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McClatchy-Tribune  07/05/2014 9:48 PM ET
Empty big boxes are finding new purposes in Minnesota [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: ]

July 05--The ubiquitous big-box concept has reached middle age, but many of the stores never had much of a life.

Bankruptcies, downsizing and changing needs among retailers resulted in thousands of closures nationwide. But fortunately, some of these dormant spaces have entered inventive second acts, with Minnesota now home to some of the more unusual examples of big-box reuse.

The Spam Museum in Austin, a venerable shrine to the canned meat, was once a shuttered Kmart. The Old Country Buffet in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood is now an Allina Health clinic. The Myth nightclub in Maplewood, which features a variety of acts, is a former Just for Feet sneaker store.

The trend of unconventional use of a big box will continue as the nearly vacant Block E complex -- former home of Borders, Gameworks and Hooters -- undergoes a $50 million renovation into the new Mayo Clinic Square, a sports medicine clinic, along with a practice facility for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx.

Artist and academic Julia Christensen, who wrote a book called "Big Box Reuse," said each renovation of a big box into a nontraditional use "displays a community's resourcefulness and creativity."

Christensen, an assistant professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, traveled the country looking for material for her book. She found former big boxes being used as libraries, churches, schools, museums (specifically, the Spam museum) and, in her Kentucky hometown, a courthouse.

"I became interested in civic reuse of these sites, and thinking about how we are rebuilding our community structures around the corporate infrastructure of big-box buildings," she said.

Big boxes are generally defined as those housing discounters, such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, or "category killers" like Best Buy and Home Depot that feature a deep assortment of certain categories of merchandise. These boxes dotted the landscape beginning in the early 1960s, as the suburbs boomed, and really exploded in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But the Great Recession tore into big-box retailers' sales and profit margins as consumers pulled back on purchases, causing many retailers to shutter stores, leaving cavernous spaces on the shopping scene. Remember Linens 'n Things and Circuit City?

"It was especially challenging to lease [stores] in this recession because it went on for so long," said Tricia Pitchford, senior director/brokerage services at Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq, a Bloomington-based real estate firm.

At the same time, the rise of Internet shopping stifled demand for gigantic stores, as price-sensitive shoppers armed with smartphones sought out the best deals in many venues, not just one store. Now, as millennials move to the cities, top retailers are exploring "baby boxes" -- smaller templates for stores.

In many cases, the shuttered stores still were in prime locations, said Pitchford, who tracks big boxes in the metro area. At the height of the recession, there were 80 vacant big boxes in the Twin Cities market, she said. There were 32 empty boxes at the close of 2014's first quarter, although the numbers constantly change. In May, Rainbow Foods' parent Roundy's announced that it would sell nine stores in the metro.

Some vacated boxes have been filled by other retailers expanding in or into the local market, such as TJ Maxx HomeGoods, Gordmans, Total Wine & More, even Goodwill. But other boxes simply morphed into new entities entirely.

One of the most enduring reuses of big boxes involves medical offices and clinics.

Len Kaiser, director of network management for Health ­East Care System, says the ample parking, visibility and access to other stores has proved popular with patients. So far, HealthEast has located a clinic in a former Borders bookstore in the Midway area of St. Paul -- abandoned when the chain went bankrupt; a former EQ

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