By Stacy Mitchell
originally published in Twin Cities Star Tribune, January 8, 2001
Most people are familiar with the damage Wal-Mart, Target and other “big box” retailers have done to local economies. Across the country, these giant stores have gutted downtowns and decimated locally owned businesses.
Now the national chains are dealing communities a second blow. They are vacating their existing stores, sometimes to build bigger outlets, sometimes just closing up shop, in both cases leaving huge empty shells and acres of asphalt behind.
Southern states, where big box retailers expanded early and multiplied rapidly, have been hardest hit. But the problem is beginning to surface in Minnesota. Wal-Mart intends to close stores in Owatonna and Albert Lea later this year and open larger outlets nearby. The 80,000-square-foot Albert Lea store is just 11 years old.
What can a city do with the shell of an old Wal-Mart store? Not much. It’s a problem plaguing planners and local officials, who are struggling to contain the spread of this new retail blight. It’s also a warning to communities considering new big box developments.
The roots of the retail vacancy problem are twofold. Chain stores are multiplying at a staggering pace. They’ve created a glut of retail space. In the last 12 years, per capita retail space has increased 34 percent, from 15 to 20 square feet. Many towns now have more retail space than residents can support.
The second part of the problem is that corporate chains reinvent themselves every 10 years or so, abandoning existing outlets in favor of new formats. First there were the strip malls, which gave way to the enclosed malls. These in turn failed as developers built ever-larger regional malls. Hundreds of malls weakened and died following the arrival of the first big box stores in the 1980s.
Then in the 1990s the big boxes themselves began to shed their skins, vacating existing stores only to build larger outlets across the street or across town.
Wal-Mart is one of the worst offenders. According to Sprawl-Busters, an organization that helps communities fight superstore sprawl, the United States is home to 380 empty Wal-Mart stores. Wal-Mart plans to “relocate” up to 110 more stores in the next year.
Most abandoned stores remain vacant for many years. An abandoned Wal-Mart in Bards town, Ky., sat empty for nearly a decade. Some cities are burdened with more than one empty box. West Columbia, S.C., is home to almost a dozen empty or soon to be vacated big box stores, including Wal-Mart, Target and Circuit City.
Leapfrogging across the landscape costs these companies less than recycling existing properties. But it’s cheap only because the rest of us are paying the price. The new stores are chewing up valuable farmland and open space, exacerbating traffic and air pollution, burdening public services and morphing our communities into placeless blobs of sprawl.
A growing number of cities and towns are taking a different approach. Many have barred the construction of new big box stores and prohibited retail expansion into undeveloped areas. Tax dollars are no longer spent on building roads and sewers to service sprawling developments, but instead on strengthening Main Street.
It’s a strategy that pays off. Main Streets have been around for hundreds of years. Individual businesses may come and go — yesterday’s dry goods store becomes today’s Internet cafe — but the district itself retains its utility, serving as the center of both economic and social life.
Most important, Main Street businesses, unlike global companies, are owned by people who live in the community and are committed to its well-being.
-Stacy Mitchell is a researcher with the Minneapolis-and Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of ”The Home Town Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters.”