Even by Winston-Salem standards, as economic development deals go, the one City Council approved Tuesday night is hard to follow.

As best we can tell, the agreement allows a church to sell a 1½-acre chunk of land that it purchased from the city to developers eager to build a Dollar General store in an economically challenged part of town.

Flipping property to turn a profit is the American way. No problems there.

And most of the money — $285,000 of the $300,000 purchase price — goes to the city since its original deal with the Greater Tabernacle Worship Center required any development to be for a “public purpose.”

That might include, say, a community center that could provide a safe space for kids to play or for senior citizens to gather. That would a fitting purpose for local government involvement.

But helping Dollar General build another store isn’t exactly a public purpose. Looking elsewhere in the country tells us that much.

All in the details

As we’ve mentioned, this particular deal — or more precisely, the alteration of a previous agreement — is complex.

Argue all you want about whether the city should be involved in backing economic winners and losers. It’s a legitimate debate.

Some would contend that local governments run best when they focus on paying cops, seeing that garbage gets picked up, water and sewer services run efficiently and that potholes get filled.

Others might favor a more expansive view that includes economic assistance and neighborhood revitalization.

Either way, this new deal with Greater Tabernacle falls into that category. But what’s done is done.

This particular agreement goes back to 2007 when the late pastor of Greater Tabernacle, Apostle Brenda McCloud, touted a vision which involved sowing the seeds of economic development in a part of town where such things sometimes struggle to take root.

The original idea was for the church to purchase 33 acres of land near the intersection of New Walkertown, Carver School and Motor roads and then use it for a new sanctuary, an arena and perhaps retirement housing.

Through time, the plan scaled back and in 2013 the church bought 20 acres in the same spot for $200,000.

“It wasn’t just going to be a church,” Council Member Vivian Burke said Tuesday after the vote. “It was a resource center with stores and offices, and maybe a small bank could come in there.

“The church wanted to make an economic impact.”

The monkey wrench came in 2017, when the church wanted to chip off 1½ acres for a developer who wanted to build a Dollar General.

Greater Tabernacle’s lender, First Citizens Bank, looked at the “public purpose” clause and demanded that the remaining balance, $204,000, be paid in full.

Complicated, right?

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

The new deal allows the land to be sold and the note to be paid in full. The church would pay the city back the $204,000 but at no additional interest.

That money and the other $96,000 will be stashed into a fund to pay for a future public use. Like, say, a community center.

So if the land has been sitting there unused and undeveloped in an area that could use a boost — and it’s not costing the city a dime — why not let the church try?

Spurring economic development is worth a shot.

But a Dollar General might not be the best stimulus.

A growing number of critics suggest that dollar stores choke off competition from supermarkets and limit access to healthy food — fresh fruit and vegetables — in communities that struggle with hunger and good nutrition.

Ever seen what lines the shelves in dollar stores? Inexpensive, prepackaged crap high in sugar and fat is what I’ve seen. Food and drinks in cans, boxes and bags with nary an apple or carrot in sight.

“The business model for these stores is built on saturation,” Julia McCarthy, a senior policy associate for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest told CNN Business. “When you have so many dollar stores in one neighborhood, there’s no incentive for a full-service grocery store to come in.”

Such cities as Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Birmingham, Ala., have moved to place restrictions on new dollar stores. Officials in Cleveland and Fort Worth, Texas, are considering similar moves.

Dollar store officials counter by saying that they’re reacting to the marketplace and bringing inexpensive food and household items to areas with scant few options.

And at the City Council meeting Tuesday, the developer who’s planning to build a dollar store on the church land touted its potential as economic engine.

“The Dollar General will be a center of activity,” said Steve Hufstetler of Teramore Development LLC of Thomasville, Ga. Once built, the store could prompt “other interested tenants to come to this area and help revitalize it.”

It looks good on paper and sounds swell, too. Let’s just hope those new tenants don’t include sweepstakes parlors or payday lenders.

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ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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