What happens to “old” Wal-Marts when the retailer casts them off? Hundreds of communities have found the answer: not much. According to Wal-Mart Realty, the company aggressively markets these “dark stores,” but Sprawl-Buster’s studies have shown that as many as one third of these vacated stores will remain empty for at least 3 years, and one-third of them are over 100,000 s.f. — making them very hard to retenant. Wal-Mart Realty, a division of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., is a real estate company offering development opportunities nationwide. “Lease space is available in vacated buildings ranging in size from less than 10,000 square feet to more than 100,000 square feet,” the company says. ” These vacated buildings, located in proven retail locations, are also available for purchase, and are often fully tenanted. We have outlots and excess property located adjacent to our Supercenters, Wal-Mart stores, Neighborhood Markets and SAM’s Clubs – prime retail business locations. These available parcels are perfect for restaurant, retail, office or development uses, and are located in prime commercial locations throughout the country. This week, officials in the small town of Hinsdale, New Hampshire learned that their “old” 105,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store most likely will be torn down. Wal-Mart is proposing to build a 198,000 s.f. superstore roughly one mile away. The owner of the mall where the “old” discount stores now sits, told Hinsdale officials yesterday that she is close to signing a lease termination agreement with the company. She also said the building may have to be torn down and replaced with smaller buildings because no other owner could make full use of it. “The most important thing is lease termination, so I can start marketing the property and get other tenants in there,” the owner, Deborah George, told the Brattleboro Reformer. “I think, ultimately, that building is going to have to come down. I don’t think there’s anybody who could fully use the box without leaving half of it vacant.” Wal-Mart is getting out of its lease with George 10 years early. The company also had three 10 year options to renew. George said the tentative agreement would allow her to lease the space to another company 60 days after Wal-Mart moves to its new location. She said Wal-Mart plans to make the move in June 2009. George told the Hinsdale Planning Board now that she has her agreement with Wal-Mart, she supports the building of the new Wal-Mart, even though it will leave her without an anchor tenant. Neighbors in Hinsdale told the Planning Board they are concerned about traffic at the store, but the neighbors are not organized, don’t have an attorney, and are not likely to present any serious threat to Wal-Mart’s engineers. The site location is just north of the Hinsdale Greyhound Park, a dog racing track. A new traffic light will have to be placed to accommodate the thousands of new car trips passing the site. The engineering firm told residents they will only have to wait 35 seconds to exit their properties. Of course, residents were assured that new traffic would “not be significant.” The Planning Board said they had concerns over Wal-Mart’s use of the huge, 972 space “parking field” to allow truck containers and outdoor sales. They also expressed concerns with the “old” Wal-Mart, which had chronic problems with its on-site septic system. “I would hope that as a new store and a super center, you’d want it to look nicer than the current one does,” said Selectwoman Kathy Stephens. The original Hinsdale Wal-Mart discount store was built roughly in 1992, so the store is only 15 years old.
Since 1996, Wal-Mart has systematically closed nearly 52% of its discount stores in America. The company had 2,218 discount stores in 1996, but by 2007 the discount count had fallen to 1,075. A number of these stores have been “converted” to superstore — but many were just vacated. At any point in time, Wal-Mart has 300 to 350 “dark stores” on the market, with as much as 26 million square feet of empty stores for sale or lease. Many of these stores were built in the 1990s. When Wal-Mart owns the store (or rents it from itself), they can leave at any time. In messy cases like the Hinsdale situation, where they had signed a long-term lease, the retailer has often ended up in court being sued for breach of contract. The building owner in Hinsdale is most likely not paying to tear down the store, and that may be the best she can get out of Wal-Mart. But she has just lost 10 years of expected revenues. The wastefulness of this site-hopping of stores is unprecedented. No other retailer in the history of stores has built — and left — as many stores as Wal-Mart. The Hinsdale site had no sewer to the site, so they had to build their own septic system, which frequently failed. The company had to petition the neighboring town of Brattleboro, Vermont for a sewer connection — but Brattleboro Selectmen refused to hook them up. The town of Brattleboro has no seat at the current discussions — yet most of the traffic will come through Brattleboro and over the Connecticut River to Hinsdale. The only difference between the existing store slated for demolition, and the larger superstore, is the grocery component. To gain more grocery market share, Wal-Mart is willing to tear down its existing store, and move a mile away. More foolish than this plan, is the role of the regulators. The Hinsdale Planning Board will get lost in the discussion over traffic, and completely miss the absurdity of developing another large piece of land that brings absolutely no added economic value to the area, and leaves an old mall at risk of never recovering. Worse than “dark stores” are “dark regulators” who allow this kind of redundant development to occur. To tell the Hinsdale Planning Board how you feel about Wal-Mart’s leapfrog sprawl, call the Town Clerk’s office at 603-336-5719 with this message: “One Wal-Mart in Hinsdale was bad enough, but tearing down the existing store just to build a bigger one down the road, is just plain wasteful. Keep Wal-Mart at George’s Field, and stop the superstore now. Live free — without more Wal-Mart’s.”