Let’s not rush to judgment on dollar stores

Flashback 1964: The city of Youngstown is awash in dozens of retail outlets and specialty shops, particularly on the bustling Federal Street downtown, where the ornate eight-story Strouss’ and McKelvey’s department stores draw thousands of customers daily. On all sides of town, robust grocery stores ranging from Kroger’s to Loblaw’s to A&P to Sparkle keep the city’s 165,000 residents well supplied and well fed.

Flash forward 2024: Healthy and diverse retail has largely vanished. Most storefronts from the city’s heyday long have been abandoned. Only one retail growth industry has inundated the depopulated and deindustrialized city of 60,000: dollar stores.

As a result, the retail landscape of Youngstown has taken a huge hit. As with other cities nationwide, much of it will never return thanks to major retail outlets’ gravitation to suburban malls and shopping districts s ago and thanks to the rise of online shopping.

But today, more and more cities are exploring strategies to rebuild retail from the ground up. They’re particularly on the hunt for full-service grocery stores to rid themselves of the food desert status many have become.

Youngstown is no different. Recently, the city administration proposed a plan to place a one-year moratorium on the opening of new dollar stores and other types of businesses within city limits. A city council panel has scheduled a work session on the proposal for April 11.

Our advice to city leaders: Don’t rush to judgment.

To be sure, dollar stores have engulfed the city at a rapid clip. Twenty-four have sprung up on all sides of town, according to Nikki Posterli, director of the city’s community planning department.

Common complaints against these establishments center on their perceived tendencies to offer unhealthy food choices and drive away larger retail outlets, particularly first-class grocery stores.

“We don’t want to saturate our community. We want opportunities for growth and more healthy food options,” Posterli told council members last week.

Those goals are admirable indeed, but history tells us that the task — particularly the hope of some to attract big-box retailers to the city — will be formidable at best and impossible at worst. Youngstown leaders and numerous community groups have worked for decades to broaden Youngstown’s retail foundation — with little to no concrete results.

Given the lack of any major retailers knocking on the city’s door, dollar stores do serve useful purposes. They fill a gap in food access, offer convenient locations close to many urban dwellers and provide a market for low-income residents to redeem their food-stamp benefits.

What’s more, the last time we checked, Youngstown was still part of America and of the American way of promoting free and independent commerce in a capitalist economy. Must dollar-store entrepreneurs be forced to suffer the wrath of an overzealous nanny state?

Such businesses not only offer services to residents of all income levels, they also help local governments by generating tax revenue for strained local government coffers.

All of which is not to say that the proliferation of such stores should be ignored. A healthy city enjoys a diverse array of retail outlets for food, household items, hygiene necessities, clothing and other products. The need to diversify the retail base rises as a viable and commendable goal.

That’s why we hope city leaders continue that broad-based quest, but we also hope city leaders explore other options for reining in dollar stores, such as limiting their proximity to competing stores and imposing requirements that they stock a larger selection of healthier food products such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Other cities across the U.S. have imposed such restrictions with success.

Many communities, most recently Canton and at least 17 others in Ohio, have instituted restrictions on dollar stores, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance. As Youngstown leaders ponder joining that club, we offer several suggestions.

First they can study the impact of such restrictions on other communities’ ability to attract more diverse retail. Second, they can gain input from owners and operators of the targeted dollar stores. Third, and most importantly, they can gather community viewpoints on the proposal, perhaps through public hearings and online surveys.

With 34,000 dollar stores across the nation — more than the number of McDonalds, Starbucks, Targets and Walmarts combined — continued growth of this retail model cannot be halted. Their presence, however, can be contained to ensure their liabilities do not outweigh their assets.

Toward that end, we urge Youngstown leaders to proceed cautiously and carefully to achieve success.



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