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Abandoned Malls, Suburban Blight
Published on Wednesday, December 20, 2000 in the Miami Herald
Abandoned Malls, Suburban Blight
by Stacy Mitchell
 
Most people are familiar with the kinds of damage that ``big-box'' retailers have done to local economies. Across the country, these giant stores have gutted downtowns and decimated locally owned businesses.

Now the national chains are dealing communities a second blow. They are vacating their existing stores to build bigger outlets, leaving the landscape littered with dead malls, abandoned strip developments and empty big-box superstores.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, of the five billion square feet of retail space in the country, fully half a billion sits empty. That's 11,000 football fields worth of dead real estate, surrounded by thousands of acres of asphalt.

What can a city do with the shell of an old Wal-Mart store? Not much. It's a problem plaguing planners and local officials, who are struggling to contain the spread of this new retail blight.

It's also a warning to communities considering new big-box developments. These absentee-owned companies have demonstrated little concern for the economic stability and well-being of the places where they do business. Towns that once welcomed these giant stores, sacrificing locally owned businesses, now regret it.

The roots of the retail vacancy problem are twofold. Chain stores are multiplying at a staggering pace. They've created a glut of retail space. In the last 12 years, per-capita retail space has increased 34 percent, from 15 to 20 square feet. Many towns now have more retail space than residents can support.

The second part of the problem is that corporate chains reinvent themselves every 10 years or so, abandoning existing outlets in favor of new formats. First there were the strip malls, which gave way to the enclosed malls. These in turn failed as developers built waves of ever-larger regional malls. Hundreds of malls weakened and died following the arrival of the first wave of big-box stores in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s, the big boxes themselves began to shed their skins to build larger outlets elsewhere.

Wal-Mart is one of the worst offenders. According to the latest tally from Sprawl-Busters, an organization that helps communities fight superstore sprawl, the United States is home to 380 empty Wal-Mart stores. Sometimes Wal-Mart abandons a town altogether. More often, the company closes a store and opens a larger store nearby. Wal-Mart plans to ``relocate'' as many as 110 stores next year.

Most abandoned stores remain vacant for many years. The buildings are unsuitable for much besides big-box retailing. National retailers generally prefer to maintain the lease rather than let the property fall into the hands of a competitor.

West Columbia, S. C., is home to almost a dozen empty or soon-to-be-vacated big-box stores, including Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Target and Circuit City. All are building larger outlets nearby. Leapfrogging across the landscape costs these companies less than recycling existing properties. But the only reason it's so cheap is because the rest of us are paying the price. The new stores are chewing up valuable farmland and open space, exacerbating traffic and air pollution, burdening public services and morphing our communities into placeless blobs of sprawl. The empty stores create blight and erode local property values.

Main Street businesses are owned by local people.

Not content to become victims of the corporate cannibalization game, a growing number of cites and towns are rejecting national chains. Many have barred the construction of large-scale superstores and prohibited commercial development in outlying areas. They no longer spend tax dollars on building roads and sewers to service new big boxes but instead on Main Street improvements. Their economic development efforts focus not on attracting outside corporations but on strengthening locally owned businesses and nurturing new ones.

It's a strategy that pays off in the long-run. Unlike the disposable big box, Main Streets have been around for hundreds of years and have the potential to endure for hundreds more. Individual businesses may come and go -- yesterday's dry goods store becomes today's Internet cafe -- but the district itself retains its utility, serving as the center of both economic and social life. Most important, Main Street businesses, unlike distant global companies, are owned by people who live in the community and have a far deeper interest in its well-being.

Stacy Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.newrules.org), is the author of The Home Town Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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