Dollar General Corporation appears to be sticking to its plans of opening a "Dollar General Plus" on the former McArthur SuperValu property, further cementing residents' fears of a new store without fresh produce or a meat department.
Despite no evidence of public outreach in recent months, Dollar General is maintaining the company is "respectful of community concerns." Despite ignoring both residents and public officials alike, the company maintains it conducted a thorough internal and external market analysis.
This is a story of how the public gets ignored. The following details are why Vinton County is without a real grocery store.
When SuperValu closed down
SuperValu closed its doors at the end of August 2013. Owner Maryjane Ferguson told The Courier she knew what was moving in when her store closed, saying it would feature "some groceries." She added the official announcement would be made as early as October.
The building was eventually sold in November to Dollar General's leading property development company and it took another two months until the Jan. 13 announcement that a Dollar General Plus was coming.
Until that announcement was made, all of Vinton County's biggest and most relevant players say they were unaware of what business was coming. All of them now say they heard nothing before that announcement — not an email, survey, discussion, phone call — from either Ferguson, Dollar General officials or the retail chain's property development head, Tab Patton, who has been tasked with leading renovation efforts since Ferguson sold the building in November.
Those Vinton County figures include Development Director Terri Fetherolf, the three County Commissioners and Sam Davidson, of the county tourism bureau and Chamber of Commerce.
The biggest problem for officials was uncertainty. During those five months between the store's closing and the Dollar General Plus announcement, officials say they all reached out to various businesses and entrepreneurs to try bringing in a new grocery store. But discussions over possible alternatives failed to progress, they say, mostly because they could not provide to interested parties what competition might have soon existed at the SuperValu property.
Uncertainty, as economists and pundits often suggest, is one of the leading deterrents to business development. That appears to have hampered any recent talks of bringing another store in.
Dollar General contradicts SuperValu owner
Here is where the communications process completely breaks down. Ferguson said in August she knew what was coming, months before officially selling the property in November. The county now knows a Dollar General Plus is in the works.
But here's the kicker: As of a few weeks ago, Dollar General was maintaining that no official decision had been made.
The Courier spoke to a communications specialist for Dollar General in mid-November, a week after the property was sold to Patton Development Co. Jaclyn Dees with Dollar General said that as of Nov. 15, a meeting between Patton Development Co. and regional Dollar General planning committees had not yet occurred, meaning that no formal arrangements to move in a new store were in place.
Consider this: When Patton Development Company bought the store, its website touted Dollar General as one of its top business associates.
Ferguson maintained when she closed the store her decision was conditional on having already agreed to sell it. We now know that offer was to Patton Development Co. for nearly $950,000, a deal completed on Nov. 8.
While it's not outside the possibility that the development company would spend nearly $1 million on a building and renovate it without having a client teed up to move in, it would make more sense (if Ferguson's claim that she knew what was coming was true) that Dollar General had at least some intention to take over the property.
Ferguson's comments would imply that the decision was already made well before Dollar General is claiming it was. It is preposterous to think that Patton Development Co. told Ferguson that a Dollar General was coming in before Dollar General itself even knew about that plan.
Dollar General's corporate email sheds further light
Judi Phelps, a local concerned resident, was among the many who sent Tab Patton an email this week encouraging Dollar General to reconsider its decision and instead open a Dollar General Market, which would include fresh produce and meat. Her email stems from the Vinton County Commissioners saying on Jan. 13 that Patton said any potential decision to upgrade the store could be dependent on him receiving enough public input on the subject.
Patton forwarded Phelps' email to Dollar General Corporate Communications, which responded to her on Jan. 15. Besides confirming that a Dollar General Plus would be coming to Vinton County, its response stated the following: "When choosing our store formats, Dollar General is respectful of community concerns and thoughtful in store formats to best support the communities we serve."
To this date however, The Courier has not discovered a shred of evidence that Dollar General has been "respectful to community concerns." There appears to be no evidence that it contacted a single resident, local official or media outlet to gauge those concerns. No survey, no email, no questionnaire, not anything.
The Courier has asked residents their thoughts on the Vinton County grocery situation; the overwhelming response is people want a store with produce and groceries. Had anyone from Dollar General actually considered residents' concerns, they would have understood that.
Opening a Dollar General Plus is not an insult in and of itself. In fact, it is a welcome upgrade. But ignoring the community, doing the opposite of what they would have wanted, then pretending to have cared the whole time is indeed an insult. Any suggestion to the contrary is, as George Will would say, "nonsense on stilts."
"I find it interesting that they performed 'an extensive due diligence phase' as I don't recall them ever having a public meeting to solicit community input," Phelps told The Courier. "It really comes down to arrogance on their part, especially given their response about the due diligence performed ... (A)nyone in this community they would have spoken to would have been adamant about the need for fresh foods."
There's still time for Dollar General to take the community's needs into account. There's still time for the company to make a huge splash and consider offering fresh produce and meats and help avoid Vinton County's descent into a "food desert."
Why not open a "Dollar General Market" complete with the fresh products Vinton County residents are in need of? If the support turns out to not be enough to turn a profit, it could scale back to a Dollar General Plus. At least give residents a chance to support the business and not be forced to drive out of town to find those items.
Tab Patton has not responded to any phone or email requests for comment following the Jan. 13 announcement. Patton's only communication with the Courier since then was his request that the newspaper never contact him again for putting his email in the newspaper. In a subsequent email to Patton, he apparently stood by his decision as he declined to answer any further questions.
It was Patton that told the Commissioners residents could contact him with concerns regarding the "Dollar General Plus" store. He has not denied saying that.
His email is email@example.com.