For Jacqueline Reynolds, the Family Dollar within walking distance of her home in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood is the perfect place to buy gifts for her grandchildren.
On a foggy weekday morning, she strolled the aisles for bright nail polish for her granddaughter and a Spider-Man drawstring backpack for her grandson.
“I appreciate these stores because this is really cheap and reasonable stuff that you can get for your family,” said Reynolds, 56. “It’s reasonable, convenient and you can stretch a dollar a long way.”
A proposed city ordinance could impact shoppers like Reynolds by limiting the number of dollar stores as well as adding requirements related to cleanliness and maintenance. The ordinance is in response to issues some city leaders and business advocates have about dollar stores. But residents paint a complex picture of dollar stores and their role in the city’s neighborhoods. While dollar stores owned by national corporations fill a need for customers without close access to full-service grocery stores, they don’t always make good neighbors in the communities where they operate. Critics also say their presence keeps grocery stores and other retailers away from South and West side neighborhoods.
But for Tyara Ward, who shops regularly at the Bronzeville Family Dollar on 44th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, the ordinance would work only if there are concrete plans to bring grocery stores. Preventing dollar stores from opening “without a backup plan and putting nothing [in its place] … is gonna make it worse.”
Dollar stores are considered “small-box retailers” advertising most of their items at less than $5 each, according to the proposed ordinance. Operated by two main Fortune 200 companies, and to a lesser extent, by local owners, these stores sell everything from chips and energy drinks to toilet paper, pet food and toys. While locations can be found all over the city, they are ubiquitous in low-income neighborhoods where there are not as many shopping options. There are 128 Family Dollar and Dollar Tree stores in Chicago, according to parent company Dollar Tree Inc. Meanwhile, the Dollar General chain operates 22 locations, according to a statement from the company.
Ward lamented the closing of Walmart nearby and observed that a Dollar General store she frequents recently added fresh food to their location and rebranded as DG Market.
“I do like how Dollar General incorporated food in their stores, so I will stop [there] because they have fresh produce,” said Ward, 35. “They have potatoes, fruit, onions, fresh jalapenos.”
In a statement to WBEZ, a spokesperson for Dollar Tree Inc. said neighborhood “small-box” stores provide household goods at affordable prices.
“As many ‘big box’ and full-service grocery retailers have exited Chicago neighborhoods in recent months, a moratorium or overreaching restrictions on new retail that fill a critical void in these neighborhoods are not the solution to the problems the ordinance seeks to solve,” the statement said.
Dollar General also sent a statement saying 20% of its Chicago stores offer fresh fruits and vegetables.
“While we are not a grocery store, we care about and are invested in the health of our hometown communities,” the statement said.
Joshua Drucker, an urban planning professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, said dollar stores “wouldn’t survive unless people patronize them.”
While these businesses may not provide long-term economic growth in a community, Drucker said they “are one of the few places that come on their own accord to some of these areas, and so they can alleviate shopping deserts of various sorts.”
But Rhonda McFarland has had enough of them in Bronzeville.
She is executive director of Quad Communities Development Corporation and said dollar stores “are a challenge in terms of quality of store maintenance, staffing and exterior cleanliness.”
McFarland said her group would like to see “more locally-owned, community-controlled, small businesses — sprinkled with regional and national businesses — because all offer different things to the community and meet different needs.”
Still, McFarland said, city ordinances restricting businesses could send a message to the national retail world: “‘Don’t come to Chicago because they keep having more ordinances. Don’t build any new stores.’ And, Lord forbid, that they close down one of these stores and we are left with another 20,000-square-foot vacancy.”
She also said each community in Chicago has different needs, and a sweeping ordinance could help one ward and harm another.
For example, the ordinance’s sponsor, Matt O’Shea, 19th Ward, wants to curb the proliferation in Beverly on the South Side — but that community already enjoys ample other retail. For others, the argument is that dollar stores take away the opportunity to attract diverse kinds of businesses.
“We are desperately recruiting new restaurants to come into the community — we need entertainment places, we need more health clubs and gyms, we need nightlife,” said Tonya Trice, the head of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce. “And the corporate businesses like Family Dollar and Dollar Tree occupy the larger square footage that would be attractive to some of those businesses.”
Some disagree with the notion that dollar stores take up space that other businesses are itching to take over.
“It’s not the fault of the dollar stores that grocery stores or other businesses or their stores don’t want to come,” said Kristian Armendariz, an organizer with the Little Village Community Council.
Armendariz said he and others in the predominantly-Latino Southwest Side neighborhood shop regularly at the various dollar stores located within mere blocks of one another. He added that lawmakers slamming dollar stores may not patronize them, but “these types of decisions are going to affect the minority communities, the low-income communities, because that’s who actually shops there.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on X @estheryjkang.