Wal-Mart came to Galesburg, Illinois in 1985 to open a discount store on National Boulevard. In 2007, Wal-Mart shut their store down, and opened up Wal-Mart superstore #775 on Knox Square Drive just a few minutes away. In that year, an assessor in Galesburg made the news when he noted that Wal-Mart was challenging the city over its assessment for the new store. He said Wal-Mart would give him a list of the market values for Supercenters in nearby locales. The assessors in Galesburg would then come up with their figure, but “If they (Wal-Mart) think it’s too high, they’ll bring in their own assessors,” he said. The city of Galesburg has been losing population since at least 1990. By 2007, the population in Galesburg was close to 31,100 — a drop of almost 8% since 1990. But the city has every big box imaginable, including Target, Kmart, Lowe’s, Sears, and Wal-Mart. City officials must have known when the super Wal-Mart was proposed that the “old” 105,627 s.f. store on National Boulevard would close — and that’s exactly what happened. Wal-Mart Realty has 16 “dark stores” for lease or sale in Illinois today — Galesburg being one of them. But so far, the two private realtors that Wal-Mart has hired to get rid of the property have not had much success. The old discount store is located on Route 151 on the northwest side of Galesburg, and the real estate agents say the site has a population of around 62,000 people within a 15 mile radius. But its use as a discount store is history, because of the larger Wal-Mart supercenter that opened on July 18, 2007. The city is now getting into the act, because it happens that Galesburg needs a new library. Officials have hired an architectural firm to look at two possible sites for the new library — but the Business Editor of the Register-Mail newspaper has suggested that the city look seriously at the dead Wal-Mart that the city created. The building has sat empty for nearly two years, and is much larger than the 74,000 s.f. that is needed for the library. Wal-Mart’s real estate brokers say the building can be subdivided down into 20,000 s.f. pieces. The newspaper says perhaps the Galesburg Historical Society could also move in, or a teen center, a senior center, etc. The architectural firm hired by the city is looking at the site of the former Econofoods store, which would be demolished. Smaller grocery stores often shrivel up and die when supercenters arrive, and it is certain that Econofoods was a casualty of the big box retail saturation of Galesburg too. The Register-Mail admits that the old Wal-Mart store will need some remodeling to become a library, but the site has other attractions. “Although not close to downtown, the building is near Galesburg High School and is on a city bus route.” The newspaper notes that the former Wal-Mart building is only one of a number of vacant buildings on Galesburg’s busiest street. “Although only built in 1985, the quality of the building is probably iffy and maintenance may have been let go somewhat once Wal-Mart knew the Supercenter was near,” the Business Editor writes. Galesburg has had a good deal of time to ponder what to do with the dead Wal-Mart, because they certainly failed to put much thought into it before they approved the superstore. The newspaper has suggested over the past two years that the ‘ghost box’ Wal-Mart left behind should be used for an ice skating rink or an indoor arcade. Having the old Wal-Mart sit empty has surely not been of help to the Hy-Vee grocery store next door. But that may be only a temporary problem, because the new Wal-Mart superstore has likely weakened sales at the Hy-Vee anyway. “It’s a shame so many empty buildings on Henderson Street are so large that finding a tenant becomes difficult,” the Business Editor bemoans. He blames these eyesores partly on the recession — but bad land use planning is the real culprit, because Wal-Mart did not need to build a larger building in the first place, and could have been asked to do an ‘in-box conversion’ like the two stores in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that are being reformatted into superstores without any square footage changes. Wal-Mart has a 99,000 s.f. superstore prototype, but officials in Galesburg probably never thought to ask.
The Register-Mail suggests that the city should ask Wal-Mart to donate the store for the library. After all, the giant retailer is pulling millions of dollars in profits out of Galesburg to ship back to Arkansas, and the company likes to brag about its philanthropy. “Would a corporation such as Wal-Mart,” the Business Editor wonders, “for the sake of goodwill in the community, be willing to sell the building to the library board for, oh, how about $1? It’s not doing them any good.” And its not doing Galesburg any good. The city needs to update its zoning code to add a demolition bond that requires any retailer with a free-standing store larger than an acre to tear down its building if it sits unused for retail uses for more than 12 consecutive months. This would protect the city from corporations like Wal-Mart that have closed hundreds of ‘old’ stores that still have a useful life. Galesburg has many abandoned buildings because of poor land use planning, and a mistaken sense that retail buildings create new jobs — even as they watch the ‘old’ stores shut down and cast off jobs. Readers can help Galesburg’s deliberations along by contacting Wal-Mart’s local real estate agent, Kevin Vernick at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mr. Vernick, Galesburg needs a new library, and Wal-Mart has an abandoned building that financially is a liability on their books. This is a chance for you to suggest to the company that they donate the store to the city — and agree to make the needed renovations to make the building habitable as a library. Please ask Wal-Mart to pay special attention to the roof and the heating/air conditioning system, since other towns have found that Wal-Mart cast offs often have greater renovation costs than acquisition costs. For 22 years, Wal-Mart used that discount store to make a good profit from the citizens of Galesburg. Now its time for Wal-Mart to pay them back with a donation and retrofitting project. You will have to forego a commission, but that can be your firm’s good will to the city as well.”