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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

The store vaccination sites tend to be near major population centers, with plenty of parking and accessible, open spaces where officials can set up vaccination stations and design a flow of traffic, said Kane County board chair Corinne Pierog.

In addition to the former Sam’s Club in Batavia, Kane County has a site in a Carson’s in Aurora that has been vacant since the department store’s parent company, Bon-Ton Stores, closed all stores in 2018 after filing for bankruptcy.

“Instead of checkout lines, these adapted storefronts now have vaccination lines,” Pierog said.

In some cases, the properties’ former lives come in handy: At the Aurora Carson’s, fitting rooms provide space for anyone in need of medical attention after experiencing a reaction to the vaccine or those who want more privacy while getting their shot.

The question for property owners is what happens when vaccination sites are no longer needed.

Brookfield Properties is already in the process of securing new tenants to take over some of the stores hosting vaccination clinics at its malls, said Stephanie Brager, senior vice president of property management. But until then Brookfield, which owns Market Place, is in discussions about opening more clinics.

 

Some of those vaccine clinics are as small as 8,000 square feet and the two Champaign stores together account for about 40,000 square feet. Neither has been empty long: Dressbarn closed in 2019 and hosted a Spirit Halloween pop-up store last fall, and Gordmans closed in September.

Other empty stores getting a second life as a vaccine clinic are larger, and may be tougher to fill, said Moody’s Calanog, who got vaccinated at a former Sears in New Jersey.

The retailers that are expanding today, like dollar stores and specialty retailers, typically want much smaller spaces than those left by shrinking big-box chains and department stores, he said. Target, meanwhile, is planning to add 30 to 40 small-format stores this year.

Size has been a leasing challenge at another retailer-turned-vaccine site: the former Home Owners Bargain Outlet in Forest Park. The store has been empty since the home improvement retailer shut down all seven locations after seeking bankruptcy protection in 2018.

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