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Thinking outside the box to repurpose empty big-box stores

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Empty big-box stores can be a drain on a community. Not only do they erode a city's tax base, but they can deter other merchants from locating nearby.

But deals are in the works that could repurpose some of the large vacant buildings in the metro area suburbs.

The Pioneer Press reports a new YMCA might be built in the former Home Depot in Cottage Grove. Although the YMCA has signed a letter of intent, city administrator Ryan Schroeder warns that's not a commitment. Vacant for six years,the South Washington County Bulletin notes the city previously negotiated with the L.A. Fitness chain to take over the building, but a deal was never reached.

Meanwhile, the Business Journal reports that a church has an option to purchase an empty Rainbow Foods store in Shakopee. Last week, the Hosanna church told its members that it has a deal to buy the 12.1-acre property but it has not yet closed on the property. Hy-Vee had scouted the site as a possible location for a grocery store.

The church now occupies the next-door space, which the Shakopee Valley News reported had been a Gold's Gym, which closed in 2010. The 35,000-square foot space opened last spring, redesigned to include a nursery, activity center, basketball court, worship center and prayer room.

A July story in the Star Tribune noted that "bankruptcies, downsizing and changing needs among retailers resulted in thousands of closures" of big-box stores. The story cited research from Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq, a real estate firm, which found that there were 80 vacant big boxes in the Twin Cities market at the height of the recession.

The article cited some unusual examples of big-box reuse across the state. The Old Country Buffet in St. Paul’s Highland Park is now an Allina Health clinic. Maplewood's Myth nightclub is a former Just for Feet store. HealthEast put a clinic in a former Borders bookstore in St. Paul's Midway area, which had been abandoned when the chain went bankrupt.

And the Block E complex in downtown Minneapolis is in the midst of a $50 million renovation to turn the former retail space into Mayo Clinic Square, which will feature a sports medicine clinic and a practice facility for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx.

There's even a book about the phenomenon, Big Box Reuse by Oberlin College assistant professor Julia Christensen. One of the book's featured transformations is in Austin, Minnesota, where a shuttered Kmart store was turned into the city's popular Spam Museum.

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