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Marching North: The rise of Dollar General in New Hampshire

  • Chris Bremer sits on his back porch in Henniker looking at the newly-opened Dollar General. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • The view of the newly-opened Dollar General in Henniker is seen from Chris Bremer’s backyard. The store is one of 27 Dollar Generals to open in the state since 2012. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Henniker’s new Dollar General. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, September 02, 2017

Like many people, Chris Bremer likes to start his day with a cup of coffee.

Typically, he sits on his back stoop which opens up to a vista of Henniker’s rolling green fields, forests, and the slopes of Pats Peak. A few months ago, his view was unmarred by anything built by man, save a few powerlines, chairlifts and the occasional sight of Bremer’s neighbor haying.

But now, a corner of a newly-built Dollar General on Bradford Road, which held its grand opening last month, peeks above a wooden fence. Smack in the middle of Bremer’s view are two septic exhaust vents.

“I moved here because it was the only Henniker on Earth,” Bremer said. “Now I have to look at that every day.”

The view is why Bremer led a campaign against Dollar General a year ago. He made signs and T-shirts with the phrase “Dollar General won’t get my $$$$” printed in the store’s signature black and yellow colors, and started a petition he said garnered 2,200 signatures.

But the store came anyway after the Henniker Planning Board approved its site plan application 5-1 on July 13, 2016. The store’s opening makes it one of 27 Dollar Generals to open in New Hampshire in the last five years, said Laura Somerville, corporate communications spokeswoman for the company. The state has 28 Dollar Generals; the first store opened in Nashua in 2011.

Those opposed to the store, like Bremer, are wondering what kind of impact the store will have on the town’s way of life. Others, like Henniker resident Kathleen LaBonte, have embraced the store, noting it brings goods otherwise a 20-minute drive away right into the middle of town.

“Why would we not want to have a store that was so economical not only with product savings but travel as well?” she said.

Attractive locations

But what is it about towns like Henniker that attract Dollar General?

Somerville said the company bases its prospective locations on convenience, and tries to position its stores within three-to-five miles – or a 10-minute drive – from its customer base. She said Dollar General is hoping to open more than 1,000 stores this year across the country.

Somerville also said the company bases its locations on demographics, but stopped short of saying what exactly Dollar General looks for in that regard.

“No matter where we end up, we’re looking to be convenient and fill the gap for customers,” she said.

The publicly-traded company tells its investors that it targets a variety of rural, suburban and urban communities. About 70 percent of the chain’s 13,429 stores in 44 states are located in communities with populations of 20,000 or fewer residents.

It lists among its direct competitors stores like Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Big Lots.

Part of the draw could be economics, said Phil Sletten, an analyst for the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute. Income growth for low-and-moderate incomes has been slow in the state since the 2008 recession, and has not kept pace with inflation. This cuts down on purchasing power, and can make stores like Dollar General attractive, he said.

In New Hampshire, more than three-quarters of Dollar General stores are in communities where residents make less than the state’s median income of $66,779; towns like Raymond, Henniker, Newport and Barnstead. No Dollar General stores exist in the state’s wealthiest communities like Bedford, Bow and Amherst.

Similarly, 22 of its 28 stores are located in communities where fewer than one-third of residents have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is below the state’s average education level.

Slatten noted, too, that New Hampshire has an aging population, which brings fixed incomes and fewer dollars to spend. Most Dollar General stores in the state are located in towns and cities where more people are above the state’s median age of 42.7 years old.

Saying no

Residents of many communities have chosen to fight Dollar General’s proposals, rather than embrace them.

The ongoing petition against bringing a Dollar General to Barnstead promised chaos should the company’s distinctive black and yellow sign come to town.

“Although the perceived tax benefit and promise of new jobs seems alluring ... this box store not only threatens our family-owned and operated businesses, but also the local businesses and farms that supply products and goods to these stores,” reads the petition created by Scott Michaud.

A petition against a prospective Dollar General in Moultonborough had similar language.

“Moultonborough is a small, quiet, old-fashioned town,” reads the petition created by Tara Shaw. “We do not need large retail stores coming in and turning it into a city.”

Demographically, Henniker, Barnstead and Moultonborough have a few things in common, according to the New Hampshire Employment Security database. The town’s populations are estimated to be in the 4,000-4,800 range and household incomes are either around or just below the state’s median household earnings.

Perhaps the strongest similarity between the towns is their character. The three towns are rural, and the closest big box stores are often a drive away. In Henniker, the closest major box store is in Concord; in Moultonborough, residents have to drive to Plymouth or Laconia if they want to find a big store.

Ed Tasker, a member of the Barnstead select board, said Barnstead “absolutely” takes pride in being a small and rural town, noting the town is at least 20 miles away from Concord, Rochester and Laconia.

“There was a fear, I think, that all the sudden Barnstead was going to turn into a strip mall with lots of stores,” Tasker said of the resistance to Dollar General coming into Barnstead. “People thought it would attract a lot of low-income people.”

That hasn’t come to pass, Tasker said, and the parking lot of the Dollar General is often busy, he said.

Tasker also said some residents didn’t like the idea of a Dollar General coming to town when surrounding communities already had a store. There are nine Dollar General’s within 20 miles of the Dollar General in Barnstead, according to Dollar General’s website.

Tasker called that concept “snob zoning,” and said the fear that Dollar General would run a local business out was unfounded; Barnstead’s tax base is mostly comprised of residential property, and there aren’t many local businesses for the general store to compete with, he said.

“It’d be great to bring in a business that employs around 15 to 20 people,” he said.

Tax base is where Moultonborough stands out from Barnstead and Henniker; while the latter towns have some of the higher tax rates in the state ($27.25 and $33.33, respectively), Moultonborough’s tax rate is $8.74.

Moultonborough town administrator Walter Johnson attributed that to the town’s abundant lake-front properties. “Just one of those homes is probably valued more than that building,” he said.

Johnson said Moultonborough also has a scattering of service businesses, including a few offices, retail stores and the historical Old Country Store and Museum, a general store that is 228 years old, that make up the tax base.

Johnson said there was “a fair amount of opposition” to Dollar General coming to Moultonborough, especially its proposed location – the store is across from the town’s schools, and is the first business motorists see when driving into town.

So why allow it? “At the end of the day, there are certain property rights we can’t ignore,” Johnson said. “If zoning allows for a business to come in, you can’t not allow it just because you don’t like the business itself.”

The store has been open for about a month and a half, Johnson said. It’s busy, he said, but it’s hard to say whether the traffic is from locals or tourists vacationing in the area.

“I think it will end up being an asset to some and a non-factor to others,” he said.

Time will tell

For 25 years, the New Harvester Market has been a staple of the Henniker community.

There’s the typical grocery offerings, like soda, chips and frozen goods. But then there are the elements that set it apart, said part-owner Vinny Aurilio: a full-service deli, fresh produce and an extensive wine and cheese selection.

Aurilio said there hasn’t been an impact on sales since the Henniker Dollar General opened across the street nearly a month ago.

“It might as well not be there,” he said.

There is concern, he said, that Dollar General’s impact could become more noticeable.

“There’s only so much pie to go around,” he said.

But for now, Aurilio thinks the Harvester will prevail.

“We’ve developed a lot of personal relationships with people,” he said. “As long as we keep the customer base happy and satisfied, everything will be fine.”

LaBonte thinks so, too.

“To the other businesses in town, there is room for everyone, and everyone should be welcomed,” she said.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309 and candrews@cmonitor.com.)