For neighborhood leaders trying to nurture local businesses that could help turn around Baltimore’s struggling Greenmount Avenue corridor, yet another “dollar store” is pretty much the opposite of what they want.
So they were deeply disappointed by news that Nashville-based Dollar General Corp., with 18,000 stores nationwide, is opening up a new one at 3133 Greenmount Avenue, the former site of a Rite Aid Pharmacy.
Waverly had just held its latest “Small Business Saturday” event to elevate the kind of locally owned, community retailers they want more of: relative newcomers, like Bmore Pasta and Urban Reads Bookstore, together with mainstays like the 23-year-old Herman’s Discount.
Last week, they learned that a local developer, who had bought the vacant building, had signed a 10-year lease with Dollar General – and neither community association heads nor Councilwoman Odette Ramos had been consulted.
“It was very disrespectful,” said Sonja Merchant-Jones, chair of the Better Waverly Community Organization.
As a person who has shopped at dollar stores and understands why others do, Merchant-Jones said she was nevertheless offended by the presumption that she and her neighbors want nothing more and need not be asked for their input.
“It’s assuming that that’s the way people in this community like to shop,” she said. “The attitude is: build it and we will come.”
Big dollar store chains (Family Dollar as well as Dollar General) have been growing rapidly over the last decade, unlike other brick-and-mortar retail.
Their business model – low-paid labor and inexpensive products – has profited from the growth of poverty and disinvestment in parts of urban and rural America.
The country’s growing wealth gap, company executives have basically acknowledged, is driving their growth.
Or as Dollar General’s CEO famously told the Wall Street Journal in 2017, “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer.”
“We had no leverage”
The unoccupied building slated to become Baltimore’s next Dollar General stands in the heart of the Waverly commercial district, a mix of small retail shops along with a Goodwill store.
Greenmount on either side of the 32rd Street intersection can be bustling with activity, but especially in the evening, the graffiti-tagged vacant properties dominate.
Hopes of a brighter future for the corridor have been lifted by a number of proposed projects, including Red Emma’s announced plans to move its bookstore and cafe to a building next to the 32nd Street Farmers Market, where it would join Normal’s Books & Records, Urban Reads and others nearby to form a kind of bookstore district.
Boosters also applaud community fixtures that have hung in through the years, like Pete’s Grille and the now-worker-owned Ace Hardware store.
After Rite Aid pulled out a couple of years ago, there was intense speculation in the neighborhood over who the next buyer of the building would be.
Since there was no need for a zoning change or other approval, the purchaser of the property – developer Mark L. Renbaum – was not required to come before any government body before signing a lease with Dollar General.
“It was a private transaction. It was all sort of masked,” Councilwoman Ramos told The Brew. “We had no leverage.”
Online property records show the building was purchased in September by Renbaum’s DG Greenmount LLC for $490,000.
“Should be well aware”
Ramos and others said they expected more from Renbaum, a Pikesville investor and CEO of Schwaber Holdings, who has multiple other projects in the city. (Renbaum did not respond to repeated attempts over a week’s time to reach him.)
“You would think the owner and Dollar General would have come to us,” said Diana Emerson, interim executive director of Waverly Main Street, one of several community leaders who joined in a zoom call with Renbaum recently.
The developer expressed surprise about opposition to his new tenant, according to participants in the Zoom call, including Ramos.
But that stance wasn’t believable to the District 14 councilwoman.
“He should be well aware” of community concerns about such projects, she said, owing to his company’s role as a partner in the Northwood Commons redevelopment near Morgan State University.
A Lidl grocery store, Barnes & Noble bookstore and other businesses have now signed leases at the shopping center.
But that was only after years of wrangling between the community and the developer over a number of issues – among them, dollar stores.
“Myself and neighbors worked with Mark to make sure no dollar stores came to Northwood. And he finally acquiesced,” a person close to the community negotiations said.
“You would think he would have learned from Northwood,” Ramos said in an interview with The Brew.
The councilwoman said she only discovered who was coming to the Greenmount location when she spotted a request on the Board of Estimates agenda for approval of sidewalk planters at that address and had the item pulled.
“Only then did the developer come to me,” said Ramos, who remains livid about the way the Dollar General deal went down.
“I plan to tell people not to shop there,” she said several times.
A Troubled Outlet
Asked about the community’s reaction, a spokesperson for Dollar General told The Brew that the planned Waverly store will be an asset that will employ “six to 10 people.”
“We believe the addition of each new Dollar General store represents positive economic growth for the communities we proudly serve through the creation of local jobs and opportunities for employee development,” said public relations coordinator Emma Hall.
Dollar General, which already has 16 stores in Baltimore, “strives to be a positive business partner and good community neighbor,” she said.
But the company’s local reputation is just the opposite, say some critics, including Kristina E. Williams, executive director of the Charles Village Benefits District.
Williams said her organization had contacted the company about a cluster of chronic problems at the Dollar General store at 2511 Greenmount Avenue: “Sanitation, crime and Part 1 larceny crimes like shoplifting.”
She and others said poor security and understaffing there contribute to an unsafe atmosphere in the store in which shoplifting and other crimes are tolerated.
“I reached out to them back in July to say we’d seen an increase in theft, trash and loitering and to see if there could be any corporate attention paid to loss prevention,” she said. “I never heard back from them.”
She said the store has never been responsive to her group or other local community organizations.
“I reached out to them to say we’d seen an increase in theft, trash and loitering. I never heard back” – Kristina Williams.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had any open lines of communication with them,” she said. “With CVS or Safeway, whenever there’s a new manager, they always introduce themselves.”
Waverly Main Street’s Emerson agreed: “These are businesses that don’t come to community association meetings and just don’t have conversations with the community.”
It’s a problem with other dollar stores across the city, said Merchant-Jones.
“People just come in and take what they want. There’s no adequate security,” she said. “They don’t understand the dynamics of customer service.”
“In full opposition”
Other local organizations representing residents and merchants shared her view. The Waverly Improvement Association is “in full opposition,” said co-president KunSun Sweeley.
“We are disappointed that the building’s new owners did not seek any form of community input before saddling our neighborhood with a business we don’t want,” Sweeley said.
He and others predicted the Dollar General will hurt established locals like Herman’s Discount.
“They’re going to take a piece of what we do, for sure,” store owner Ricky Herman glumly predicted.
“They’re going to take a piece of what we do” – Ricky Herman.
Herman said he’s trying to move away from the discount store concept (“a lot of it is cheap junk”) and focus more on doing custom embroidery work and providing uniforms for city school students.
Still, he’s not happy about the store coming.
He pointed out that the Greenmount Avenue/York Road corridor already has a plethora of dollar stores.
In the short stretch between 25th Street and Govans, there are two Family Dollar stores and two Dollar Generals.
The new one will make for five chain discount stores.
Diversity is what’s needed, said Herman, who has worked at the store since his father opened it in 1998. “What we don’t need is more dollar stores and more fried chicken places.”
Hopes for the Future
Maureen Daly, president of the Abell Improvement Association, remembers when the neighborhood was both a thriving commercial hub and “the heart of the counterculture.”
“There was a feminist bookstore, a people’s free medical clinic, a gay community center,” she recalled. “I’m very disappointed with this choice now. This is not what we want the new Greenmount to be.”
What kind of stores would be desirable?
“Pet supplies. A pharmacy. A bank branch. A nice clothing store. A great restaurant,” Waverly Main Street’s Emerson said.
She and others point to the construction work now taking place in Waverly as a welcome sign.
At Greenmount and 31st, a block away from the future Dollar General, workers are gutting the 1870 Waverly Hall, also called the Town Hall, to create seven apartments and five retail spaces.
The renovation is a project of the Central Baltimore Future Fund and business partners Ted Rouse and Jacob Wittenberg.
“It will bring people around here,” Herman said.
Toothless Till Next Time
Renbaum has offered to sign a memorandum of understanding with the community to address concerns about his new tenant.
While Ramos says she’s hoping it can be written with strict provisions, some community leaders express little enthusiasm.
“It’s toothless since it would be not with Dollar General, but with Renbaum,” Daly said.
Other than negotiating an MOU with the developer, the best that Waverly can do at this point, according to Ramos, is to put some development controls in place to give the community more options in the future.
“We’re going to have to amend the urban renewal plan,” she said. “We need a way to make sure we don’t get any more of these chains.”