Closed big box stores could be re-purposed as community health and recreation centers

Empty store buildings the size of warehouses are becoming more common in the U.S. and in other countries. Often a large chain store location is closed and left empty instead of being refurbished. The chains open newer larger buildings within the same community and move out of the old building. The empty buildings can become a tax liability for the community by reduced tax revenue as the chain store may have placed restrictions on who the property may be rented or sold to in a way of reducing risk of competitive chains moving into the location. [Read more: Big-Box Blight: The Spread of Dark Stores]

The empty buildings can become a risk of vandalism as they stand empty for years. The warehouse size buildings are difficult to sell because of their large size often with larger parking lots. Some communities eventually raise funds to have the buildings removed so the property can be sold as an empty lot.

With community support such a large size building might be useful for indoor recreation and health centers. Space for children to play safely can be difficult to find especially for people with limited income. Educational activities as well as just for fun physical games could help the children and the caregivers. Such a center would be unlikely to add tax revenue but it might promote increased revenue through indirect means such as reduced health care costs, reduced vandalism and crime, and increased employee health and productivity.

Open play areas for children can be difficult to find for parents living in crowded conditions. Gymnasiums at schools are not very available for open play because of scheduled sporting events. Private gyms are designed for adult use and typically have a fee that is prohibitive for lower income adults or for many people who have car loans, house loans and credit card bills. An empty big box store would not have the same height of ceiling found in sporting arenas so a community health and recreation center would be unlikely to compete for the consumers who are already using the adult oriented centers. Some indoor malls promote their open areas for walking for health purposes. An empty big box store could be re-purposed to make room for walkers to be able to jog or play more active games like tag or possibly sports using a soft Nerf football or a soft disc Frisbee.

A community center would likely need financial support from a variety of community businesses and volunteer or government agencies in order to succeed over the long term. With the high cost of childcare many parents don’t have additional money for regular recreational classes or memberships. Child oriented activity centers tend to focus on special events like birthday parties for income or may have an indoor putt putt golf course for generating more revenue.

A community health center might encourage attendance at educational events by providing vouchers for recreational events to those attending the health oriented session.

A large open building might also be suitable for craft fairs or rummage sales or other special events. A building with an overly large parking lot might be re-purposed by building some open air areas for outdoor craft and produce markets.

Depending on the climate a large open building might be useful for a community or privately owned hydroponic garden business.

Re-purposing empty buildings can require communities to void clauses in a retailer’s lease that limit the owner’s ability to rent the property to other retailers – which is the easiest way to re-use warehouse size empty storefronts. The other way is to limit their existence in the first place by limiting how much land is zoned for large stores and placing limits on the size of stores that are allowed within smaller communities. Requiring new construction to be multi-story, mixed use buildings can make the property more versatile for a range of tenants over the years. Economic review committees can help prevent empty warehouse sized buildings from becoming a problem for community by examining whether there is a need for more retail space before approval is given for new construction – maybe the community already has an empty big box store that is waiting for a new tenant.