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Once A Wal-Mart: The New Lives Of Big Boxes

Across the country, communities are turning abandoned big-box stores like Kmart and Wal-Mart into churches, schools, libraries — even museums devoted to everything from Spam to Route 66.

Julia Christensen, an artist and professor at Oberlin College, crisscrossed the country to find out how these sprawling structures are being repurposed. Christensen first got the idea to study big boxes in her hometown, Bardstown, Ky., the bourbon capital of the world.

Bardstown has a charming, historic downtown, with little cafes and boutiques. Tourism is a vital part of Bardstown's economy. People come from all over to visit the distilleries and the 18th century mansion that inspired Stephen Foster to write "My Old Kentucky Home."

To keep the historic buildings intact, there are very strict design regulations downtown.

But like cities everywhere, the outskirts are a different story. Strip malls are just a few minutes' drive away. Wal-Mart has already opened and outgrown two buildings here.

Prime Property

What intrigued Christensen is what happened at the site of the first Wal-Mart: A huge space that was also home to a number of other businesses that wanted to be close to Wal-Mart — a bar called Boots and Buckles, a restaurant called Hunan Dynasty, a movie theater. When the Wal-Mart left, so did the other businesses.

But the Wal-Mart lot isn't empty anymore. Bardstown needed a new courthouse, so eventually the government bought the property, razed the big box and built the Nelson County Justice Center. A few smaller government agencies set up shop nearby. The bar and restaurant area are still vacant.

As for Wal-Mart, it moved into a bigger building across town. About five years ago, it made plans to leave that site and move to a third location. But this time, local officials wanted a say in the matter. Dixie Hibbs was the mayor of Bardstown at the time.

"We know you're going to build a big building. We've seen them. We don't like them," Hibbs says. "You're going to take a prime piece of property and build something we know will be there for 20 years. We want a building that will be pleasing to us."

In response, Wal-Mart agreed to change the building's design.

"It looks like a shopping center, not a shopping box," Hibbs says.

Big Box Reuse

It's important to note that sometimes, when a big box is left empty, it's not necessarily the fault of retailers; they don't always own the buildings themselves; often they lease them.

Christensen says she's not interested in finding fault with the owners of big boxes. She's operating on the assumption that they're here to stay. Instead, she wants to focus on what people do with them when they're abandoned.

In her new book, Big Box Reuse, Christensen looks at 10 different communities.

In Austin, Minn., Christensen went to a big box that had been renovated into a museum devoted to Spam, the canned meat. In Fayetteville, N.C., she went to a flea market that had once been a Kmart. And in Round Rock, Texas, a group of young entrepreneurs turned an abandoned Wal-Mart into an indoor racecar track. Christensen cites the racecar track for its imaginative use of such a large space — but they couldn't keep up with the overhead costs and had to close down.

Christensen says cities have a huge incentive to find other uses for these buildings.

"Roads are widened. Stoplights put in. Entire bypasses might be created," she says. "So all of this invested infrastructure remains after the retailer leaves the building behind."

Which can make these sites good for repurposing. Take Lebanon, Mo. When a Kmart there went bankrupt, its building was left vacant for three years, and the area became depressed. So the community raised money to turn it into a new and bigger county library.

Cathy Dame, the library's director, says it took awhile for some people to adjust.

"Sometimes, honestly, it was easier to say, 'Remember where the shoe section was? That's our children's room,' " Dame says.

Since the structure was too big for just the library, they broke it up and now share it with a Route 66 museum and a cafe, among other things. And Dame says they are getting a lot of traffic, partly because it's easy to park.

Dame stresses that the whole project was paid for in private donations, not taxes. Individuals and local businesses all chipped in.

"The comment I kept hearing the board say — and the public say — was how ugly the building was just sitting there," Dame says. "It was a reminder of a business that went bankrupt. It was just depressing, frankly."

"With these big-box buildings, they are constructed by the hundreds every year, and they are abandoned by the hundreds every year," Christensen says. "We're dealing with a limited resource here. There's not an endless supply on Earth, so we need to think about what's going to happen to the future of these structures."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.