Wallowa County residents organize to oppose Dollar General store

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Jan. 30, 2024 2:04 a.m.

Group members fear Dollar General could harm local economy

The campaign to stop Dollar General from building a new store in the city of Wallowa, Oregon, revolves around two parallel arguments.

The exterior of a Dollar General store shows the budget retailer's signature brown siding and large yellow letters.

In this Aug. 3, 2017, file photo the Dollar General store is pictured in Luther, Okla.

Sue Ogrocki / AP


One of them is technical: The Wallowa County government failed to properly notify the public about the new store or consider all the ramifications that would come from the store’s proposed location. A group of residents are using that argument in an appeal set to be heard by the Wallowa County Planning Commission on Tuesday.

The other claim against the project is more existential.

“Dollar Generals have become a symbol of a community in crisis,” a recently launched website opposed to the store states. “Their presence sends the message to other businesses that a community lacks the wealth to be worthy of investment.”

Wallowa is a town of 800 people nestled in the middle of the sparsely populated Wallowa County. A retired U.S. Forest Service worker, Teresa Smergut has lived in the county for 40 years. She said she lives just outside Wallowa and spends some of her free time teaching and volunteering on the county’s weed board.

When fencing went around a former gravel pit and a sign went up announcing the impending arrival of Dollar General in October, Smergut was not happy.

“I was appalled — I don’t know how else to put it — and saddened, and immediately started asking questions,” she said.

Smergut criticized Dollar General in a letter to the editor published by the Wallowa County Chieftain. That drew the attention of Erika Polmar, an entrepreneur from nearby Joseph.

Polmar had experience organizing restaurants during the pandemic and she used those skills to turn the various dissenting voices into the group No Dollar General. The group now has a website, an ongoing fundraiser to help support the legal costs of battling the county’s land use decisions and a petition with more than 750 signatures.


The group also has the participation of Lostine resident Mike Eng, a retired policy analyst and natural resources mediator who moved to Wallowa County in 2013. Eng is helping residents appeal the county’s land use ruling to prevent Dollar General from opening its store.

Besides failing to properly notify nearby residents, Eng said the county didn’t consider other factors, like the project’s proximity to Bear Creek, a critical fish habitat.

But No Dollar General also fears a store focus on bargain barrel goods will have deeper impacts on the county’s economy and culture.

Dollar store chains like Dollar General and Family Dollar have aggressively targeted rural communities for expansion over the past few years. In 2021 and 2022, the two chains opened more than a half-dozen stores in Umatilla and Morrow counties.

Pilot Rock, a town of about 1,300 in eastern Umatilla County, attracted both dollar store chains. By the end of 2023, the East Oregonian reported that the city’s only locally-owned grocery store announced it was closing its doors.

Dollar stores have become a polarizing force across the country as major chains target low-income communities in both urban and rural areas. Critics maintain that dollar stores kill local businesses and offer poor value on inferior products.

Dollar General did not provide comment on the anti-dollar store campaign in Wallowa County, but representatives for the company emphasized the convenience of dollar stores and their charitable efforts.

Polmar said the No Dollar General group has seen what happened in other places and wanted to keep it from gaining a foothold in Wallowa County. The county still has a healthy collection of local grocers and hardware stores that serve the community, Smergut said, with one of them still running tabs for customers.

Isolated in the northeast corner of Oregon, Wallowa County has a history of not only limiting chain stores but actively resisting them. Concerned that the land could be used for a luxury hotel or a high-end housing development, a group of residents bought the Wallowa Lake Lodge in 2015 and are still running it today.

No Dollar General will get a chance to make its first stand on Tuesday, but the appeal to the planning commission is already gaining resistance. In a staff report, the county planning department argues that residents may not have standing to appeal because they did not file it within 21 days of when they should have “reasonably known” the project was starting.

Eng said if the commission sides with the planning department, it could make for a short hearing. Residents could appeal the commission’s decision to the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners and then the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, but Eng said it was still too early to predict how far residents would be willing to take their arguments.

If No Dollar General can’t stop the dollar store from opening, they already have a few options on the table. Polmar said the group could organize a boycott of the Wallowa store and push to change local land use laws to prevent the arrival of more dollar stores.

“As Teresa is apt to say, they are an invasive weed,” Polmar said. “Clearly, they are thriving by moving into rural communities. And we need to send a resounding message that they’re not welcome here.”