Why Local Matters

Shop Local. Eat Local. Buy Local. Think Local First. Live Local.

If you browse community related or preservation related news, you have probably noticed that the concept and implementation of a local economy based on local businesses is a popular topic. Local, in this sense, tends to mean small business as opposed to local franchise or a chain store that happens to be in your locale.

On Sunday May 13, 2012, the New York Times ran an article titled, “Vermont Towns Have an Image, and They Say Dollar Stores Aren’t Part of it.” The trigger for this article is the current struggle in Chester, Vermont, where a dollar store is proposed. The article is excellent and worthy of discussion, as this is an issue that needs to be in the mind of everyone. Many residents are opposed to the construction and introduction of a chain dollar store to Chester, one of the quintessential Vermont villages that relies on tourism. Chester includes two National Register historic districts, the Stone Village Historic District and the Chester Village Historic District.

From the New York Times article (see block quotes),

Almost two decades after the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the entire state of Vermont on its list of endangered sites, citing big-box developments as a threat to its signature greenness, towns like this one are now sizing up a new interloper: the chain dollar store.

“While Wal-Mart has managed to open only four stores in Vermont and Target still has none, more than two dozen Dollar General, Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores have cropped up around the state. All three companies are thriving in the bad economy — between them, they have more than 20,000 outlets nationwide, selling everything from dog treats to stain remover and jeans to pool toys. Their spread through Vermont, with its famously strict land-use laws, has caught chain-store opponents off guard.”

Dollar stores are typically much smaller than the large big box stores that have been the typical threat. Land use regulations and zoning weren’t expecting a struggle, as the article states. Presumably, a relatively “small” store such as a dollar store would not be a problem. However, the square footage of these stores can overtake the total square footage of retail of adjacent or nearby businesses. Dollar stores have the potential to sell very similar items to what is currently offered by those neighboring businesses.

“Most of the people in Chester now are people who have come from someplace else,” Mr. Cunningham said. “It’s like a lot of Vermont. Why come to a place like this only to have it turn into the kind of place you were trying to leave?”

An excellent question. People move to Vermont because it is such a unique place. Let’s try to keep it unique and special for generations to come. This doesn’t mean a moratorium on development; but, rather, smart development that agrees with the community’s wants, needs, and concerns.

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said opposition to dollar stores has sprung up in at least four other towns in the state. Mr. Bruhn’s group, which seeks to protect what it calls “the essential character of Vermont,” has been tracking the spread of dollar stores since 2010; it provides grant money to citizens’ groups that oppose them, including Mr. Cunningham’s.

“The dollar stores have proliferated in a way that seems a little extreme,” Mr. Bruhn said. “One of the things I think is crucial for Vermont, in terms of maintaining this very special brand that we have, is we don’t want to look like Anywhere, U.S.A. And homegrown businesses are a crucial piece of that.”

The spread of dollar stores has come during a period of decline of the general store, a Vermont institution that in many towns served as a meeting place and all-purpose emporium. This week, the Barnard General Store, not far from Chester, closed after 180 years. Its owners cited the twin blows of Tropical Storm Irene, which badly flooded parts of the state last summer, and a nearly snowless winter that kept skiers away.

In this article, Mr. Bruhn’s quote about not looking like Anywhere, USA and homegrown businesses effectively sum up the ongoing battles with corporate development throughout Vermont. Simply put, a place becomes Anywhere, USA when its buildings no longer reflect regional traditions and architecture, and when you can walk into a business and there is not an identity. A chain store may alter the layout and carry some regional varieties, but for the most part, if you enter a chain drug store, for example, anywhere in this country, it’s the same thing, whether you are in Florida or Wyoming. Although the article discusses Vermont as a whole (because it is an issue looked at statewide), there are threats to prosperous or recovering downtowns all across the country, from chain stores to poor development to sprawl. What do you notice in your community?

Why do some communities and some people fight so hard against chain retailers? Because a functioning, healthy downtown filled with locally owned businesses is not the norm in most places, and is at risk is most places where it does exist. Vermont is not a place that can be taken for granted. Living locally – meaning shopping, eating and spending locally – is not easy in every part of our country. I say this from experience, having lived in five different states. But, it is easier in Vermont than anywhere else that I’ve lived. Why? Because it’s a mindset of many. It’s common. Of course, not every item you need can be purchased locally, but with just a bit of additional thought, you can do pretty well in supporting your local economy. For those of us lucky enough to live in places like this Vermont, we be good stewards. Living locally will improve your quality of life because it keeps money in your community, which improves the entire community.

How good are your local shopping habits? Can you do better? What is difficult about where you live? What do you think is the biggest issue facing your community? Does shopping local make you happy?


14 thoughts on “Why Local Matters

  1. Jim says:

    Where I live, it is very challenging to shop locally for everyday items. Independent drug stores? Gone. Independent groceries? There’s one local grocer with a handful of locations, tiny stores usually in terrible neighborhoods. Independent clothing stores? Except for high-end clothing, where there are a few options, gone.

    Where I can spend my money locally primarily involves restaurants. There is also a wonderful independent butcher I visit, and opportunities to buy locally-grown produce. These last two take intentional effort to visit as they’re in the opposite direction from everywhere else I shop, but the quality of the goods I get makes that effort worth it.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Jim, most places I have lived, I have found it hard to shop for everyday items. I’m fortunate now to live in a town that offers an affordable, good grocery store and pharmacy. But, clothing is still hard to buy locally. Fortunately, locally owned and sourced restaurants are easy to come by. At least we spend our money there! Glad to hear you have a butcher and many restaurants. We do what we can with what we have, right?

  2. home, garden, life says:

    I must admit that I never shopped at big box stores until I became a house owner. While owning a condo, I never required the items found there. Your blog today brings a good question.
    As I review my shopping habits, they tend to support chains to save money. That said, I also support local farmers whenever I can, especially while attending the local farmer’s market.
    Indeed a quandary for most folks without a trust fund.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Yes, being a homeowner adds entirely different levels of expense and shopping trips. However, I have to disagree and say that chains do not always mean saving money. It’s the general marketing ploy of having certain items for less than competitors but charging the same for other items. People just think it’s cheaper because they are already in that chain store. In my experience, I always find chain drug stores to be expensive.

      • home, garden, life says:

        I always compare prices of everything before buying. At least here in my town, local businesses are significantly higher across the board every time. Recently Southern States downsized their mulch bags making their price much higher than Lowe’s. Why drive across town to buy at higher prices?
        And SS may be a chain too. Certainly a quandary in a town where mom and pop stores are already extinct.
        Choices now are which chain to support.

        across town?

        • Kaitlin says:

          Glad to hear you have done some comparison shopping as well. At least you know what you are dealing with? I don’t know what I’d do in your situation…keep supporting those mom & pop businesses the best way you can, and hopefully that will encourage others to come along.

  3. home, garden, life says:

    I might add that here in my small town (150K) there is drama afoot due to the admittance of a franchise bakery company into our local farmer’s market. They have a large storefront across town, yet decided to horn in on the local bakers who produce from home, in most cases.

    The creed at market is “homemade, homegrown” and market management shot themselves in the foot by allowing this franchise. Many small producers/bakers claim foul and reduced sales numbers, and dozens of local independents await a long waiting list to gain access.

    The verdict is out, as this issue has had much publicity and outrage by patrons of this long-time institution.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Interesting issue! It’s a shame when a chain comes in to knock out existing businesses. It’s one thing if there is a void, but when your local bakeries are already successful? Unfair. I hope you and your community will do your best to continue to support the local business.

      Bakeries and coffee shops – though often under threat from franchises/chains – seem like some of the “easier” local businesses to support. Perhaps because a cup of coffee is a much smaller purchase than a week’s worth of groceries or some landscaping materials?

      Maybe figuring out ways to increase your support of local businesses, one at a time, is the way to go. Perhaps it takes a bit of creativity or adaptivity, but I bet we can all improve. I know I can improve, just like everyone else.

  4. readerareadevelopment says:

    I think it is part of a big shift we are about to see. Consumers are tired of the box and the mall and dying for something authentic and genuine again. That being said, things won’t drastically change until local governments understand the idea that place really does matter. They don’t want to be the ones turning down something perceived as “economic development.”

    Another really great article on the Dollar Storing of America from the Atlantic Cities website:


    The very last sentence is the most powerful:
    “Though some affluent shoppers might enjoy searching for bargains in their cluttered aisles, dollar stores are overwhelmingly the retail choice of the economically left behind.”

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