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Outside the box thinking for big box

Thinking “outside the box” is a phrase that is used way too much these days, but it is a concept I wholeheartedly subscribe to.

What if we were to use that type of thinking — outside the box type thinking — but then turned it around and applied it literally to a box? In fact, what if we applied that thinking to one of this community’s biggest boxes — the vacant Kmart facility?

This being Alpena, rumors abound as to what may, or may not, eventually happen to the property. As we’ve shared recently in this space the size of the building is significant and the trend in retail today is downsizing, not expanding. The timing couldn’t be worse in the retail economy to try to be finding a client for the space. Between January and April of this year, retailers have announced 2,880 store closings and some analysts have predicted that number to reach nearly 9,000 by the end of the year.

BUT, that is the reality in the retail world. Who says that space needs to be limited to retail?

Yes, I think many of us would prefer it remain that way as we have visions of Target, Hobby Lobby and Kohls dancing in our heads for the space.

But, “outside the box” thinking might have that property being refurbished into something entirely different.

Let me give you an example. Alpena County officials for years have talked about the need for a new jail facility, and recently that conversation has taken on an extra ring of importance and seriousness. Could the Kmart property be converted into a new jail, complete with separate zones for male adults, female adults, male juvenile offenders and female juvenile offenders?

Could some of the current courts move over as well, or perhaps other county departments?

Would that be the best use for the facility? I doubt it.

Could it be a solution, however, to a need in the region? My guess is that it probably could.

And, we as a community need to begin considering all the possibilities, regardless of whether we like them or not. The longer a big box sits, the more it becomes an eyesore.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Mich. In 2014 when new owners purchased the mall, it was only 72 percent occupied. However, the new owners convinced Ford Motor Co. to relocate some of their offices into the vacant structures, and soon the mall was full.

Today the facility is home to a healthy mixture of retail, office, entertainment and food. What once was a facility in the early stages of decline now is a thriving mix of brick and mortar.

I am not saying a non-retail entity is what is needed for the property south of town. Like you, I personally am hoping it will be a thriving retail facility that brings healthy competition and new product lines to the community.

Should that not materialize, however, there is going to eventually come a point I believe where we should be trying to find “anything and everything” to occupy the structure. In my estimation we are not even close to being there yet, but it is important to begin having the conversations regarding the possibility.

Empty big boxes don’t take long to quickly become an eyesore and detriment to communities.

At a location as important as this one is to Alpena, we have to ensure that doesn’t occur here.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13.