BISMARCK, N.D. — Hundreds of anxious shoppers watched as city officials used power saws to cut 2-by-4s during Home Depot Inc.'s ribbon-cutting ceremony for its 102,700-square-foot building center in Bismarck. Less than three years later, the home-improvement retailer shuttered the underperforming store, leaving a big orange empty eyesore on the outskirts of town.
The building, sitting derelict and silent on acres of asphalt, is listed for sale at $10.5 million. But there's been little interest in the near-windowless warehouse-like building that occupies a lot the size of a dozen football fields.
For potential tenants, "it's a hard pitch because for most uses it seems to be a bit of a tough fit," said Brian Ritter, business development director of the Bismarck-Mandan Development Association.
As the recession takes its toll on big-box retailers, more communities across the country and around the Bluegrass have to confront not just the eyesore of giant empty stores, but the loss of jobs and tax revenue that follow.
Many are trying to find creative uses for those near windowless monoliths. In Minnesota, one became a Spam Museum. In Texas, an indoor go-kart track. In Illinois, as in Georgetown, a church moved into an empty Wal-Mart. The new tenants, however, often generate less revenue for local governments.
And with the recent spate of bankruptcies and store closings, including Circuit City and Linens 'N Things, more abandoned buildings will be added to a struggling commercial real estate market. Already there are hundreds of empty "ghostboxes" around the country.
"There is not a landfill on earth able to handle all the big boxes that we have sitting empty," says Julia Christensen, author of Big Box Reuse, who has studied the trend since 2002.
"Often, they sign leases that prohibit competitors from moving in there, so they're willing to pay on an empty building for a long time," said Christensen, a visiting professor at Oberlin College in Ohio.
The International Council of Shopping Centers said 6,913 retail stores — of all types — announced closings last year, compared with 4,603 in 2007.
Home Depot, for example, closed 15 underperforming stores last year, and 41 from its smaller home-improvement brands, including Expo Design Centers and YardBirds.
"The goal is to sell or lease the property as quickly as possible," said Ron DeFeo, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Home Depot. "The last thing we want is to see an empty store in a community — it's a difficult enough decision to close a store in the community."
In Frankfort, an empty Home Depot is next to a sign welcoming visitors to the city.
Phil Kerrick, economic development director for the city and Franklin County, says, "It's a great building, in good shape and in a good location."
The capital city has dealt with vacant big-box space before, when Lowe's moved into a bigger box in town. The building was converted to a state office building.
Wal-Mart has relocated three times to bigger locations in Bards town, a community of 11,000. Two of the buildings have been filled with more retail space, and one was torn down to make way for a new courthouse, said Kim Huston, president of the Nelson County Economic Development Agency
The city has imposed new design standards for big boxes and has imposed new rules that require a building to be razed if it cannot be sold, Huston said.