Dollar General recently announced plans to deliver a slick version of its bargain-basement brand of convenience shopping to Nicollet Mall.

The snark, laced with a heavy dose of How the Mighty Have Fallen, flew fast and furious on social media. What lowbrow level of chain-store degradation was next for downtown Minneapolis? Waffle House? Cracker Barrel?

Civic pearl clutchers (present company included) may have viewed the Dollar General news as a signal of the impending demise of Western civilization. Or, at the very least, as an occasion to sigh wistfully about the halcyon days when Nicollet was heralded — with no small amount of chutzpah — as the “Fifth Avenue of the Upper Midwest.”

Of course, that was back when downtown Minneapolis boasted the region’s most compelling critical mass of department stores and specialty shops. But let’s be real. Those days are long behind us.

Yes, “tacky” and “depressing” are two words to describe the appearance of a dollar store on what is widely viewed as Minneapolis’ Main Street, a thoroughfare that recently underwent a $50 million makeover. “Distressing” could be another, since the appearance of this type of merchant might be an indication that downtown’s dwindling retail scene is taking yet another step in the wrong direction.

The store’s new home in the Andrus (the historic building formerly known as Renaissance Square) at S. 5th Street and Nicollet Mall won’t be sullied with a glaring yellow-and-black Dollar General logo. Instead, there will be a hip “DGX” marquee, reflecting Dollar General’s curated version of its discount store.

Branding and aesthetic distinctions aside, this newcomer is obviously no Nordstrom.

A few months ago, a scathing investigation, produced by ProPublica and the New Yorker, pointed out that the company’s cut-rate stores — along with those of its look-alike competitor Family Dollar — are crime magnets. Further, their presence speaks volumes about the communities where the stores are doing business.

“The glowing signs of the discount chains have become indicators of neglect, markers of a geography of the places that the country has written off,” writes author Alec MacGillis.

Ouch.

Dollar General insists that its “urban” DGX division is different.

“Specially designed to meet the unique needs of customers living, working and visiting vibrant metropolitan city centers, DGX provides positive benefits to the areas it serves by providing an affordable retail option in a modern retail format,” reads a company news release.

DGX stores are certainly on a growth spurt, recently materializing in the downtowns of Atlanta, Cleveland, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Nashville, Omaha, Orlando, Philadelphia, Raleigh and Tulsa.

It’s not as if other national retailers are lining up to occupy Nicollet Mall real estate. Much of the industry has spent 2020 in contraction mode.

Papyrus, New York & Co. and Gordmans called it quits, and Pier 1 Imports closed all of its brick-and-mortar locations, retaining only an online presence. Lord & Taylor, the nation’s oldest department store, is currently conducting its going-out-of-business sale at its remaining 38 locations.

A large number of major retailers filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 2020, including Aldo, Brooks Brothers, GNC, J. Crew, Lucky Brand, Neiman Marcus (which once operated across the street from DGX’s new location), J.C. Penney, Sur la Table, Tuesday Morning and the parent companies of Ann Taylor, Men’s Wearhouse (which recently closed its store at 8th and Nicollet) and Jos. A. Bank.

In other words, it’s rough out there.

From dimes to dollars

Times change. Consider the perspective of a 22-year-old entering the downtown job market.

They were newborns when the Conservatory (the marble-lined shopping complex that occupied the prime Nicollet block between 8th and 9th streets) was demolished.

To this demographic, the fabled Minneapolis retailing names — Dayton’s, Donaldsons, Powers, Harold, Jackson-Graves, Bjorkman’s, Albrechts and Amluxen’s — are unfamiliar historical artifacts.

Optimists might make the argument that DGX reflects a segment of downtown’s shopping past. After all, Nicollet was once home to at least three five-and-dimes, a tradition that helped create the Dollar General generation.

Still, that metric feels like a stretch, because the era of downtown dime stores also is long gone. Woolworth’s lasted the longest, shutting down its IDS Center location in 1993, but its two chief competitors, S.S. Kresge (the precursor to Kmart) and W.T. Grant, haven’t been seen on Nicollet for a half-century.

There is positive news on the DGX front. For starters, the store, now under construction, will be occupying prime Nicollet Mall frontage that has been vacant — and this is not a typo — for 15 years.

The store will also serve the needs of an honest-to-goodness community. There are nearly 1,200 apartments within a two-block walk of 5th and Nicollet, a residential neighborhood that did not exist 10 years ago.

Those residents’ everyday demands will surely create a market for the milk, coffee, pet food, toilet paper and other convenience items on DGX’s shelves. Nearby office workers — and there are thousands of them in non-pandemic times — just might have an appetite for the store’s inexpensive grab-and-go sandwiches and salads.

At 6,000 square feet, this DGX store will be slightly smaller than standard-issue Dollar General locations (which average 7,400 square feet), and considerably less roomy than modestly scaled Target stores (the type the company operates in Dinkytown, Uptown and Highland Village), which start at 15,000 square feet.

Who knows? If Target didn’t already have its headquarters store four blocks to the south, the hometown team may have chosen this site for one of its abbreviated-footprint outlets. DGX seems to be a down-market copycat of that very format.

History in the making

The recently renovated Andrus dates to 1899, and it’s the second-oldest structure currently gracing Nicollet Mall. Westminster Presbyterian Church, at 12th Street, was dedicated a year earlier.

The 10-story office building, sheathed in brick and terra cotta and capped with a copper-covered cornice, was designed by the father-and-son architectural team of Franklin Long and Louis Long. Its lower floors once housed major retailers, including J.C. Penney, Bond Clothing and Juster’s.

The DGX store is leasing space on the building’s first floor, a plus for those who believe that the skyway system has pulled pedestrian energy from downtown’s sidewalks. Which makes the store’s street-level location a reason to celebrate, right?

We’ll find out soon. DGX is set to open in early 2021.