While downtowns across the country are being revitalized, often with the help of local and state grants, big box stores are closing in droves. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s Shopko has fallen prey to this trend and will be closing soon.

Retail real estate doesn’t vanish if you don’t use it; it becomes an eyesore for the city and blights adjacent properties. And when those stores close, they leave an indelible mark. The empty parking lots with grass growing up through the cracks and fading shadows of store logos send an unmistakable signal: Hey, this town is struggling. That’s a fate that Buffalo, which has staked its image on Western hospitality and old-fashioned charm, can ill afford.

No one knows what will become of the 25,000-square-foot building Shopko occupies. But it seems unlikely that Buffalo will be able to attract a retail tenant, which means city leaders must work proactively with the space’s owner to ensure the vacant building doesn’t become an unwelcoming blemish on the city’s west entrance.

The upside is that the same things that make the vacated buildings so unattractive – huge parking lots, bland exteriors, wide-open floor plans, high ceilings – are what make them particularly suitable for redevelopment.

In cities and suburbs all over the country, vacant retail space is being repurposed as call centers, gyms, indoor play spaces, museums, libraries, schools, affordable housing units, medical centers and even churches.

Recently, Spearfish, South Dakota, city leaders took drastic action and remodeled the giant vacant Walmart store into a recreation center. The $11.1 million remodel included a water park, aquatics center, weight and exercise facilities, gymnasium, childcare center and classrooms. That’s far less than the $17 million price tag that replacing Buffalo’s YMCA was projected to cost.

In Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, the YMCA and Boys & Girls Club teamed up to buy a 90,000-square-foot defunct shopping center and rehab it into a health and fitness center that houses both organizations. The building includes an indoor aquatics center, gymnasium, health and wellness spaces, teen center, STEM room and social areas.

And last month, Richmond, Virginia, officials announced a public-private partnership that will turn a former Macy’s store into an indoor aquatics center.

Similar discussions are underway in Watertown, New York, and Englewood, Colorado.

Certainly the loss of a major retailer in Buffalo is bad news. But sometimes something good can come from something bad.

For some time Johnson County has bantered about the idea of building a new aquatic center or rec center. YMCA Director Tim Miner has repeatedly said that the Y’s most urgent need is replacing the aging swimming pool. The pool space could then be transformed to expand existing rec services. Shopko’s departure could present our community with the opportunity make this happen.

Though the specifics vary, what successful rehabs have all included is local leadership working with property owners to identify the community’s needs and discuss how those needs could be met using existing, unused retail space. Maybe an aquatic center is not the best use of this space. But it should be carefully evaluated while the opportunity still exists.

That’s something we should all be sold on.

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