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Gadsden offers a model for ‘getting beyond Kmart’ other cities can follow, even if their big-box stores haven’t shuttered yet.
Late this summer, the riverside city of Gadsden, Alabama will debut its new multimillion dollar convention center, with expansive views of the Coosa River and space for retail and restaurants. The project, dubbed The Venue at Coosa Landing, will serve as the “crown jewel” for a revitalization of the city’s east riverfront.
And it all stems from the purchase and renovation of a 110,000-square-foot former Kmart store.
The store closed in 2012, one of dozens that shuttered that year as Sears Holding Corp. sloughed off properties in an effort to remain profitable. The property sits on the east bank of the Coosa River, across the water from a revitalized downtown area that bustles with shops and restaurants. City officials had long been interested in mirroring that development on the river’s east side but hadn’t been able to, largely due to a shortage of open acreage.
“There have been a variety of factors that have prevented it. One was just real estate,” Eric Wright, the city’s public affairs coordinator, told Route Fifty in an interview. “There have been some challenges, but the east side of the river has always been our big opportunity for development, and that’s been this administration’s big push.”
The city began some work on the east bank years ago, purchasing and operating a boat launch and marina and opening a riverwalk park just south of the Kmart. The Kmart building itself, along with its 9.3-acre property, presented an opportunity for expansion, and in 2013, the city bought the entire parcel for $2.6 million.
“One of our issues as a city has been, with riverfront development, the lack of available property,” Shane Ellison, assistant to the mayor of Gadsden, told Route Fifty in an interview. “So when the building didn’t immediately sell and the owners became willing to negotiate, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
The purchase was made with the idea of a convention center in mind, Wright said. The city’s current event space, on the west side of the river, is used for everything from proms to antique sales to pancake breakfasts, but the building was constructed in the 1940s and is dated and dilapidated.
“There was talk as long as 15 or 20 years ago about replacing the convention center, but I don’t know that a location had ever been determined,” Ellison said. “When the announcement was made that our existing convention hall was going away and we’ll have this great new convention facility across the river, there was excitement across the community, because our convention hall is just so out of date.”
It was less clear how to proceed. After acquiring the property—a hulking, boxy behemoth with an attached garden center—officials hired an architect to determine whether it would be more economic to update it or to demolish the building and start anew. One of the main concerns, Wright said, was that the finished product not resemble, in any way, a superstore.
“Kmart is almost a dirty word, because we’re trying to make it look so very different from Kmart. That’s one of the challenges, is getting beyond Kmart,” he said. “That was one of the tasks given to the architect—we would like this venue to be a cool new thing. And we agonized over, ‘Is it better to just build a whole new building and raze this one, or is it better to use the structure?’”
A passel of architects, engineers and building professionals surveyed the property and informed the city that it would be vastly cheaper to renovate the existing facility than to knock it down and start anew. The infrastructure, including the steel framework and the high ceilings, was solid. The bulk of the exterior renovations would be aesthetic in nature.
“They said the structure is good. It’s just a box, and that’s sort of the beauty of these Kmarts—they’re boxes, they’re blank canvases,” Wright said. “There will be a new facade that wraps around the top, with shade sails on the east side. It will look like a totally new building, but we’ll save a ton of money by redesigning an existing structure.”
In total, the project will cost $12.5 million, funded through a bond referendum. The new facility will be able to host up to five concurrent events, with ample parking and updated lighting and electricity. There’s space for retail or private businesses, all of which will allow the city to host different, larger-scale events, including fishing tournament weigh-ins, concerts and car shows.
“This will be a replacement venue, and also will help us do a lot of bigger, better events,” Wright said. “We’ll be able to host events we’ve never been able to host before.”
The redevelopment of a vacant Kmart property is not, on its own, unusual. Cities across the country are forced to grapple with the large, empty shells as department stores and big-box companies shutter hundreds of properties in an attempt to survive a changing economy. And many of those buildings get repurposed. In Charlotte, N.C. last year, for example, three transformations were underway. Both a Walmart and a Super Kmart were being turned into combination call centers and office space, while a second Kmart was changing into a charter school.
But it is far rarer for a city to have a hand in the repurposing. Most projects are taken on by private firms. Hundreds of other buildings sit vacant in economically depressed areas, waiting for third-party developers who are, in many cases, hesitant to pour money into places that aren’t already flourishing, according to Andy Kuhn, economic development director for Washington County, Ohio, who’s written about the country’s rash of vacant Kmarts for ELGL.
“The majority of these Kmarts are in recessed communities, and the reason they’ve shut down is because the communities are shrinking,” Kuhn told Route Fifty in an interview. “Most don’t have the financial wherewithal to purchase the building. It’s usually private companies or equity groups who see an asset in a good location that they can tear down and reconstruct. The majority, I think, are not city-owned.”
In Gadsden, much of the ongoing project was dependent on location. The Kmart sat on lucrative riverfront property in the center of an area that officials had for years hoped to develop, a rarity in the world of big-box stores. Had the property been in a more traditional location—mired in a concrete sea of parking lots, for example—the city most likely would not have purchased it.
“The location was the key. It’s a hypothetical, but it would have been a lot less attractive if the property were somewhere else, for sure, because a convention center on the water—that’s hard to beat,” Ellison said. “It was a good move for east Gadsden because we are constantly trying to revitalize the east side of the river. It made sense.”
Kuhn urges communities with Kmarts in more traditional locations to be proactive about future planning. Washington County’s Kmart remains operational, he said, but officials there have already discussed what they’d do with the property should the store shut down.
“We’re trying to be proactive and work with area partners to theorize future redevelopment,” he said. “Our location is very strategic, off a main transportation corridor. It’s our welcome mat to part of our city and I don’t want to let that property fall into disrepair.”
Gadsden’s situation was different, but city officials said they had long harbored ideas for the Kmart property.
“The Kmart has been closed since I was in office. I’ve had my eye on it for a long time,” Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton said via email. “Most cities would love to have a river running right through the middle of their city, and we’ve gone a long time without taking advantage of the Coosa. We want to develop the river on both sides to benefit everyone in the greater Gadsden area.“
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.