The state of Illinois has for years been a leader in states with dead Wal-Marts. In 2006, for example, Illinois was tied for third place with Georgia, with 17 “dark stores” each. That’s just empty Wal-Marts. In that year, Illinois had 1.4 million square feet of empty Wal-Mart stores. This year, the situation hasn’t improved very much. Illinois still has 14 dead stores, totaling 1.1 million square feet of empty space. That puts Illinois in Wal-Mart’s “Million Square Foot Dead Store Club” for at least the third year in a row. One of the communities adding to the list is Joliet, Illinois, which has one of the new entries to Wal-Mart’s dead store list. A Wal-Mart supercenter opened up in Joliet about six months ago, and the retailer promptly shut down its discount store on Larkin Avenue. The “old” store was built in 1989. The store is 116,134 s.f., which means that its larger than some of the supercenters Wal-Mart is building today at 99,000 s.f. Five of the 14 dead Wal-Mart stores in Illinois are well over 100,000 s.f. and could have been converted into supercenters right where they stand. About 40 miles from Joliet, in Ottawa, Illinois, a 91,115 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store has been sitting empty for two years. The Joliet Herald News quoted Sprawl-Busters Al Norman as observing, “Some of these stores can stay on the market for three years or longer. There aren’t a whole lot of retailers out there who are going to fill up 116,000 square feet. Wal-Mart is the king of ghost stores. In the history of modern retailing in America, there has never been a company that has abandoned as many stores as Wal-Mart.” In response, Wal-Mart tells communities that an empty store is a good thing. It’s twisted around to become a sign of success. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Herald News that when a Wal-Mart is shut down, it’s because the store was “a hit in that community,” the newspaper said. “The reason why we move out of a store is because we’ve been very successful in that location,” the Wal-Mart spokesman explained. According to Wal-Mart some of its dead stores have found new life as call centers, arcades, and even pizza parlors. “It can become just about anything,” the Wal-Mart spokesman explained. Or, it can become nothing. The longer it stays up, the more it costs the community, as the property gets vandalized, marked with graffiti, or worse. The fact is, a lot of these so-called “reuses” are marginal operations, which generate less jobs and less revenues than the Wal-Mart store they replaced. Wal-Mart admits that in the six months that its Joliet store has been on the market, no one has shown any interest in it. Wal-Mart has retained a private real estate company to try and hustle the property — to no avail.
Joliet likes to boast that its “one of the fastest growing cities in Illinois and in the United States… Joliet has become a destination city and now the entire country is starting to notice.” Joliet says millions of people come to the city “to check out our two casinos, NASCAR track, NHRA dragstrip, our beautiful baseball stadium,” and its empty big box stores. Sprawl-Busters suggested to the Herald News that officials in Joliet might want to get more aggressive to make sure they don’t get left holding Wal-Mart’s 116, 134 s.f. bag. A number of communities are being more protective of their future by requiring developers to put funds into a “demolition bond,” or an escrow account to pay for the demolition of an empty building that stays empty. “If a store is vacant for more than a year, the municipality will have the money to tear it down and it won’t cost the taxpayers anything, Norman explained.” Wal-Mart Realty in recent years has invested more money into hiring more internal staff to market its stores, and to retain local commercial real estate brokers to find new tenants or owners. Wal-Mart has been criticized by Wall Street analysts for carrying so many ‘ghost boxes’ in its inventory of properties. The retailer at its high point had as many as 350 dead stores. The number today is closer to 200 — still a tremendous waste of capital and land — but less than in its dark store heyday. The trend to shut down discount stores began in 1989, and accelerated throughout the 1990s. The number of discount stores reach a peak in 1995, and has fallen by more than 1,000 stores since then. Some became supercenters, but some just turned out the lights. The Joliet officials who signed off on the Wal-Mart store swap are now saying they need to be patient and hang on a few more months. The location of the dead Wal-Mart also has a dead Cub food store, which closed rather than be driven out of business by the Wal-Mart supercenter. So the city got at least two dead boxes in the superstore trade. City officials who negotiated this specious deal now view these empty stores as an opportunity. “We have the opportunity to redevelop a 1970s corridor into a modern-day commercial corridor with all of the aesthetic amenities,” a city official told the Herald. “We’re not concerned if it’s dark for another six months or so. It will happen. It will redevelop. The traffic volume there [at the dead site] is tremendous.” But taxpayers in Joliet may wonder what “aesthetic amenities” the city is talking about as they keep encouraging more big box sprawl? Readers are urged to email Joliet Mayor Arthur Schultz at [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Schultz, now that you’ve allowed Wal-Mart to crawl out of its old store and build a new one just minutes away, perhaps its time to revisit your zoning code and require that any retail landlord who allows his property to sit empty for 12 months will have to pay for the cost of restoring the site to its pre-development state. A number of communities are trying to protect themselves from ‘dark stores’ like the Wal-Mart on Larkin Avenue. It doesn’t take long for these properties to become blighted. The Wal-Mart supercenter also claimed the life of Cub foods — so the supercenter really added no value economically to Joliet. You already had the discount store and grocery stores. All you did was enable Wal-Mart to gain more market share in Joliet. Now its time to protect your taxpayers by discouraging developers from opening and shutting stores, and letting them deteriorate and get vandalized. Illinois is one of the highest ranking states for dead Wal-Mart stores — and Joliet now has the distinction of being one of the cities on the 14 ‘dark store’ list in Illinois. If, as you say, the entire country is noticing Joliet, one of the first things they may notice are your empty boxes. It’s time to protect residents, and put the financial burden on the developers to tear these dead stores down.”