On the road into Grand Marais, Minn., few familiar signs line the drive. Instead, an assembly of locally owned restaurants and stores dot the scenic tourist town on Lake Superior.
Sensing a threat to the town’s mom-and-pop vibe, a group of residents and fans got vocal early this month: More than 1,500 people signed a petition and dozens crowded into city government meetings after rumors that a Dollar General store — a national chain — was eyeing a plot of land along Hwy. 61 on the town’s west side, a spot among the first that visitors see.
A store there would send a message that “Grand Marais is just like every other small town in the United States. It’s not unique. It’s not different. It’s not eclectic. It’s not independent,” the petition at change.org said, adding it would set a precedent of “First Dollar General, then McDonald’s … then the floodgates are open.”
The company, which has more than 12,400 stores in 43 states, had yet to approach the city for a permit, but within a week of rumors surfacing, signatures on the petition to stop it outnumbered the city’s population of 1,350.
“The community got pretty excited about it and we had about 50 people show up for a planning and zoning meeting, which usually we don’t have many show up for — if any,” Mayor Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux said. A special City Council meeting to take public comment last Monday drew about 75 people. A regular City Council meeting two days later drew about 30. Council members spent about two hours discussing options.
Proponents of the store argued that low-income residents need access to low-cost items. More than 140 signed a “yes to Dollar General” petition online.
“We need to start catering a bit more to the working people that live here,” one resident wrote in petition comments. “I’d like to see a few more franchises in this town. Convenience attracts companies, with jobs that have good pay and good benefits, which in turn attracts more families to move here.”
Lisa Gergets, who moved to Grand Marais 14 months ago and who started the petition opposing the store, said people aren’t against Dollar General specifically, but against the concept it represents. People worry about local stores dying, she said, while national chains take profits out of the community. They also worry about changing the vibe for tourists, some of whom signed the petition, too.
“We have to be very cognizant of the type of businesses that we let in and how they look and how they fit into the fabric of our town,” Gergets said in an interview. “We run on a tourist economy here.”
Dollar General spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi said in e-mailed statements that the company is “respectful of community concerns and thoughtful in store design in order to be consistent with the charm and character of the towns we serve. We look forward to working with both the community and city on this project.”
The company does give back to the communities, she noted: The Dollar General Literacy Foundation has awarded more than $100 million in grants since 1993 to nonprofit organizations within 20 miles of its stores for adult, family, summer and youth literacy programs.
In the end, the Grand Marais council decided to put a temporary moratorium on commercial development larger than 5,000 square feet in the city’s Service Commercial/Industrial zones, which run along the highway to and from town.
The move will give leaders up to a year to study the issue, Arrowsmith DeCoux said.
“The big concern is that we want to be able to direct development in a way that would best serve our community and best protect the businesses that are already here, as well as encouraging new businesses that would enhance our economy,” he said. “We know that a lot of people have really strong feelings about Grand Marais, and we do, too. … We also know that this is going to take some time.”