Construction trucks sat on an unfinished parking lot Thursday in front of the familiar white paint, brown sheet metal and yellow signage on the new Dollar General about a half-mile northwest of Interstate 70.

The store, about five miles west of Columbia on Highway 40, is expected to open within the month in an area with two gas stations, a hotel, fireworks store and antique mall but almost no other retail presence.

“We anticipate opening it within the month,” Dollar General spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Colbert wrote in an email, but "that estimate might change pending any construction delays.”

Dollar General brings mixed bags to small towns. Often the chain store provides lifelines to rural communities, but it’s also known for devouring competition and scarce resources in towns with small populations.

Since 2014, Dollar General has opened 130 new stores in Missouri and created more than 1,000 jobs, Colbert said.

Nationally, the company plans to open 975 new stores, making it by far the retailer planning to open the most stores in the U.S., according to CBS News. In December, Dollar General had 15,227 U.S. stores, more than McDonald’s 14,000 U.S. locations and Starbucks’ 14,600 locations, according to Business Insider.

"We believe the addition of each new Dollar General store represents positive economic growth for the communities we serve, including the creation of local jobs, as well as opportunities for employee development and career advancement," Colbert said.

Dollar General is defying the odds. Across the country, the retail industry is in free fall with retailers like Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us and Shopko all filing for bankruptcy or closing hundreds of stores in recent years as online retailers ate away at their business. Dollar General is doing the opposite.

Typically Dollar General stores are around 7,400 square feet and cost only about $250,000 to construct, according to Crain’s Detroit Business. Most stores employ just 6 to 10 employees, according to Colbert, The Guardian and other media reports.

Walmart once built its business by expanding rapidly into mid-sized towns in the 1980s. Dollar General has a similar expansion plan, but it goes into towns that Walmart never dreamed of touching.

The company opened a New Bloomfield location in 2015. New Bloomfield’s last grocery store closed 25 years ago, said Mayor Terry Shaw.

“The closest place to buy a loaf of bread would be Holts Summit,” Shaw said of life before Dollar General’s store opened at 9388 Old U.S. Hwy 54. “Now you drive a quarter-mile at most.”

NEARBY BUSINESSES

Paul James serves as the convenience store manager at the Midway Travel Plaza just off the westbound side of Interstate 70. James, a longtime Missouri Department of Corrections employee and military man, took on the job 11 months ago.

When James took over as manager, the C-Store looked more like a nearby antique mall at Midway than a convenience store. Racks full of trinkets clogged the aisles. Original wooden paneling from the 1970s made the interior look dark and old.

People were prone to bumping into and breaking the trinkets and other merchandise, James said.

“People didn’t want to come in here,” James said.

Renovations over the winter installed new wiring and new air ducts. James flipped the layout of his office, and he added a window and a high definition TV that displays feeds from 16 new security cameras.

Sleek modern flooring and countertops, along with more popular merchandise, make the store feel open and airy. All of this helped draw customers back to the truck stop and its restaurant.

Dollar General offers small selections of frozen food, including ice cream, frozen pizzas and frozen dinners. Other canned goods like soup, pastas and highly processed snacks can also be found at its stores.

Typically the stores' retail selection is limited to necessities and travel items, but the stores lack larger selections of items that Walmart and Target regularly carry.

James felt bullish about the nearby Dollar General opening soon on Highway 40. The two stores will not sell many of the same items or compete for the same clientele, he said.

Each day, 34,000 vehicles travel over the nearby I-70 bridge over the Missouri River near Rocheport, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. James said 40,000 vehicles pass by his store every day. Most of the business comes from interstate customers and truckers who can sometimes spend days at the truck stop.

“It won’t really affect us,” James said early in the conversation.

Midway’s Dollar General sits about a mile from the Midway Heights Elementary School, the Rost Landscaping Nursery and the Midway Storage Center. Farther down U.S. 40, homes progressively become spaced farther and farther apart as the tiny unincorporated community gives way to the countryside.

James admitted his store will likely lose some business when Dollar General opens, but he doesn't think it will ruin the momentum he built over the last year during the store’s turnaround.

“Yeah, we’re going to lose some business,” James said. “It’ll hurt us a little, but not that bad.”

Seven to eight buses per day stop at the truck stop, so James said the truck stop will be fine, regardless of if business slumps a bit because of Dollar General.

As he sat at his desk, he paused. James worried about the Midway Little General Store half a mile west on Highway 40.

The store sits right next to Dollar General’s southern wall and sells many of the same things: soft drinks, alcohol and bath items. An owner of the business could not be reached for comment.

A clerk at the counter did not want to be named, but she said residents feel excited they will have another place to pick up essentials.

“My boss is not that excited,” the woman said. “The rest of us that live here are."

REGIONAL PRESENCE

Dollar General is expanding in mid-sized and large cities in mid-Missouri, Fulton Director of Administration Bill Johnson said. The company isn't just putting in stores. Since 1999, Dollar General has operated a Fulton distribution center that today employs about 600 people.

This past week, Dollar General opened its newest Columbia store off Clark Lane at 7300 Flanders Court. Flanders Court sits about 1 1/2 miles from the Broadway Shops shopping center that houses Hy-Vee, Walmart and Sam’s Club, among other retailers.

When selecting store sites — whether it be Midway, Flanders Court, Russellville or elsewhere, Dollar General favors sites that draw customers from a three- to five-mile radius or 10-minute drive, Colbert said. Demographic trends, competitive factors and traffic patterns also factor in, Colbert said. Around 1:45 p.m. Thursday, about a dozen customers wandered around the new Columbia location, which still smelled like fresh paint.

Like Columbia, Fulton has multiple grocery stores. Because of Dollar General’s distribution center, the company is an important employer in Fulton, Johnson said. Residents feel its impact less on the retail side in a community as big as Fulton, Johnson said.

“Fulton is large enough that the citizens have multiple locations to get their basic needs met,” Johnson said. “I think Dollar General is a retail store that allows small towns to stay viable.”

Dollar General has recently built stores in towns like Millersburg and Wardsville. A store in Mokane is under construction and hiring a store manager for a salary of $39,000 per year, according to a job posting.

Small towns across America face this same dilemma when Dollar General tries to move into town. Sources reached by the Tribune said mid-Missouri towns seem to have fared better than many other outposts where Dollar General moved in.

About 10 years ago, Russellville in Cole County formed the Route C Community Improvement District, City Clerk Jan Wyatt said. Often the chain uses its lobbying might to wring heavy incentives from communities, which also undercut local stores, according to The Guardian.

The Route C Community Improvement District did not file its annual report with the state, according to a report released Friday by Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway. An August 2018 audit said the district had estimated project costs of $222,000. Sales tax and other revenues from the district were also unavailable for 2017, according to the audit.  

Soon after the district formed, a Dollar General opened across from the town’s high school baseball field, which often serves as a gathering spot on spring, summer and fall nights.

“We rely on it for the residents because they can’t get to Jeff City,” Wyatt said.

Russellville Mayor Pro Tem Matt Grayson said the town is far enough away from Jefferson City, California and Eldon to make grocery shopping hard for elderly residents. Grayson hesitated to call Russellville a food desert, but he said finding fresh food can be a challenge.

“I think it provides them a better option than doing your grocery shopping at a gas station,” Grayson said.

A rare thing happened in Russellville last December, Grayson said.

For 68 years, from 1949 to 2017, Russellville Locker and Feed processed individual hogs and cattle. Owner Mike Wyss closed the business in October 2017 because he could not find enough workers to perform the task, according to the Jefferson City News Tribune.

So Wyss closed the business, spent more than a year renovating the building Russellville Locker and Feed occupied and turned it into the Covered Bridge Market grocery store.

Grayson said on Thursday that Covered Bridge Market plays an important role in Russellville. Wyss said the business found its footing and keeps improving.

“It’s not working very well, but it’s working better and better every day,” Wyss said.

Dollar General drives many small-town grocery stores out of business because its sheer scale allows it to sell groceries for lower prices than most small-town businesses, according to The Guardian.

Covered Bridge sells a lot of discount and salvage grocery items, which makes many of its prices low, Wyss said. The store has a deli and customers can get a Central Dairy ice cream cone there.

Covered Bridge has a basic selection of fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas, lemons and watermelon. Both Dollar General and Covered Bridge sell some of the same canned items such as green beans, Wyss said. Instead of competing against each other, the stores complement each other, Wyss said.

“They don’t have most of what we have and we don’t have most of what they have,” Wyss said. “Really it’s not an issue.”

Wyatt, the Russellville city clerk, did not know how much money Dollar General pays in sales tax but said the store is the largest retailer in Russellville and contributes heavily to its sales tax base.

Like Wyatt, Shaw did not have sales tax figures for New Bloomfield on hand. New Bloomfield has a mechanic and a gas station but nothing else that generates sales tax revenue like Dollar General, Shaw said.

“There’s cars there all the time,” Shaw said. “Sometimes it’s 15 or 20 cars.”

pjoens@columbiatribune.com

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