Chapter 3 is an interesting chapter on Wisconsin Rapids. The town profile is basically that of an old mill town, with a huge philanthropy base from two key families in town who owned the mills in days gone by, and a mostly summer tourism influx. Other than that, it is has a strong aging population and huge summer crowd, with upwards of 20% seniors in the general population.
The big box in question is again a former Walmart, and as with the examples that belied my original expectation of “out of business” big box stores, this is another one where the initial store was successful and eventually moved to a bigger store in other location, leaving the previous one sitting empty. What made this a bit unique in my view though is that the Walmart is relatively “downtown”.
So here’s the basic skinny…Walmart left, and a shell remained. It had a leaky roof, but the rest of the place was structurally sound. A community group was trying to build a seniors centre where three large service providers could co-locate to serve mostly shared clientele across their base. Yet their first instinct was not to occupy the old box space but to build something entirely new. When they couldn’t secure funding for that, they looked at the Walmart space and found ways to reconfigure it to attract funding.
For example, one of the regional groups was more likely to fund them if they were revitalizing an existing space than building new. Public support would be key to all the funding options, and a huge effort was made by media, government, advocacy groups to get everyone on board. Many were opposed to it being “Walmart-quality” and the optics, but once the designs were in place, it seemed viable. In the end, they had pretty creative financing.
Reading the chapter, it is obvious that “something” was going to happen, the question really was “where”. In the end, the Walmart space was way more costly than building new, but the redevelopment aspects attracted different sources of money. But for me, I found three really interesting factors to be:
a. The importance of the aesthetic redesign so people would stop seeing it as the Walmart space;
b. The renting out of space to non-retail renters which allow the three core service providers to basically generate some income to cover usage costs for other parts of the building (i.e. sustainability); and,
c. The creative idea to tear down PART of the building so that the remaining space would all be used, and there wouldn’t be the appearance of “empty unused space” as the facility was actually bigger than they needed.
This example comes closest to what I hoped for in the initial premise of the book — examples where an existing SPACE gets repurposed and flourishes (as opposed to simply repurposing land or putting in a different retailer).