LANSING, N.Y. — Town planners and local business owners often seek out a “good mix” when looking to enhance a town’s commercial offerings. The grocery store, the general merchandisers and professional services, the specialty shops that help give a place its character. It’s about making a desirable place to live that can provide for its residents.

However, it’s a delicate balance between encouraging that good mix, and letting stores and services sprout and grow on their own. If a community comes off as too heavy-handed, it can stifle local businesses and breed resentment among neighbors. Very few would be comfortable with a strip club on Main Street, and very few would be comfortable saying a vegan restaurant isn’t allowed because it bothers local meat-lovers. A pair of extreme examples, but the fact is, these debates over “balance” are on a spectrum, one that the Town of Lansing is being pushed to consider.

The controversy stirs around the proposed Dollar General across from the town’s Fire Station No. 4 at 1189 Auburn Road, near Tompkins County’s northern boundary. On the one hand, it brings a small general store to a more remote part of the county; on the other hand, there are fears it will cannibalize business and be an entrepreneurial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Andy Sciarabba is one of those who worry about the Dollar General proposal. Sciarabba is one of the owner/investors in the Lansing Market, a small but full-service grocery store located in the Town of Lansing at the intersection of Route 34 and North Triphammer Roads. At 12,000 square-feet, it’s not much bigger than the 9,100 square-foot store the Dollar General has proposed five miles further north. While the Dollar General has general goods along with non-perishable and frozen food items, the Lansing Market has fruits, vegetables, and a bakery.

“We wanted to get services to the town of Lansing that we didn’t have, so in 2010 we brought this grocery store to our community. We put together a group of eight local residents, put together an LLC (limited liability company), got funding from the Tompkins Trust Company and signed up with a co-op to buy goods for the store,” said Sciarabba.

“About that time, our market study showed we would do about $80,000 per week in sales at the time. Our only major competition was Tops. But after we started construction, Target brought in groceries, and BJ’s opened up. That created competition for us going forward. Three years later, we were approached by Dollar General to sell our store to them, but we chose not to. The new Lansing Dollar General store on East Shore Drive took away about 15% of our business. Dollar General has a strategy to take local businesses out of business. They have no fresh foods and veggies, no fresh meats. There’s already one Dollar General nearby, we don’t need another one. There are 25 within 20 miles of Tompkins County.”

Dollar General has not been shy about its growth strategy. The rapidly-growing discount retail firm counts some 16,000 stores in its portfolio, with plans to open 1,000 more during the year 2020, a pace of about twenty per week. Some 75% of the nation’s population lives within five miles of a Dollar General. The plan is to saturate rural and semi-rural markets to establish dominance in smaller communities that are too rural or modestly-sized to be profitable for larger discount retailers such as Wal-Mart.

Unfortunately, as Wal-Mart has done in larger communities, this saturation approach does often put independent local retailers out of business; they simply don’t have the economies of scale Dollar General does, which allows the chain to carry products at lower prices. You get a better price per unit if you’re buying for 16,000 stores instead of a few dozen as in a co-op. Sciarabba noted that most of their canned goods and paper products are from C&S Wholesale Grocers, but eggs, milk and produce are supplied by local farmers.

Now, this might come off as sour grapes. Businesses grow and shrink and open and close all the time, and if one brings a cheaper or better product to the market or provides better services, it makes sense for them to grow their business at the expense of others. To be fair, Sciarabba is a businessman himself, having just developed a new retail plaza on North Triphammer Road, and negotiating to bring a new regional bank to Lansing.

But what worries Sciarabba isn’t going out of business, although it was something he noted as a real possibility if the newest Dollar General comes to be. Scirabba said that if Dollar General were to offer the same goods at a lower price, he would welcome them with open arms. To him, the problem is that they don’t offer the fresh and healthy foods that residents need. The Dollar Generals would take away enough business to force the Lansing Market to close, and then the Lansing community and North Lansing especially would be reliant on their limited set of options.

“We are providing nutrition for the community. This is a grocery operation, not a convenience operation,” said Sciarabba. “Dollar General doesn’t sell fresh meat, or veggies, they don’t have a deli. This store became a focal point for development of the town center and is important for our community. The new housing development by Town Hall (Milton Meadows) has said that if it weren’t for the Lansing Market, they probably would not have received their affordable housing funding from the state. We’re locally oriented and support the food pantry and boy scouts and girl scouts. All of our investors are Lansing residents.”

“Having the town center develop is important, but you want synergy and to attract more development and bring services we don’t currently have. But by having a Dollar General on the north end of town, those residents will not come down to the town center to shop, and they won’t be coming to our store. Some of the synergy will be gone because people won’t come. The Comprehensive Plan wants to keep that part of the town rural. It’s important we support local business, their dollars get recycled into the community. Their money doesn’t, it goes to their headquarters. All we get are sales taxes and property tax. Dollars spent with us stay in the community with us, but Dollar General could put us out of business.”

In a request for comment about the concerns of Sciarabba and the Lansing Market, Dollar General Public Relations Representative Angela Petkovic emphasized that while they are a chain, they seek to be an improvement for the communities in which they choose to set up shop. She also noted that the chain saw the store as more of a service for the Cayuga County town of Locke, rather than for Tompkins County and Lansing.

“In selecting store sites, we take a number of factors into consideration, carefully evaluating each potential new store location to ensure we can continue to meet our customers’ price, value and selection needs. At Dollar General, we believe we would play a constructive role and represent positive economic growth within the Locke and Lansing communities. Our beneficial impact would be reflected through the creation of local jobs and opportunities for employee development and career advancement and through grants provided through the Dollar General Literacy Foundation that positively impact literacy and education initiatives at schools, non-profits and libraries.”

The jobs argument may make sense in many places, but in this case with the presence of existing stores that aren’t Dollar Generals, it’s more complicated. Dollar General states that employment ar the store would be 10 to 15 staff, of which a couple would be full-time positions, the rest part-time. As pointed out in the Lansing Star, the Lansing Market employs 25, including five full-time staff. So if Dollar General opens and Lansing Market closes, you end up with a net loss of jobs.

Asked about the concerns about the lack of healthy food items, Petkovic noted that Dollar General does make an effort to include healthy options, although certain fresh food products weren’t feasible. “(W)e are invested in the health of our customers, as reflected in our ongoing work with a registered dietician and nutritionist to develop a series of “Better For You” recipes, which aim to provide resources to customers on how to source healthier meal options with products solely sourced from our stores. Furthermore, every Dollar General offers components of a healthy diet including dairy products, bread, eggs, proteins, grains and frozen fruits and vegetables.”

It’s not an easy discussion for the town. Dollar General is a business that wants to do well for itself, as does the Lansing Market. But the town also has a vested interest in trying to enhance the quality of life, and some cities and towns have decided that stores like Dollar General don’t do that, prohibiting them because the lack of fresh food and saturation of markets lead to the creation of “food deserts”, where consumable goods are non-existent or greatly limited — in many cases, by what Dollar General or one of its cohorts have in stock.

Sciarabba doesn’t want to go that far, but he wants the town to do something that makes sure that Lansing doesn’t suffer from Dollar General’s business practices, by mandating some kind of healthy or fresh options as part of the project approval stipulations – or rather, he wants the “healthy” in “healthy competition”.

“I’ve been a developer for 25 years, I know that people have a right to do what they want for their property. But you want something that will be good for the community and do what’s right for the community. If the Planning Board had the opportunity to provide fresh meat and veggies as part of their store operations, I’d have no problem with it. That’s healthy competition. We’ve asked the town to consider it, but they may not be able to do that legally. My business partners and I live here, we want to do what’s right here. Our kids and grandkids live here. We want the town to think about this decision.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.