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From checkout lines to vaccine lines: Vacant big-box stores get new life as mass vaccination sites

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

At a former Kmart store in Des Plaines, Ill., the parking lot was full and a steady stream of people walked through the building’s sliding glass doors.

No one was there to shop: what was once the last remaining Kmart in Illinois is now one of Cook County’s COVID-19 mass vaccination sites.

The store’s sign has been swapped for a banner announcing the vaccine site, and a member of the Illinois National Guard greeted people at the entrance Thursday morning. Racks of merchandise have been replaced by rows of tables and chairs where people check in and get their shots.

“Kmart has really changed,” joked Matt Demers, 39, of Chicago, after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Spacious buildings, ample parking and easily accessible locations make vacant big-box stores good places to get shots in arms fast. That’s brought crowds back to some properties left empty even before the coronavirus pandemic heightened challenges for bricks-and-mortar retailers as people stayed home.

But vaccination sites are only a temporary fix for landlords trying to figure out how to reinvent spaces as retailers increasingly look to smaller stores and online sales.

 

“As retailers come back post-COVID, they’re not going to want to make that big investment in an anchor space,” said Victor Calanog, head of commercial real estate economics at Moody’s Analytics. “They’re not looking to cannonball back into the pool.”

The list of places in Illinois where people can get vaccines where they used to shop includes three former Kmarts, a Toys R Us in Joliet and Sam’s Club in Batavia. At Market Place Shopping Center in Champaign, there was so much demand the clinic expanded from a former Dressbarn to a second empty store, Gordmans. About 45,000 vaccines have been administered there since January.

Jean Luber, 63, of Chicago, said she was a little surprised to learn she would get vaccinated at an old Kmart, but impressed by the experience.

“It was run with militarylike precision,” said Luber, who was in and out in half an hour.

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