TOWNSHEND—Many of the 125 people from the region making their way to the upstairs room of the Town Hall first stopped on the main floor for socializing and snacks.
Among the snacks were goods from Lawrence’s Smoke Shop and Country Store — the very subject of the discussion about the potential purchase of its current location, 653 Vermont Route 30.
The attendees, who hailed not only from Townshend but also from Athens, Newfane, Jamaica, and other surrounding towns, came to the May 24 meeting to discuss the future of the smoke shop — and of the entire West River Valley Scenic Corridor.
In April, an ad hoc grassroots community group, Townshend Area Residents Resist Dollar General, formed after the Brattleboro Reformer published a news story detailing the national discount chain store’s tentative plans to open the new location.
The spokesperson for the development group working with Dollar General told the Reformer the company was undergoing due diligence on the property and has made no commitment.
But, if the sale proceeds and Dollar General moves in, the new, 7,500 square foot store will go where Lawrence’s Smoke Shop sits, requiring the demolition of the rustic building.
Lawrence’s will have to find a new location. The Commons was unable to reach owner Terri Lawrence at her shop, and the employee who answered the phone wouldn’t confirm any details or future plans.
Lawrence’s Smoke Shop, located next to Riverbend Market, was founded by Merrill and Norma Lawrence in 1964. It sells a variety of Vermont-made gifts and foods, including its own line of smoked meats.
The property, owned by H.K. “Kit” Martin, owner of Townshend Auction House, is reportedly in a purchase-and-sale agreement with the Zaremba Group, a real estate development company with headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Commons was unable to reach Martin at the auction house, and an employee who answered the phone refused to speak about the matter.
Zaremba is representing Dollar General, a publicly traded corporation based in Tennessee, with 2017 revenues of approximately $21 billion.
With no land-use regulations preventing the development, Townshend residents may have little recourse in preserving the Route 30 scenic corridor.
But the “Townshend Area Residents Resist Dollar General” group is trying.
‘Here for the long haul’
Terry Davison, one of the group’s organizers, led the May 24 community forum, moderated by Townshend resident Charlie Marchant, at the Town Hall.
Davison told attendees, “I was born here,” and she just bought a farm, “so I’m here for the long haul.”
In convening the forum, Davison said her group wants to know “what sort of growth do we envision for Townshend and the West River Valley as a whole? For now, and for the future.”
Davison admitted the group is “strongly opposed” to Dollar General establishing a shop in Townshend, and is strongly for supporting local businesses. She also strongly encouraged other viewpoints at the forum, and invited all attendees to speak if they had opinions or information to share.
Davison noted the Townshend Town Plan, adopted in 2017, mentions “open, transparent debate about land use.”
The members of the resistance group, Davison said, researched the effect Dollar General has on towns, but, she noted, “none of us are planning professionals [...] or have protested corporations.”
Some of the research the resistance group conducted was on locals. They created a survey and left copies of it in numerous local stores, and made it available online. 482 people completed the questionnaire, and 199 of them identified themselves as Townshend residents.
Of those 482 respondents, just over 85 percent said “no” to the question, “Do you support the construction of a Dollar General store [on the] Lawrence’s Smoke Shop location (next to Riverbend Market) on Route 30 in Townshend?”
In addition to answering “yes” or “no” questions, respondents had a chance to add comments to the survey. The group arranged the comments into categories, and the most common concerns were with the effect Dollar General would have on local businesses, aesthetics, and “town character."
The comments in favor of a Dollar General store mentioned the economic hardship faced by many living in the area. The store would provide “affordable shopping for residents,” especially those on fixed incomes. One respondent said those opposed to Dollar General “have no clue what it’s like living on minimum wage.”
Another pro-Dollar General comment said the store “has as much of a right” to open a shop as any other business.
The forum’s discussion period echoed the survey results. Most attendees spoke out against siting a Dollar General in Townshend; many expressed concern for the future of Lawrence’s Smoke Shop and the Riverbend Market, and what, if anything, could be done to stop the construction.
A voice of support
Only one person, Christine White of Newfane, spoke up publicly at the forum, seemingly in favor of Dollar General, although she didn’t specifically say she wanted Dollar General to come to town.
After introducing herself, she said, “I’m here to represent the other side.”
“Beauty is subjective,” White said, and noted “the property owner is our neighbor [who] has done a lot for this community.”
“Does anyone know why he’s in this position? If not,” White said, “it’s a real shame.”
Nobody had a chance to answer White, because immediately after making her comments, she left the room.
No attendee publicly spoke an unkind word about Martin, who wasn’t at the forum, nor did any comment pass judgement on his reasons for selling the property.
One person noted Martin’s parcel wasn’t on the market when Zaremba approached him, and claimed Zaremba representatives “went knocking on doors” seeking a property owner willing to sell.
“It’s easy to blame the property owner,” Davison said, “but we have to strategize."
One strategy, though, required calling out the bug-bear in the room: zoning. Townshend, like other Vermont municipalities, has rejected zoning laws.
West Townshend resident Chris Wocell said he is “pro-business, but I don’t want this kind of growth in the valley. We need zoning for smart growth. [Let’s] be proactive and create zoning."
Townshend resident Eli Phoenix admitted he doesn’t like zoning, “but I like the town the way it is. So, what’s worse? It’s worth considering zoning if it’ll reduce sprawl."
“We can create our own zoning,” Amy Blazej pointed out, and called opposing both zoning and unwanted development a “Catch-22.” Without clear regulations, she said, “we leave ourselves open to this in the future."
“‘Zoning’ is a dirty word in Townshend,” Davison said, but the town can enact interim zoning “to buy some time."
The resistance group drew up a petition to call an emergency Town Meeting to discuss interim zoning. If the petition gathers 5 percent of registered voters, the Planning Commission and Board members would draft the regulations and present them at the meeting.
Although a few attendees told The Commons some Selectboard and Planning Commission members were at the forum, when members of the public asked them to identify themselves at the meeting, none did. Dave Harlow of Newfane noted, “I think that’s a shame.”
A few attendees noted that even if the town passed interim or permanent zoning, that might not prevent Dollar General from moving to Townshend because the process has already begun.
Some debate centered on whether Martin could get out of the purchase-and-sale contract if he regretted the decision. A real estate agent in attendance noted that in Vermont, all parties have to complete the contract process or get sued, but there are contingencies — like the state denying a wastewater permit — that allow for a legal escape clause.
“We could scream it from the mountaintops” that we don’t want Dollar General, Davison said, “and they wouldn’t care.” She noted Chester “spent $70,000 and four years” fighting the store, “and they still came."
But, Davison isn’t ready to give up. “We don’t know if it’ll help, but it won’t hurt to email or call [Dollar General headquarters] and let them know you don’t support them moving here,” she said.
Newfane resident Rosalind Fritz issued a call to arms. “All of us, in the area, need to make a pledge that we will not shop there. If they hear that loudly, [it could] change their mind.”
Marchant told a story of a recent trip he took, from the West River Valley up to Grand Isle via routes 103, 7, and 2 — a journey he hadn’t taken in about 15 years, he noted. Mentioning all the development and proliferation of chain stores, Marchant said, “I suggest you take that ride and decide, is Townshend and the West River Valley a great place to live? Take that ride, and notice what you see along the way.”
Bill Guenther from Newfane shared a cautionary tale. In the last 30 years or so, the area lost two general stores. He said that during conversations with friends, they claimed they lamented the loss, prompting Guenther to ask them, “Well, did you shop there?”
His friends admitted they didn’t, because big grocery stores in Brattleboro charged a little less for things like milk.
“If you don’t buy local, shops can’t survive,” Guenther said. “Obviously a small store can’t compete [in price] with a large grocery store.”
Sara Bernard, whose father owns the Riverbend Market, told The Commons, “I can’t predict the future, but I’m assuming [Dollar General] will take some of our business, maybe in cleaning and health-and-beauty products."
“We plan to adapt in whatever way we have to, to serve the community,” Bernard said. “We have a very supportive community that I assume will continue to support us."
Guenther urged locals to shop at Lawrence’s and other village stores “at least two times a month,” because their business cannot rely solely on the tourist trade, “especially during stick season and mud season.”
Guenther also claimed Lawrence’s Smoke Shop’s bacon is “the best bacon.” He noted, “Yeah, you’re gonna spend $9.75 for a pound of bacon, but it’s gonna be a lot better than $5-a-pound Oscar Meyer.”