PITTSGROVE TWP. N.J. — Severed corn stalks poked through an icy blanket of snow in this rural stretch of South Jersey, but a dollar store some residents don’t want may soon rise in the fields instead.
The Salem County community of 8,777 residents, about 35 miles south of Philadelphia, is mostly made up of farmland, schools, small businesses, and forest. It’s home to a picturesque, 465-acre state park.
Nick Mesiano, a 27-year-old web developer who grew up on a horse farm in Pittsgrove, wants to keep things that way. He created a web site, savepittsgrove.com, and rallied residents to help defeat an industrial trash facility proposal there last year.
“Sprawl development scars rural landscapes with haphazardly placed and culturally eroding box stores,” Mesiano said. “It slices highways through hamlets, sending more cars and trucks flying past rural homes without a second thought.”
But Dollar General is a juggernaut. In November, the company celebrated its 18,000th store opening, in Alabama. Just one month earlier, the nationwide number was 17,915. Like other dollar store chains, the company has made a big push into rural, middle, and low-income communities. In 2017, when The Inquirer reported on the proliferation of dollar stores in rural Pennsylvania, Dollar General had 650 locations in the state. The latest statistics show 850 stores open in Pennsylvania. There are nearly three dozen locations in Philadelphia alone, including a smaller concept store called DGX in Northern Liberties that sells wine and beer. In New Jersey, there are 175 Dollar General sites.
Dollar General recently received preliminary approval from Pittsgrove’s planning board to construct a 10,640-square-foot store on Centerton Road, near the public high school. Matt Ritter, the attorney for the township’s planning board, said the location is zoned “neighborhood business.”
“It’s a permitted use,” Ritter said. Mesiano said the goal, now, is to urge Dollar General to agree to certain aesthetic features which would make it meld better with local, historic buildings, like Ye Olde Centerton Inn, a restaurant which opened in 1706.
“What they proposed was a metal box,” Mesiano said.
A Dollar General petition has been started on Change.org as well, urging people to boycott the business in Pittsgrove. The store, if finally approved, could be finished in 2022.
In a statement emailed to The Inquirer, a Dollar General spokesperson said the Tennessee-based company does “due diligence” before planning and opening every store in order to “provide convenience for customers who may not have affordable nearby retail options.”
The Pittsgrove Dollar General will be located within five miles of two others.
In 2017, a commissioner in rural Cameron County, Pa., told The Inquirer dollar stores were “filling a void” in small-town America. In Pittsgrove, however, the proposed site for the Dollar General is a half-mile from Anderson’s County Store, a quintessential general store that dates back to the 1700s. The store features plank floors worn smooth over the centuries, hot coffee, and a deli that makes sandwiches, things you wouldn’t find at Dollar General. On a recent weekday morning, the bell by the door was ringing every few seconds with customers.
Owner Catherine Haas said she wasn’t concerned about the store, even though there’s plenty of items — groceries, winter hats and umbrellas, and some toys — that will be on Dollar General shelves too.
“I don’t know, should I be worried?” she laughed. “I mean, we’re a busy store and the bulk of our business is the deli.”
Erik Cagle, a Pittsgrove resident and Anderson’s customer, thinks the historic general store will thrive from customer loyalty, even if Dollar General offers cheaper items.
“I guess they’ve created a recipe for creating revenue,” Cagle said of Dollar General, “but I think they might be underestimating the closeness of the community.”
Dollar General, in a statement, said the company engages with communities, offering literacy grants for schools, nonprofit organizations, and libraries within a 15-mile radius of each store.
The Pittsgrove Deli & Grocery sits a half-mile in the other direction of the proposed store and is also full of items one would find at a dollar store. The owners didn’t return requests for comment, but outside, three women smoking cigarettes pondered the number of dollar stores in South Jersey.
“I don’t know, what’s there like 87 of them?” said Ashley Hanson, 33. " We would have been better off with a Wawa.”
Though the brand is ubiquitous to residents of the Philadelphia area, there’s still less than 1,000 Wawas in the country.
Mesiano, who said he was first inspired to keep checks on development while attending college in Orlando, remains vigilant. Salem County is arguably New Jersey’s most rural landscape, but it’s nearly surrounded by sprawling, suburban areas. New Jersey is, after all, the nation’s mostly densely-populated state, and Mesiano knows developers will keep looking at Pittsgrove.
“You can see it on maps, marching toward us,” Mesiano said. “I don’t want this place to lose the very thing that makes it so special.”