years local elections were decided on the single question of whether the city should allow a large general merchandise retailer.

Walmart faded out of the picture quickly — there were rumors that Belfast was deemed too small and too close to other Walmarts — but there was talk of others, and at least one public overture by Lowe's.

Opponents won with a well-organized campaign that focused on how a big-box store would kill the downtown. But fending off mega-retailers did little for those on the other side of the debate, who couldn't afford to shop locally. And people of all income levels have continued to go to Rockland, Bangor and Augusta for discount necessities.

Since September 2016, Dollar General has opened three Waldo County stores, in Searsport, Belmont and Winterport, and two more just beyond the county line in Hampden and Clinton. Another store, in the Knox County town of Union, is slated to open this fall.

Today, the route from Belfast to Bangor passes three Dollar General stores, all less than a year old.

From town to town, the new stores have triggered muted versions of the big box debates of a decade ago. Opponents say the stores are ugly and sell junky versions of the same products for sale at locally owned shops. Supporters welcome the convenience and low prices, along with the six to 10 new jobs typically created when a Dollar General store opens.

Nearly every time, the supporters have won.

Belmont: 'Oh my god, yes!'

On a recent evening, cars crept in and out of the pristinely black parking lot of the new Dollar General at Belmont Corner. Shoppers stole in and out of the nondescript building with the kind of supplies one might pick up at a gas station or convenience store — cases of soda, shampoo, a can of soup.

In another time, Belmont Corner might have been a commercial crossroads. Route 131 doglegs across a straight stretch of Route 3. Lincolnville Road angles in from the south creating something like a five-way intersection with spokes bee-lining for village centers in Morrill and Searsmont.

If you wanted to sell convenience items to Tri-town residents, it's hard to imagine a better location. The store is far enough from Belfast to rule out direct competition, and close to a lot of people used to surviving on emergency runs to village stores between provisioning expeditions to one city or another.

That's the idea, according to Dollar General spokeswoman Laura Somerville, who said convenience is a major factor in deciding where to open a store.

"We generally serve customers within a 3- to 5-mile radius, or 10-minute drive," she said, by email. "We also take demographic trends, competitive factors, traffic patterns and community concerns into consideration."

Bill Valleau of Searsmont stopped by the Belmont Dollar General with his daughter to pick up ice cream. He said he liked the convenience but felt somewhat torn about giving his business to a chain retailer.

"Do you go with better selection, better price, or do you support your neighbors," he said. In the end, the ice cream was $3 cheaper at Dollar General, Valleau said, and it was on the way home.

Lori Shepherd of Liberty was at the store a few minutes later. She manages the Maritime Farms store just east of Dollar General but said the new store wasn't competing for the quartet of grab-and-go "staple items" — gas, cigarettes, pizza and beer — that accounts for much of her business.

Pete Natale of Montville saw the Dollar General as much-needed competition for Hannaford supermarket in Belfast. Asked about the comparison to Walmart, he answered immediately, "Oh my god, yes!"

Often a prompt isn't necessary.

Union Town Manager Jay Feyler, responding last month to online comments about the Dollar General under construction at the corner of Route 17 and Town House Road, referred to the store as a "mini-mini-Walmart."

At least some of the 1,000 new stores Dollar General plans to open all over the country in 2017 once were Walmarts. Dollar General bought 41 Walmart Express stores after the mega-retailer pulled the plug on its smaller format stores, which were meant to compete with dollar stores. The sale shed light on the scramble by general retailers to find the line between big dollar stores and small big boxes.

In the Midcoast, smaller stores might have an advantage. In 2008 the Belfast City Council set aside an 80-acre parcel for a single big box store. New Dollar Generals typically need less than three acres. Their smaller footprint generally has allowed them to avoid scrutiny by local Planning Boards.

Winterport: 'There's nothing anyone could do.'

In Winterport, the decision to have a Dollar General in town was made by exactly two residents. Jeffrey and Shelley Cyr sold an acre and a half of wooded land next to their home to Dollar General at the end of February. Five months later, a wooden fence separated their pastoral home from a cleared lot with mall landscaping and a new dollar store. Shelley Cyr said she couldn't have been happier.

"People look at the name and assume it's a dollar store," she said. "It's not. It's more of a general store where you can get everything."

Winterport is a stone's throw from Bangor's mall district and even closer to the new Dollar General store in Hampden. John Coggeshall, who lives on the opposite side of the new Dollar General from the Cyrs and described his dislike of the chain retailer as "directly proportional to the nearness of the store," was baffled about why there needed to be one in Winterport, too.

The longtime Planning Board member and student of city planning at Harvard and MIT several times recused himself from votes to speak as a private citizen against what he called the "astonishingly stupid decision" by Dollar General to open so many stores in so short a time. When it became clear that the company was set on doing business in Winterport, he offered a list of 12 other sites in town, half of which would have cost less than the Cyrs' land. Even with a persuasive argument and a seat on the Planning Board, there was nothing he could do to stop the store from moving in.

As his neighbor, Bub Saunders, put it: "There's nothing anyone could do, because Winterport doesn't have zoning."

Winterport, like many small towns, has no land use ordinance. The Planning Board reviews building applications to make sure they comply with state shoreland zoning and subdivision rules, but they have no authority to reject or require changes to a proposed development. Towns have taken emergency measures to block controversial businesses in the past — several Waldo County towns enacted wind energy ordinances in 2008 to block developments — but the new dollar stores haven't caused the same groundswell of concern.

In towns with local zoning ordinances, including Searsport and Union, Dollar General has mostly avoided problems by choosing sites zoned for commercial development. In both towns there were objections but none that could be backed up by local laws.

If Dollar General decided to open a store in Belfast, the company might be asked to install a lower sign or change parking lot light fixtures to minimize light pollution, but it almost certainly would have fewer hurdles to clear and vastly more options than the large retailers that have courted the city.

Belfast: Convenience or 'the whole family thing'

Waldo County will probably never get a Walmart. Over the last decade, big-box retailers have taken a well-publicized hit from online vendors. Even before that, they appeared to have hit the geographic limit to how much they could expand without eating into their own sales.

Belfast effectively closed the book on big boxes in 2008 when the City Council eliminated a special commercial district on Searsport Avenue. The vote left just one property zoned for a business larger than 75,000 square feet, and it sent a clear message that any business big enough to need it would get a mixed reception at best.

Former City Councilor James Roberts Sr. cast one of the two dissenting votes at the time, based on his belief that a large retailer would help the city's low-income residents. Speaking recently, he said a Walmart would still be a welcome addition in town, but he guessed it probably wouldn't happen. He also disagreed with the suggestion that dollar stores were close enough.

"They're just convenience," he said. "If you're going to do the whole family thing and stock up on supplies, you go to Walmart."

Roberts said his wife makes regular trips to the big stores in Bangor. When he needs to buy something, he said, he prefers to shop online. He gave a shrug, like, who would have known?

"Of course, you're not going to buy your milk and orange juice on there," he said.

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