‘They don’t provide any vital service.’ One neighborhood’s fight against another dollar store
At the corner of Riverside and Campus drives, across the street from the Goodwill Industries Headquarters in the southeast Fort Worth neighborhood of Rolling Hills, sits an empty swath of grass.
On a good day, bits of concrete from sidewalk and curb construction litter the intersection, though the residents have called the city multiple times to try and get it cleaned up. On a bad day, plastic bottles, cigarette butts and crumpled paper bags fill the curbside.
This site, with its tall grass and scattered shrubbery, is the home of a future Family Dollar store.
When the Rolling Hills neighborhood found out that a Family Dollar planned to move in, the immediate reaction could be summed up in two words: Absolutely not.
Within a three-mile radius, there are nine Family Dollar locations, five Dollar Generals and four Dollar Trees. The stores cater to low-income neighborhoods like Rolling Hills, where the median household income is $34,000.
Marie Love said Rolling Hills needs this new Family Dollar like she needs a hole in the head.
The fight over this dollar store represents a bigger fight for the city. Since 2011, Fort Worth has seen these stores proliferate, which officials say drives out competition from other retailers. To push back, the city wants to look at ways to limit the growth of future dollar stores.
In response to emailed questions about the fight against the proposed store, Dollar Tree (the parent company of Family Dollar) said, “Our stores provide an affordable and convenient fill-in shopping option for our customers in between their weekly or bi-weekly grocery stor trips, all while creating more jobs and investing in the communities we serve.”
Residents want to see a restaurant or a grocery store on the land — businesses they say the neighborhood sorely lacks. But it might be a losing battle for the neighborhood, both in keeping away a Family Dollar and in getting more economic development, because the business model for these dollar stores is based on over-saturation.
“Many of our customers have fixed or low incomes and generally have limited discretionary spending dollars,” Dollar General said in a securities filing last year. “Our core customers are often among the first to be affected by negative or uncertain economic conditions, and are among the last to feel the effects of improving economic conditions particularly when, as in the recent past, trends are inconsistent.”
‘We don’t need another one’
Love’s house faces the site of the proposed Family Dollar. When she caught wind of the plans for the site across the street from her house, she jumped into action.
Love has been active in the Glencrest Civic League for years. She started circulating a petition among her neighbors, urging them to sign to show their opposition to the Family Dollar. In her petition, she listed the locations of nine other stores within three miles of the proposed site.
“There are too many,” she said. “We don’t need another one.”
If you expand beyond the Rolling Hills neighborhood, there are probably 100 dollar stores in the southeast Fort Worth region, said Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray.
Dollar stores have been rapidly multiplying across the country since 2011, according to a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy group for small communities. Close to 30,000 locations have popped up in the United States, with more locations than Walmart and McDonalds combined.
Dollar stores cluster close together because the products these stores offer aren’t unique and, therefore, no one is willing to drive more than three to five miles to shop at one, according to an NPR report. They also tend to flourish in poor and underserved minority communities because of their selection of inexpensive products, including canned goods, cereals and processed foods.
These stores, of course, wouldn’t be flourishing if people weren’t frequenting them. More than 40% of shoppers were expected to visit a dollar store during last holiday season, and 19% of their customers are from homes with incomes more than $100,000. Many dollar store patrons go in looking for a bargain, and they find them.
The low prices force neighboring businesses to close because they can’t compete. This also prevents grocery stores from coming in. Robert Sturns, economic development director for the city of Fort Worth, said grocery stores operate on slim profit margins and would rather not compete with dollar stores.
“These lower-income areas that don’t have your typical grocery store project, it does make it very difficult to talk to a mid-priced grocery store to come in the area,” Sturns said. “Trying to get them or someone like them to come to an area where there are nine dollar stores, it does make it very hard.”
Rolling Hills is considered a food desert because of its lack of access to healthy and fresh food options. There’s a Walmart at Renaissance Square, a 10-minute drive away. But for people who don’t have a car, that just isn’t feasible.
It makes sense that some people would walk to a nearby Family Dollar to buy their groceries. But the problem is, they can only get processed foods in small servings — nothing that is actually nutritious, critics say. Last year, Dollar General started adding fresh produce to its merchandising, but Family Dollar and its parent company Dollar Tree have not made that move yet.
“It’s like putting a frog in the punch bowl — the frog might be happy, but nobody’s going to drink that punch,” said the Rev. Carl Pointer, a member of the Glencrest Civic League. “That’s what we’re fighting.”
Real estate analyst Garrick Brown told Bloomberg in 2017 that dollar stores are betting that “we are going to have a permanent underclass in America.”
“As dollar stores multiply, they’re contributing to a growing disparity between communities that have access to fresh food and healthy local economies, and those who do not,” the Institute of Local Self-Reliance states in its study.
“In historically minority neighborhoods, we get written off. We get red-lined,” Pointer said. “We don’t get a full hearing or due consideration that other neighborhoods might.
“This is not a step forward. That’s a step backward.”
So what can Rolling Hills do about this coming dollar store?
Not much of anything, it seems.
The city approved the site’s map in April, and the land has been zoned for neighborhood commercial use for years. That means developer Max Alley Investments doesn’t need to submit a zoning application, and that means no public hearing where the neighborhood can voice its opposition.
Dana Burghdoff, assistant director of planning and development for the city of Fort Worth, said at this point, there isn’t much recourse for Rolling Hills residents.
“The only thing I would suggest would be they meet with the management of the store in case there are concerns,” she said.
Even Kelly Allen Gray, the council member who represents the neighborhood, thinks the store will go through.
“However, we’re not giving up,” she said.
Gray wants the City Council to consider an ordinance that would limit future dollar stores from opening in the area.
As dollar store locations expand nationwide, cities are fighting back. Last year, a north Tulsa community fought to pass an ordinance that would have stopped more dollar stores from opening there.
Closer to home, Mesquite last year also passed an ordinance addressing the stores.
Mesquite City Manager Cliff Kehely said the city had noticed a year and a half ago that zoning requests for dollar and convenience stores had increased. When the city started looking into the issue, it realized that the dollar stores were affecting the locations of potential grocery stores.
“What we found was that we had a significant concentration throughout the city,” Kehely said. “In some cases we had three located right across the street from each other. We felt that concentration was impacting other retailers.”
The ordinance required that any future dollar store development had to be more than 5,000 feet away from another similar store. It also required that if the proposed store planned to sell groceries, 10% of its products had to be fresh food.
Since the ordinance passed in August, Kehely said, he hasn’t seen a lot of stores looking to build in Mesquite.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the existing locations that were already in the community and that distance requirement probably kept more from coming in,” Kehely said.
Fort Worth’s future
As other cities start moving toward stalling the growth of dollar stores, Fort Worth is looking to do something similar. During a meeting May 21, Gray brought up the issue and requested the city staff look into an ordinance similar to Mesquite’s.
Sturns said it was worth looking into.
“Anything that hinders our ability to attract higher-quality grocery store projects, I think is problematic,” Sturns said. “I’ll be interested to see how the process goes and how we deal with this going forward. Fort Worth isn’t the only community dealing with this. We could end up being a model for other communities facing this issue.”
There could be a concern from some that passing an ordinance like this would make a city seem like it’s not open to business development. In Tulsa, opponents claimed it would discourage development.
Furthermore, even if the city stopped future dollar stores opening, it wouldn’t address the ones that already exist.
“The ones that are already there, you can’t police them. They’re there, they’re meeting all the policies. You’re going to have to live with what will be allowed in these areas already,” Sturns said. “In the end, any neighborhood has the ultimate authority by not shopping there. If you don’t want to see the proliferation of these kids of stores, you don’t shop there and go somewhere else.”