Wal-Mart currently has 16 empty retail buildings in Illinois that it wants to sell or lease. One of them is located in Ottawa, Illinois on just over 9 acres of land. The 91,115 s.f. store has been available for sale or lease since Wal-Mart opened up supercenter #852 in Ottawa on Veteran’s Drive, just a few minutes away. The “old” Wal-Mart, which is about the size of 1.5 football fields, was built in 1985. Now officials in Ottawa have found a way to reuse what the media calls “ghost boxes.” Last February, the Ottawa Elementary School Board voted to send Central School students to the Wal-Mart school building next year. But in March, the School Board grew concerned that the roof is leaking at the old Wal-Mart site, and officials began to look at other options that would work better financially for the district. This week, Wal-Mart told the School Board that it is willing to replace the roof and examine the heating and air conditioning vents. The Central School students need someplace to go to school as a result of flooding at their old school last September. The Ottawa School Superintendent thinks sending students to the old Wal-Mart will bring the teachers and students back under one roof. Currently, Central School students are being bused to two different school buildings, one of them donated by a local church. According to the school Superintendent, it will cost the District $1.16 million to lease the building from Wal-Mart for 30 months, which is cheaper, he says, than buying modular buildings or setting up portable classrooms in scattered sites. The District would only have to spend $360,240 under the current arrangements, but having the students in two locations is not ideal for learning, the Superintendent said. Some school board members want more research done on their financial options, but the Superintendent insisted, “I have a staff that needs to be placed. I have parents who need to know where their children are going.” The board went into an executive session, and emerged to vote 7-0 to authorize a lease with Wal-Mart, contingent on the retailer replacing the roof and checking the ventilation system. The school board hopes to have bids in place for renovating the Wal-Mart building for students at the May board meeting. Construction will take six to seven weeks and the building should be ready to be occupied by mid-August. But it won’t be the taxpayers of Ottawa who end up paying for most of this Wal-Mart lease. The District disclosed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, will be covering 75% of the cost of housing the students as a result of the flooding. The U.S. taxpayers will be paying Wal-Mart roughly $870,000 for the use of their abandoned building.
Illinois has one of the largest collections of Wal-Mart dead stores in the country. The Ottawa discount store — which is much larger than most existing discount or grocery stores in America — is one of hundreds of discount stores that Wal-Mart has left behind in order to build larger supercenters. It is not clear what Ottawa officials were told when they approved the permit for a larger Wal-Mart superstore just minutes away from the ‘old’ site along route 80, but the building has deterioriated badly since it was abandoned, and now the roof has to be replaced. This building has been on the market for at least three years. Local officials often find that there is not much they can do with these buildings, because very few retailers will want the entire space being vacated. In the case of Ottawa, the building was likely to continue to sit vacant, if flooding in the community had not forced the city — and federal taxpayers — to bail out the school district by fixing up the old Wal-Mart. Readers are urged to email Ottawa Mayor Robert M. Eschbach at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Eschbach, Before you take federal money to rent the old Wal-Mart building, costing federal taxpayers at least $870,000, you might want to ask Wal-Mart headquarters to donate the building to the city, given the fact that they are not likely to find any other financially viable use for their abandoned building. In a way, the city created this problem, by allowing Wal-Mart to leave its old store just to build a bigger one on Veteran’s Drive. That move increased Wal-Mart’s profits, but left Ottawa with a dead property that has been deteriorating for at least the past three years. Now’s a good time to ask Wal-Mart, in exchange for the profits it has taken out of Ottawa, to reinvest in the community by donating the renovated store to the city, and helping out the American taxpayer by not charging the School District any rent. There is precedent for this, because Wal-Mart has donated dark stores in other towns to the community. Wouldn’t that be a good lesson in being a good corporate citizen for the students who one day will be getting their lessons in the vacated Wal-Mart?”