By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
To do something together without a whole lot of jealousy and envy, we’ve got to keep our eyes on something bigger than us.
– Cornel West
A recent filing by Dollar General to open a store at the corner of Dorr and Upton has placed Toledo back in the middle of a national conversation over the proliferation of dollar stores in urban areas.
Toledo, we’ve been here before. We had a moratorium on this type of development, which expired. We have had lengthy discussions with City of Toledo leaders and legislators. Still, we have not been able to pass the urgent legislation necessary to protect our community from the invasive species known as dollar stores in our community.
Dollar General took advantage of our inaction to move on Dorr and Upton. We can’t let it happen again.
The proliferation of dollar stores is an issue that is heating up around the country. Approximately three dozen communities have passed dispersal ordinances in the past year, and there is currently a state Senator in Maryland working on state-level legislation to regulate dollar store development.
In the past two months, I have appeared on an NBC National News television broadcast and interviewed by the Guardian Newspaper to share dollar stores’ impact on vulnerable communities and our work in Toledo.
The case is clear. Dollar stores are a cancer in urban neighborhoods. They thrive in disadvantaged communities utilizing a business model similar to payday lending, exploiting people of limited means by getting them to “pay more to get less.”
The dollar stores prey on people who are struggling economically and then force out locally-owned businesses or deter them from opening. The Institute for Self-Reliance has said, “there’s growing evidence that these stores are not merely a byproduct of economic distress. They’re a cause of it.”
A significant negative impact of the proliferation of dollar stores is that they make the problem of food deserts worse. Dollar stores rarely sell fresh produce or meats, but they can undercut grocery stores on prices of everyday items, often pushing them out of business. Moreover, the lack of healthy food is a public health crisis in communities of color. The impacts can be seen in alarming rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Our proposed answer is a “Healthy Food Overlay District,” based on legislation adopted in cities around the United States and initiated in Birmingham, AL.
Creating a healthy food overlay district incentivizes grocery stores and food systems investment. It restricts convenience and discount stores that primarily sell non-fresh food items. The American Planning Association describes an overlay zone as “a zoning district which is applied over one or more previously established zoning districts, establishing additional or stricter standards and criteria for covered properties in addition to those of the underlying zoning district.” The cities of Hartford, Connecticut; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Birmingham, Alabama, are three of several cities that have enacted policy approaches to help increase healthy food retail.
This type of legislation is right for our city, as well. Elimination of food deserts would make a profound impact on the quality of life in this city.
To begin with, we would create opportunities for local entrepreneurs to meet the needs of our community, free from unfair, exploitative competition from dollar stores. Our community has been devasted by disinvestment resulting from the “Urban Removal” plan of the 1960s. Ever since this sinister plot drained healthy economic activity, our community has become “dependent” upon artificial substitutes such as drug houses, payday lending and dollar stores.
A Healthy Food Overlay District would address our addiction to artificial economic substitutes by rebuilding our community, providing living-wage jobs that strengthen our local economy and keep money here, allowing resources to turnover in our own community and producing a ripple economic effect.
Just as importantly, our people would live healthier lives. They’d use fewer sick days and require less health care resources. They would also have more birthdays, see their grandchildren grow up, and live to experience a renaissance in their neighborhood.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our community. But we can’t wait any longer to act. The dollar stores are a machine that does not break down.
The Dorr Street corridor left us a birthright of empowerment and a vision of prosperity, not dollar stores. The legacy of Toledo’s black community has been that of shattering others’ low expectations of what we can achieve. Historically, neighborhoods like Junction, Englewood, and Dorr defied the conventional logic that blacks are divided, incompetent, and disinterested in wealth accumulation.
So, I urge the NAACP and the Dorr Street, Junction and Englewood coalitions, and the entire community to come together and enact a Healthy Food Overlay District. If we need another moratorium while we work on it, then we should pass that as well.
Our community’s health and wealth, and residents are hanging in the balance.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org