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Group stands up to ‘small box’ stores

Courtesy photo Joe Skellenger, co-owner of Rock grocery store “Joe’s One Stop,” cuts meat at his store. Skellenger’s aunt Mary Martin is the administrator of “Save Our Rural Independent Stores,” a Facebook page campaigning against the spread of “small box” discount stores in the Upper Peninsula.

ESCANABA — A recently-established Facebook page has been campaigning against the spread of “small box” discount stores in the Upper Peninsula and promoting small businesses in Delta County.

“Save Our Rural Independent Stores” (SORIS) started operating in late April. Mary Martin, the page’s administrator, said it was inspired by a conversation she had with a relative.

“My nephew (Joe Skellenger) and his wife (Erica Skellenger) own a small grocery store in Rock,” she said.

The couple’s store is named “Joe’s One Stop.”

Last month, Martin’s nephew told her he had heard a large dollar store chain was seeking to buy property in Perkins. She noted that, typically, these retailers do not apply for permits until they have secured property in communities they plan to build new stores in.

“These type of dollar stores’ M.O. is to fly under the radar until they’re ready to put the store up,” Martin said.

However, Martin said she had heard of a dollar store that had tried to move into Chatham but was met with opposition.

“They have a co-op in Chatham that is very well-supported by the community,” she said.

The village was able to pass an ordinance preventing the dollar store from opening within its limits.

According to Martin, corporate-owned dollar stores pose a threat to rural areas because they can easily outcompete locally-owned stores.

“They are community killers — they put store owners out of business,” she said.

In many cases, Martin said dollar stores employ fewer people than the independent stores they replace. She said the majority of profits from these stores leave the communities they are in, as well.

In both rural areas and more densely-populated communities, Martin said dollar stores, which often do not sell fresh produce,- can contribute to the issue of “food deserts.”

“It’s a huge problem in urban areas, too,” she said.

Additionally, Martin said small stores are important because of the support they provide to local people and causes.

“These little stores are the hub of their communities,” Martin said.

With these issues in mind, Martin established SORIS.

“(The) primary goal is to try to get the Delta County Planning Commission to put some kind of moratorium on more of these stores going up,” she said.

She said it may be more efficient to tackle the issue of dollar stores on the county level than on the local level.

“It seems like each of these little communities has to … fight their own battles,” Martin said.

So far, SORIS has attracted quite a bit of attention. As of Monday, more than 500 people had liked the Facebook page.

Martin said the page has been widely supported by people on both sides of the political spectrum, as well.

“It’s more of a unifying thing than anything,” she said.

Along with posts sharing information on the risks dollar stores can pose to rural areas, SORIS regularly highlights independently-owned stores from around Delta County. Martin said these posts have been very well-received.

“People really love their local stores,” she said.

SORIS’ activities have not been limited to the page itself.

“One of the things we’ve been doing is collecting signatures on an informal petition,” Martin said.

These signatures are set to be presented to the Delta County Planning Commission before its next meeting.

If SORIS and its supporters are successful in Delta County, Martin said she is optimistic about the chances of the page or similar initiatives taking on dollar stores in other parts of the peninsula.

“Maybe this could serve as a model … for other communities in the U.P. and elsewhere,” she said.

To learn more, find “Save Our Rural Independent Stores” on Facebook.

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