MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Wal-Mart, Kmart, Circuit City, they are the big-box stores. Companies such as these often build massive structures and outgrow them and then abandon them. So, what happens next? As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, an artist and professor at Oberlin College crisscrossed the country to find out how communities are reusing these structures.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Julia Christensen first got the idea to study big boxes in her hometown, Bardstown, Kentucky, the bourbon capital of the world. Bardstown has a charming, historic downtown, with little cafes and boutiques. In the mornings, there is a sweet smell in the air.
Ms. JULIA CHRISTENSEN (Artist and Professor, Oberlin College): That is sour mash that you're smelling right now, it's whiskey cooking. There's a lot of bourbon here to cheer.
BLAIR: 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. In this area of commercial development, Wal-Mart has already opened and outgrown two buildings. What intrigued Julia Christensen is what happened here.
Ms. CHRISTENSEN: So, this was the first Wal-Mart.
BLAIR: A huge space that was also home to a number of other businesses that wanted to be close to Wal-Mart.
Ms. CHRISTENSEN: This was a bar. I think it was called Boots and Buckles. And then, this is the Hunan Dynasty restaurant. Over here was the movie theater and then there were a couple of restaurants in the front. After Wal-Mart moved across town, all of these businesses started to vacate and there was this huge lot right off the Blue Grass Parkway. And it was empty, you know, for a decade.
BLAIR: But not anymore. Bardstown needed a new courthouse. So eventually, the government bought the entire 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 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.
Former Mayor DIXIE HIBBS (Republican, Bardstown, Kentucky): We know you're going to build a great big one. We've seen some of these super Wal-Marts. We don't like them, you know, you're going to take a prime piece of property here that we're going to look at for 20 or 30 or 40 years and we want it to be pleasing to us.
BLAIR: In response, Wal-Mart agreed to change the building's design.
Mayor HIBBS: It looks like a shopping center, not a shopping box.
BLAIR: Dixie Hibbs says Wal-Mart also agreed to landscape the area.
Mayor HIBBS: Once they realized that we weren't going to give on a lot of things, they started cooperating.
BLAIR: Now, it's important to note that sometimes when a big box is left empty, it's not necessarily the fault of the big retailer like Wal-Mart, since they don't always own the buildings themselves but rather lease them. And Julia 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.
Ms. CHRISTENSEN: People are so excited to tell me these stories but they had no idea that right up the road, this was happening in another town as well. And so, they had questions, you know, how did they deal with the windows in the front? How did they deal with the pillar, you know, then I realized that these stories need to be circulated.
BLAIR: In Austin, Minnesota, Christensen went to a big box that had been renovated into a museum devoted to the canned meat, Spam. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, 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. Julia 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. Christensen says cities have a huge incentive to find other uses for these buildings.
Ms. CHRISTENSEN: Roads are widened. Stoplights are put into place. Entire bypasses might be created. So all of this invested infrastructure remains after the retailer leaves the building behind.
BLAIR: Which can make these sites good for repurposing. Take Lebanon-Laclede Missouri. 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 is the library's director, she says it took awhile for some people to adjust.
Ms. CATHY DAME (Library Director, Lebanon-Laclede Missouri): Sometimes, honestly, it was easier to say, well, now you remember where the shoe section was? Well, now, that's our children's room.
BLAIR: Since the box was too big for just the library, they broke it up and now share it with a Route 66 museum, a cafe and other groups. And Cathy 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.
Ms. DAME: The comment that I kept hearing the board say and I kept hearing the public say was how ugly the building was, just sitting there. It was just a reminder of a business that went bankrupt and it was just depressing, frankly.
Ms. CHRISTENSEN: With these big-box buildings, they are constructed by the hundreds every year, and they are also abandoned by the hundreds every year. We're dealing with a limited resource here. There's not an endless supply of Earth. We need to think about what's going to happen to the future of these structures.
BLAIR: In addition to her new book, Julia Christensen has a solo show at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh called Your Town, Inc. And she still visits reused big boxes. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
BLOCK: You can see some of the renovated big box stores at npr.org.