Big Boxes: Cities work to find new uses for vacant retail stores
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain email@example.com January 4, 2013 8:40PM
Lockport City Administrator Tim Schloneger (left) and Mayor Dev Trivedi (right) stand outside the former vacant Kmart location that now houses Advance Auto Parts and Big Lots! in the Summit Plaza Friday, Jan. 4, 2013, in Lockport. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 7, 2013 6:40AM
A tale of two Kmarts is playing out along 159th Street between Lockport and Homer Glen.
The Lockport Kmart closed six years ago. The Homer Glen store will close on Jan. 27.
The buildings lie six miles apart along the 159th Street corridor that intersects with Interstate 355. The toll road extension through Will County opened in November 2007 but came too late to save the Lockport Kmart, which had been hit hard by the opening of a Wal-Mart Supercenter a short distance away, city administrator Tim Schloneger said.
Even with the Great Recession hitting in December 2007, Lockport has seen its former Kmart site redeveloped and modernized.
Homer Glen officials are hoping for a similar success story.
It’s something area municipalities have had to adjust to as big-box stores come and go. Sometimes redevelopment happens quickly. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all and buildings stand vacant for years.
Kmart closing no surprise
Homer Glen Mayor Jim Daley is optimistic his town’s Kmart site will rebound quickly. He said he wasn’t surprised when Sears Holdings Corp. announced in November that the 31-year-old store at 15830 Bell Road would close.
“It’s been an underperforming store for some time,” he said. “I think it’s a good move and it’s an excellent opportunity for redevelopment for Homer Glen.”
At about 90,000 square feet, the Kmart in Homer Glen is almost twice the size of the former Lockport store. It stands on 7.7 acres at 159th Street and Bell Road, one of the busiest intersections in the village.
With an I-355 interchange just a few miles to the west and the state investing $100 million in a 159th Street widening project slated to start in 2013 or 2014, Daley said he’s optimistic the Kmart corner will flourish.
“To put $100 million into a road is a big thing, and that property is going to be right on it,” he said.
Janie Patch, the village’s economic development director, said officials are waiting for Sears Holdings Corp. to decide what it is going to do with its soon-to-be vacant building and property. Once that happens, the village will marshal its forces to assist in redevelopment, which could include demolition and new buildings.
Lockport success story
In Lockport development is humming along in the more than 40-year-old Summit Plaza commercial center once anchored by Kmart. The 55,000-square-foot building now houses a Merlin 200,000 Miles Shop, Advance Auto Parts and a Big Lots. One 11,000-square-foot section of the former store remains vacant.
The strip mall attached to the former Kmart building includes other shops and a Berkot’s supermarket, which replaced the closed Sterk grocery store. Once one retailer comes to a site, others are more willing to follow, Schloneger said.
“Retailers cluster together and co-locate,” he said.
Schloneger said even though Kmart closed its store, Lockport barely missed a beat with its sales tax revenue.
Mayor Dev Trivedi said he made the project a priority when he took office in 2009. He helped match the property owner, Florida-based Gator International, with small-business owners looking to locate in Lockport.
“He drove them around in his car, they went out to eat and he told them the story of Lockport,” Schloneger said.
Trivedi, who is not seeking re-election, said early meetings were crucial to avoid architectural plan changes later, which would have been costly.
That did make a big difference, Big Lots general manager Joe Loeffler said. Some towns get tied up in political squabbles and red tape but that wasn’t the case in Lockport, he said.
“It’s been a great town to operate in,” he said. “It seems like Lockport wants to regenerate and rebuild and do things.”
Lockport and Homer Glen aren’t the only towns to grapple with empty retail stores. Joliet has been trying to help market the former Wal-Mart on South Larkin Avenue since it closed in 2008 when a Wal-Mart Supercenter replaced it on Jefferson Street. A nearby former Cub grocery store has stood vacant since 2006.
City manager Tom Thanas said Joliet plans to redouble its efforts to help redevelop the Larkin Avenue site in 2013. One problem is the large size of the buildings, Thanas said.
“There aren’t a large number of retailers willing to take on a space that large,” he said. “Someone would have to come in and divide it.”
The other problem is visibility. Both buildings sit back from the road and are obscured by other buildings.
But something has to be done because vacant buildings are an eyesore and represent lost retail dollars and sales tax for the city, Thanas said.
Joliet has a Kmart that remains open on Jefferson Street. A former Kmart near the Louis Joliet Mall was converted into a Sears MyGofer concept.
Overall, the number of Kmart stores has shrunk from about 1,500 stores in 2006 when the Lockport store closed to 1,252 today.
“As a part of the ordinary course of business we close stores for a variety of reasons,” Kmart spokesman Howard Riefs said. “The (Homer Glen) store is being closed because it was underperforming.”
The closings will help the company better focus on customers “through integrated retail — at the store, online and in the home,” he added. “We own the property in Homer Glen and welcome the opportunity to talk with any parties that have an interest in it.”
The former Kmart Corp. emerged from bankruptcy in May 2003 and acquired Sears, Roebuck & Co. in March 2005. The merged company was renamed Sears Holdings Corp.
The Kmart in Homer Glen, which switched from a Kmart to a Sears Essentials store and then back to a Kmart last year, employs 82 people who will be eligible for severance or jobs at other Kmart or Sears stores, company officials said.
Blue light dims
As for loyal Kmart customers, they will have to find a new place for their blue light specials.
George Galindo, of Palos Park, braved brisk temperatures Friday to head into the soon-to-be shuttered store to pick up a few items.
“We will miss it,” he said, noting he especially liked when the store was a Sears and Kmart blend.
“It was convenient,” Galindo said. “You could find good tools and all of the Kmart stuff. The combination was great for me.”