Think Out Loud

Group mounts effort to block dollar stores from opening in eastern Oregon

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
July 10, 2024 1:36 a.m. Updated: July 17, 2024 8:14 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, July 10

Chain stores like Dollar General and Family Dollar have been popping up in eastern Oregon. An opposition group known as No Dollar General has formed to stop the spread of such stores. While Dollar General successfully opened a store in the city of Wallowa recently, the opposition group is still fighting to keep the chain from expanding in the region.


Last month, the Joseph City Council passed an ordinance banning “formula” businesses from operating within city limits. The policy targets stores that have “prescribed standards and features,” such as dollar stores, while allowing for some exemptions. Antonio Sierra, OPB’s rural communities reporter, shares his reporting on this issue.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with pushback to chain stores like Dollar General and Family Dollar. These stores have become much more common in recent years in Eastern Oregon. Now, a group in Wallowa County says they are not welcome. The group called No Dollar General has not been able to stop that particular store from opening a branch in the town of Wallowa. But last month, they did convince the city of Joseph to ban most retail chains within city limits. Antonio Sierra is OPB’s rural communities reporter. He joins us now with the details. Antonio, good to have you back.

Antonio Sierra: Hi, Dave.

Miller: So you’ve been covering the spread of various dollar store franchises in Eastern Oregon for a number of years now. Can you just give us a sense for the growth you’ve seen?

Sierra: It’s been a pretty amazing transformation. Dollar stores went from being a pretty small part of the local economy in Eastern Oregon to seemingly being everywhere overnight. They completely saturated places like Umatilla and Morrow counties. And what stood out to me was not only were they going to larger population centers like Hermiston, but they were also going to really small towns, towns of a few thousand people, or even less than that – places like Stanfield and Pilot Rock – and they were putting stores there too. I guess the balancing factor was that Umatilla and Morrow counties have access to large interstates: Interstate 84, Interstate 82. So there are thousands of drivers who drive by those communities every day, even if they are small communities.

But what changed recently was that the chain Dollar General expanded into the town of Wallowa and Wallowa County, which is a lot more isolated if you look at the geography of Eastern Oregon. It takes a lot more work to get there. And it’s clear to me that Dollar General doesn’t really have a lot of constraints on where they locate.

Miller: How much pushback did you see over the last couple of years, as these stores have spread throughout parts of Northern and Eastern Oregon?

Sierra: It wasn’t very organized to start. There’s always been a skepticism of big businesses in Eastern Oregon, or at least there’s a segment of the population that is skeptical of big businesses. Amazon Web Services is in the Boardman area and the Umatilla area. There are folks that are concerned about that. There’s a drone industry in Pendleton. Not everyone is on board with that.

But these folks were never that organized. When the dollar chains started to expand in Eastern Oregon, I did hear some murmurs of some opposition in Heppner, which is the county seat of Morrow County, again, a very small town. But by the time I reached out to city officials in Heppner, they told me “hey, it’s already opened and whatever opposition there was died down, and everything seems to be going smoothly.” But that seems to be changing, especially when you look at Wallowa County.

Miller: Can you describe this group, No Dollar General?

Sierra: This is a group that organized after they found out that Dollar General had selected Wallowa as one of its next sites. And they got to work. What really set them apart from previous opposition efforts is that they were organized, and they had a really firm presence. For instance, they have a website, which in Eastern Oregon, a small community group having its own website is not standard. They had fundraising so that they could mount legal challenges to the land use decisions that allowed the Wallowa Dollar General to open. They have calls to action, and they have a membership list. This group is comprised mostly of business people and other concerned citizens, and they have had some success in slowing down, or at least kind of throwing a wrench in the gears of Dollar General.

Miller: What are their main economic arguments?


Sierra: They argue that Dollar General is not the economic driver that they say they are. Dollar General is locating in places that typically don’t have a lot of economic opportunity, or at least economic expansion. But No Dollar General says that this is not really what they intend it to be. It doesn’t have a lot of jobs, and the jobs are poor paying, at least according to No Dollar General. And they also really point to a trend that they call shrinkflation. Dollar stores operate like they say they do, they generally offer things at a dollar or maybe a little bit above a dollar. But what this group is saying is that you’re not getting a good value, even though you’re only paying a dollar. If you buy something like laundry detergent, it’s gonna come in a smaller package, and it’s gonna be worth more per ounce than you would get at a standard store.

So at the end of the day, they’re saying they don’t offer good jobs, they don’t stimulate the economy, and they offer poor consumer value. So ultimately, it’s more harm than good, at least in their eyes.

Miller: They’re also making a kind of cultural critique. They wrote on their website that quote “Dollar Generals have become a symbol of a community in crisis.” What do they mean by that?

Sierra: In their eyes, it’s a sign that this is an economy in a community that is struggling. And they have some evidence that this is true. I mentioned Pilot Rock earlier. That’s a small town in Umatilla County. This is a place that doesn’t have a lot of retail, not a lot of stores, a really small business community. And I think both Dollar General and Family Dollar opened up stores in it. And I remember talking to folks at the time, and there was some hope that everyone could coexist, both the local business community, and the Dollar General and Family Dollar. And within a few years, Pilot Rock lost its only grocery store.

There’s a sense that these dollar stores are preying on communities that have a lot of poverty, don’t have a lot of big incomes. And their idea is that they should attempt to stop them and protect the economy, and keep the communities from declining.

Miller: I should note that you have written that Dollar General did not provide comment on the anti-dollar store campaign in Wallowa County. I did note in my intro that so far this group has not been successful in challenging the Wallowa County decision for this Wallowa store to open – it did open in April. But that’s not the end of this issue. Can you explain what the Joseph City Council approved last month?

Sierra: Yeah, they passed a ban on what they call “formula businesses.” Now, they are very clear when I talked to them that this was not explicitly a ban on dollar stores. But they did lobby for this, and they were successful in convincing the Joseph City Council to pass this. And it passed unanimously, it wasn’t a very contentious topic at the city council level. So that was a pretty clear victory for them, and they were pretty happy with it.

Miller: This ordinance refers to “formula stores,” which is a phrase I hadn’t heard before. What are they?

Sierra: The ordinance describes it as “businesses with prescribed standards and features, particularly for exterior color schemes, signs, or architectural design.” In practice, most chain stores that you see look the same. McDonald’s and Starbucks – they have similar designs, both their exterior and their interior. So this could actually apply to most chain stores. There are a few carve outs for things like banks, but they’re very clearly drawing a line in the sand that they don’t really want any chain stores in their community, including dollar stores.

And at this point, it’s not a terribly big sacrifice. If you go to a place like Joseph, they don’t really have a lot of chain stores anyway, which I think is kind of part of the concern. There is a value on small businesses, and that small businesses are still providing basic services, even if it’s like a hamburger, or a basic good that you would find in the store.

Miller: Are there any similar bans in Eastern Oregon?

Sierra: Not to my knowledge, not in this region specifically. The group No Dollar General is trying to expand the number of bans that there are in Wallowa County. I talked to one representative, and she said that she’s reached out to other city governments and the county government about possibly passing a similar ban. So the chapter is not closed on that particular tactic. And this is also a national trend. Business Insider said that about 60 towns and cities have passed some sort of ban that applies to dollar stores since 2018.

But this is not a universal opinion. I talked to a lot of communities, and they’re happy just to see development. Again, these are communities that haven’t seen a lot over the past several decades. So I think this will be an issue that communities continue to contend with for years to come.

Miller: Antonio, thanks very much.

Sierra: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: Antonio Sierra is OPB’s rural communities reporter.

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