Editorial: Time for a Solution

The “Dollar Store Debate” in the Village of Margaretville has taken on a life of its own in recent months.
The heart of the matter has been whether a village zoning amendment should be made to allow for the construction of new retail space in Margaretville’s commercial zone. There is also the interpretation by some folks that the zoning ordinance actually does allow new retail construction with a special use permit. There are still others who say that recent versions of the village zoning law prohibit new retail buildings. Period.
The real problem is that representatives of two potential businesses — a Family Dollar store and a Freshtown supermarket — have different viewpoints on the matter.
Family Dollar officials, who want to build a store adjacent to the Margaretville Post Office, were confident that a zoning change would be made to allow retail construction in the village. They then spent an estimated $200,000 for a property purchase, demolition of a decrepit building and site work.
On the other hand, the Freshtown investors spent about $2 million to purchase the A&P plaza. They have plans to invest several more million dollars to renovate the dated facility and bring a state-of-the-art supermarket to the village.
The controversy for the Freshtown folks is that they reportedly made their decision to invest in the village based on the fact that no competitors could build a business in the village limits — according to the zoning ordinance.
With the possibility of a zoning change that would allow the Family Dollar store in the village, there are reports that the Freshtown owners may simply continue “business as usual” by extending the A&P’s lease and making a minimal investment in the plaza.

Numerous problems
There are many problems with this entire scenario. One of the most troubling aspects, however, is the willingness by many parties to try to keep out a Family Dollar store based on statements like: “It will compete with our other stores,” or, “It’s going to go out of business in a year.”
Those arguments are simply not valid. Where do you draw the line? How many of a particular type of business is an appropriate number?
Businesses have to compete or they go out of business. Plenty of enterprises have come and gone in the village — without competition from a dollar store.
Some folks have argued that the controversy over the zoning change is about principle and has nothing to do with the fact that the amendment would allow for construction of a Family Dollar store. Still, one has to wonder if this fuss would have been raised if a bakery were being proposed.
Margaretville’s zoning cannot — and should not — dictate what “types” of business can come into the community — unless they are somehow unwholesome or pose environmental issues. A free market economy should make those choices.

Exercise controls
The real power of zoning is the ability to mandate that an applicant build something that conforms to community aesthetics. Both the Family Dollar developer and the Dollar General store people (who have applied to build a store on Route 28) have indicated publicly that they will “build to suit.” If these projects are approved, it would be a welcome idea for “design” recommendations to be made by local planners.
It’s no secret that one of the worst aspects of such chain stores is their “cookie-cutter” appearance, because they are built with thriftiness in mind. If our communities are interested in seeing development follow a particular visual ideal, the investors should be made to adhere to certain guidelines. For instance, the McDonald’s in Stowe, VT looks like an old-fashioned house. We could do the same here. If the developers don’t want to follow the guidelines, then they don’t get to build. Simple solution.

Supermarket welcome
As far as the Freshtown store is concerned, it would be a shame if this new store does not come to the village because of this controversy. The A&P is dated and prices are too high. The Freshtown investors have promised to change both of these problems — with a completely remodeled store inside and out and competitive pricing. The drawings look great.
A new store would be a significant improvement for our local communities. It seems a sure bet that such a supermarket would prosper — whether a dollar store exists nearby or not.
Lots of time and energy have been wasted on this topic. Should the Family Dollar company have proceeded without guarantees that it could build? Probably not.
Should the Village of Margaretville have a zoning ordinance that prohibits building new retail spaces? No.
Can this area support multiple dollar stores? No one really knows. But that’s a decision for the developers to make.
The fact is, Margaretville could ban all retail building tomorrow — and then change the rules six months down the road. There are no guarantees in business and investors must make informed choices — and be guided in their building designs by our local planning and zoning officials.
A vibrant community must have businesses. Our small towns are unique and we should keep them that way. Plus, we must keep in mind that competition is good for everyone.
This situation has been unpleasant and unfortunate for all involved. It’s time to stop passing blame and start finding solutions that are equitable. Village officials and the affected business owners must sit down and work out a compromise agreement that makes sense for everyone. We’ll all benefit.
— Brian Sweeney