A couple of weeks ago, the Red Lodge City Council approved an 8,400 square foot Family Dollar store at the north end of town. Although the agenda that night did say “Family Dollar” on it, the proposal was listed on earlier notifications as a “Leading Tech Development” project, so few people in the community saw this coming. Intense conversations followed.
When Doug Bailey posted about it in the Red Lodge Neighborhood Alert group on Facebook, his post drew 176 responses. While the project is not yet scheduled and plans for the building are not yet firm, there are a number of conclusions we can draw about this project for Red Lodge.
What is Family Dollar?
First, let’s look at the business. This is not like the little family-owned dollar store that Red Lodge used to have. In fact, Family Dollar isn’t a dollar store at all. A quick look at their website confirms that. In the Carbon County News article last week, Greg Wall, the project manager from Leading Tech Development in charge of building this Family Dollar, was quoted as saying it would be “like a Walgreens and CBS [sic] Pharmacy” (they meant “CVS”) and the project manager for the Bridger Family Dollar likened it to a “small Wal-Mart.”
Family Dollar, according to their corporate fact sheet, is an $8.5 billion business, with 8,000 stores and 50,000 employees. Headquartered in Matthews, North Carolina, they refer to themselves as a “small-format convenience and value retailer.”
According to the Carbon County News article, Greg Wall was asked about whether Family Dollar was going to compete with other Red Lodge stores and responded with, “Family Dollar Store is unique. We carry some groceries, but doesn’t consider itself in direct competition with the grocery store. It doesn’t sell gas like Town Pump. It will have some items that probably can’t be found here as easily; clothing, socks, toy selection and diapers, batteries, light bulbs, but not near the depth or selection. It is meant to be a store that is convenient at reasonable prices. It’s not out to put another out of business.”
Clearly, Wall hadn’t looked around Red Lodge much. You can, indeed, easily find clothing, batteries, light bulbs, and toys. I can name at least three stores that sell each of those. The grocery store has aisles of non-food items, as does the drugstore, and I have a feeling that all three gas station “mini-marts” in Red Lodge would consider Family Dollar to be competition.
It’s just like Subway, True Value, IGA, or Radio Shack, right?
Not at all. It’s much more like Town Pump. Both are owned by out-of-town corporations that move their earnings out of our community as quickly as possible. They have no loyalty to Carbon County. Management decisions are made elsewhere, profits are spent elsewhere, and owners reside elsewhere.
Subway, True Value, IGA, and Radio Shack are all well-known national names, but the businesses in Red Lodge are locally-owned franchises, and their owners are integral parts of our community.
Both of the owners of the Red Lodge Subway (Tom Kuntz and Rich Bruner) are former recipients of the Red Lodge Citizen of the Year award, as is Milt Bastian of the IGA. Ken Karina of Radio Shack was just mentioned a few days ago (along with Milt Bastian) in our article about snow removal. Both of them have spent endless hours clearing sidewalks along Broadway. Ken & Debbie Awes of True Value are very active in the community as well.
When you spend money at a locally-owned franchise, some of that money does indeed go to the corporation in franchise fees. The profit, however, stays local. The owners of our local franchises live here, pay taxes here, and spend their money here.
The upside to Family Dollar
Lest this sound negative or one-sided, let me point out that there will be benefits to Family Dollar opening a store here. Red Lodge currently has quite a few people who do not shop downtown. They live in Red Lodge and enjoy the benefits of being here, but do all of their shopping in Billings — often without even checking to see if what they need is available in Red Lodge at equivalent prices.
Having a big chain store in town will give those folks a place to shop without spending $10 or $20 for gas. That won’t take anything away from locally-owned businesses, since they were already shopping in Billings. In fact, if they’re staying in town for the basics, they may buy some other items in town that Family Dollar doesn’t sell.
The majority of Family Dollar’s items aren’t subject to resort tax, but some are, like toys and games. That will provide a bit of resort tax income to the City, and they will be paying property taxes as well.
The biggest upside that Family Dollar proponents mention is job creation. Let’s take a look at that one.
When a new business starts up, there are two types of jobs that it can create: contract (temporary) and employees. Contract jobs are things like construction people to build the facility, landscapers, snowplow drivers, and so forth. Employees are the people behind the register, in the warehouse, or at a desk every day.
There’s a huge difference in how businesses handle those start-up contract jobs. Let’s look at the recent remodel of Bogart’s restaurant, owned by Tom Kuntz (mentioned above as part-owner of Subway). The remodel involved framing, stonework, glass, flooring, finish carpentry, upholstery, and more. All of the work was done by locals. Bogart’s even went to Back Alley Metals to have all-new custom metal chairs and bar stools made here in town.
For contrast, take a look at Town Pump. When they came into Red Lodge, they had the option to create immediate goodwill by using local labor for their new building. Instead, they brought in framers, finish carpenters, masons, plumbers, HVAC techs, concrete & asphalt people, roofers, welders, electricians, cabinetmakers, architects, painters, and all of their other skilled labor from out of town. We’ve been unable to locate a single Red Lodge contractor that was given an opportunity to bid on any of their work. Essentially, they began their relationship with our town by saying our tradespeople aren’t good enough for them.
Family Dollar has already hired a Utah company to build their facility in Red Lodge. They haven’t yet announced whether they’ll be hiring local subcontractors — although they’re not using local architects — we can provide some pressure and hope that they put out a stream of bids to our local skilled labor force. That would be an excellent start for them in Red Lodge.
Now on to the employees. As we have reported in the past in the Local Rag, employees can be difficult to find in Red Lodge. We have heard many businesses complain about the difficulty of finding workers here. We’ve seen stores with “Help Wanted” signs up for months. Some (e.g., IGA, Foster & Logan’s, Red Lodge Mountain, Bridge Creek) have gone so far as importing seasonal employees from other countries. While Red Lodge is in desperate need of higher-paid professional jobs, anyone who wants a minimum-wage job in town probably already has one — or in many cases, two or three.
If people were clamoring for jobs here, a dozen or so new Family Dollar jobs would be a great boon to the community. If there was reasonably-priced housing in Red Lodge that minimum-wage workers could afford to live in, our economy would grow thanks to new people moving here to work at Family Dollar. Unfortunately, though, we don’t have enough workers, there’s nowhere to house new ones, and people generally won’t commute for a minimum-wage job. Family Dollar will just create a bigger drain on the existing labor pool.
Red Lodge, like every other town in the country, strives to be unique. Our stores draw two different audiences: locals and visitors. Locals need an incentive to stay in town to do their shopping. They have to believe that shopping locally supports their neighbors, their friends, and the things that made them want to live in Red Lodge in the first place. They have to feel that the stores and restaurants in town aren’t just for tourists. Local businesses need to work hard at that, by carrying what locals want and through the local discount programs many of them already have in place.
Visitors need to be drawn to town. There needs to be something about Red Lodge that they can’t find in their own town, or there’s no reason to come here. Encouraging locally-owned businesses with their own character and personality provides that reason. Putting in Family Dollar makes Red Lodge more like the 8,000 other places that have Family Dollar stores. Putting that Family Dollar right at the main entrance to town so it’s one of the first things a visitor sees makes it even harder to develop a unique image.
Putting a store like that out on Highway 212 at Robinson Road does something else: it draws people away from the historic downtown shopping area. This is at the core of Wal-Mart’s strategy: when they build stores away from historic downtowns, they can draw the shoppers away from those downtowns and create a new shopping area as the old one crumbles (see, for example, Cody). They continue to employ that strategy because it works, and Family Dollar is smart enough to see that.
The Family Dollar has been approved. It’s too late for outrage — and outrage is counterproductive anyway. The best thing that Red Lodge residents can do now is to encourage the Council to put in zoning laws that prevent the development of strip malls north of town and disguise the big-box style facade we’re now stuck with.
When the City encourages growth in town, the incentives should go to locally-grown businesses, and that’s who the zoning should favor.
Red Lodge Ales is a locally-owned business that does a lot to support our community. Owners Sam and Lindsey Hoffmann are active in local nonprofits and provide their workers with good wages and benefits. They built their facility with the specific intent to expand in place as the business grew. They didn’t realize that after they built their current plant, the zoning rules in town were changed, and they were told this summer that they couldn’t expand.
Red Lodge Ales is located just north of the site that was just approved for the 8,400 square foot Family Dollar building, in that same zoning corridor. It makes no sense to deny Red Lodge Ales expansion while bringing in the new Family Dollar.
If the residents, business owners, and government of Red Lodge work together, we can turn this town into just about anything we want to. It requires only planning, communication, and cooperation. If those 176 responses to Doug Bailey’s Facebook post had been heard by the City months ago, the Family Dollar may well still have been approved. It’s quite possible, though, that the conditions and terms would be different, and that the community at large would have bought in to the process.
Hopefully, now that the Local Rag is back, we can help with that process. We’re certainly willing to try.