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“Ghostboxes”

Most people consider the opening of a big-box retail store in a community to be good news. But what happens when that store closes down?

As the recession takes its toll on big-box retailers, more communities across the country are having to confront not just the eyesore of giant empty stores, but also the loss of jobs and tax revenue that follow.

Many are trying to find creative uses for those near windowless monoliths. In Minnesota, one became a Spam Museum. In Texas, an indoor go-cart track. In Illinois, a church moved into an empty Wal-Mart. The new tenants, however, often generate less revenue for local governments.

And with the recent spate of bankruptcies and store closures, including Circuit City and Linens ‘N Things, more abandoned buildings will be added to a struggling commercial real estate market. There are already hundreds of empty “ghostboxes” around the country.

“There is not a landfill on earth able to handle all the big boxes that we have sitting empty,” says Julia Christensen, author of the book “Big Box Reuse,” who has been studying the trend since 2002.

Some have been transformed into museums, community centers, hospitals or schools. Future tenants, however, can be restricted by the former retail chain.

“Often, they sign leases that prohibit competitors from moving in there, so they’re willing to pay on an empty building for a long time,” said Christensen, also a visiting professor at Oberlin College in Ohio.

The Texas location mentioned is in Round Rock. That building has since been converted to a more standard multi-tenant space, with re-done landscaping; Round Rock’s city manager says they got lucky in how things turned out, though it took a few years to get there. I don’t know what, if anything, municipalities can do to protect themselves in the event one of their big-box stores closes on them. There’s no policy prescription in the story, and given the economic climate right now, it’s not clear that there’s much that could be done. Well, here’s one possibility in the event that demolition is an option, though I don’t know how well that would work in an exurban or even a suburban context. At least it’s something.

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2 Comments

  1. katy says:

    An old Kmart (IIRC) on Hwy 6 is now an indoor go-cart facility.
    http://track21houston.com/

    (My kids have never been, but gleefully called out the name when I couldn’t remember it.)

  2. Linkmeister says:

    We had a Circuit City at the bottom of my hill in the suburbs; it closed down in March, and it’s still empty. I can’t imagine what’s gonna happen with it; who needs a two-story windowless box?