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Rural Report: Steer the 'big box' train away from small towns

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Mike Moen

(Wisconsin News Service) Travel through rural parts of the nation, and chances are you will pass a "dollar store." A new report says corporate retailers have too much of a presence in smaller communities, and that certain policies could help Main Street businesses compete. The 2023 Rural Policy Action report, which has input from nearly 30 organizations, urges federal policymakers to advance bills that would strengthen antitrust laws in hopes of hopes of curbing consolidation and more strictly scrutinizing mergers

Katy Milani, associate director for policy and advocacy for the Independent Business Institute for Local Self-Reliance and contributed to the report, argued big box chains have been given a lot of flexibility to add stores across rural America. 

"We have seen in the last 50 years significant consolidation in our economy," Milani said. "You go to any town across the country and a lot of them look the same, it's the same dollar store, it's the same Walmart. "

Milani added these trends push out independent businesses, preventing small towns from taking agency over their ability to flourish. Her group noted the FTC needs stronger enforcement of laws designed to prevent bigger retailers from getting special deals from suppliers, allowing them to mark down prices. Chains like Dollar General defend their growth, saying they often get requests from rural areas for new stores. 

The report also calls for investment in foundational infrastructure in rural areas, such as healthcare access. The authors say these communities are more diverse than people think, and residents deserve equitable opportunities. Milani agrees and says there are a lot of questions in this area that need more focus. 

"What does economic-racial justice, around rural issues - and also gender - what does that look like," Milani said. 

She added those discussions need to be free of the political divide that often clouds public discourse. The report says protecting democracy and access to voting allows diverse rural communities to have a voice on these matters without intimidation. A recommendation asks the federal government to make bigger investments in election safety and security, noting the burden often falls on state and local governments, some of which lack the resources to block threats.