“I asked you all to be here tonight because we have a very important question: What kind of community do we want to be? … and does Dollar General fit in with that community?” asked Joe Odden of “Keep it Local,” a group of upper valley residents aiming to stop Dollar General from building a store in Mt. Hood, to a crowd of community members packed into the Mt. Hood Town Hall gym on Tuesday.
The group had invited community members to meet in the historic building to learn more about Dollar General and share their opinions. They also got to meet a representative of SimonCRE, the developer contracted to build the Mt. Hood Dollar General.
Though Dollar General’s decision to open a location in Mt. Hood is not final, the community responded to SimonCRE filing a commercial land use permit application (CULP) in late July for construction of the store
Community Development is currently reviewing the application, a process that will likely take between four and six months to complete.
Many commented on how they felt Dollar General would negatively impact the feel of their tight-knit community.
“Do we put value in being a rural, self-sufficient community? Or do we want to open it up to corporate development?” asked Courtney Morich, the one of the owners and directors of New Vision School, which operates out of Mount Hood Town Hall.
“I can see why, on paper, Mt. Hood Community looks pretty good for Dollar General,” she said, because the small, rural community looks like an open market. “What they don’t realize … is that we have an awesome community here.”
Before opening the floor to SimonCRE’s Director of Development, David Newton, and public comment, Odden gave a presentation on the history of Dollar General and presented an argument as to why a Dollar General would be bad for the upper valley.
Aside from altering the community atmosphere, Odden said that a Dollar General would threaten local businesses, such as MacIsaac’s, and drive those employees out of the jobs.
When given the chance to respond, Newton said, “We’re not going to destroy jobs,” and that the box store would actually add eight to 10 jobs.
At this, someone seated in the audience let out a long whistle. Laughter followed.
“I’m not here to give any fancy presentation,” Newton said when he first took the stage. “I’m here to listen to this community and break down the Dollar General myth.”
Odden and other commenters at the town hall also said they were worried that a big box store would create a dangerous traffic situation at an already dangerous intersection,
The proposed design indicates a one-way entrance from Highway 35 southbound where it turns into Hood River Highway, forcing customers to exit via a gravel thru-way that loops around onto Hood River Highway.
“This (the intersection) is just a total mess,” Odden said, especially since only three stop signs are keeping it together. While Newton said that SimonCRE is doing a traffic study, it falls on ODOT to make any changes to traffic infrastructure.
Above agitated buzzing from the crowd, Newton denied claims that Dollar General would create traffic and harm the local community.
“What we’re relying on is people like yourselves, people who are already here,” he said, adding that the goal of the store is to save Mount Hood residents an extra trip into town.
Speaking over the noise of personal conversations, Newton took questions on SimonCRE’s plans for handling stormwater, runoff and other aspects of the building plan. Newton answered most of these by saying that he didn’t personally know, but his engineering team did.
Newton also responded to concerns that construction would destroy the ponderosa pines that grow throughout the proposed site, saying that his team will try to preserve as many trees as possible and if trees did have to be moved, he would replace them.
He later said that he flew in from out of state specifically for the town hall. “I didn’t have to come up here today, but I did,” he said, adding that he’ll continue coming up here to work with the community.
A community member walked up to the microphone and asked, point blank, “What’s your reason for caring about our opinions?”
Newton answered, “I want every one of you to be one of our agents.”
“We know very early on that Dollar General is coming, so we have the chance to stop it,” Odden said, adding that he wants people to know how they can get involved in an effort to resist it.
The county will accept public comment in a couple months, Odden said. He learned from a conversation with the county’s Principal Planner, Eric Walker, that the county won’t respond to emotional testimony, only testimony related to applicable code: Particularly, Article 27 of the Hood River County Zoning Ordinance.
Resident Diane Rowlins said that she’s primarily heard emotional testimony from her neighbors, and that worries her. “The argument against box stores has been going on for eons,” she said. “I say the biggest argument is the traffic, which can be documented.”
Should SimonCRE’s application make it through the planning commission, an appeal will be held in approximately four months, Odden said.
Throughout the evening, Newton offered his business card to anyone interested in contacting him and said that he was open to answering whatever questions he could and finding answers to questions he personally didn’t know the answers to.
“I just want to be as transparent as possible and I want to assure you that we’re going to do our best to fit in with this community,” he said.
A PR representative from Dollar General, Crystal Ghassemi, reached out to the News several days after the town hall.
“We are currently in a due diligence phase for this location. This means we’re interested in adding a new location in Hood River, but have not committed to doing so yet,” she said in an email. “Based on our current timeline, we do not anticipate finalizing a decision on this property until early summer 2019.”