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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

“It’s tough to figure out what to do with the depth of the space,” said Dan Hiffman, vice president at NAI Hiffman, who represents property owner Living Word Christian Center, a church at the shopping center.

Eventually the former store will likely be divided into smaller spaces for multiple retail tenants, he said.

Others will be converted into something entirely different.

The former Carson’s in Aurora was purchased by Storage of America about a year ago, and the company plans to turn it into a self-storage business with a couple of smaller spaces for retail tenants, said Rick Scardino, principal at Lee & Associates. While waiting to move forward on those plans, the owner saw an opportunity to “create some goodwill,” he said.

While the city might have preferred to see another retail tenant fill the space, many big-box stores like the former Carson’s will need to be adapted for new uses, he said.

“The United States has been way oversupplied from a physical retail standpoint compared with the rest of the world for decades,” he said.

Others may be converted to entertainment-focused businesses, a trend underway before the pandemic. While businesses relying on in-person events have taken a hit during the pandemic, they may bounce back because people will still want to gather in person, Calanog said.

The pandemic also accelerated the growth of online shopping. Only about 14% of all U.S. retail sales were made online in 2020, but online sales grew 32.4% compared with 2019, while total retail sales grew 3.4%, according to the Census Bureau. While that spike in sales prompted talk of converting shuttered stores to e-commerce warehouses, it isn’t a good fit for most properties, since it requires both large buildings and space for semi trucks to load and unload packages, Calanog said.

 

In the meantime, there’s one more reason stores are a good fit for vaccination sites: In several cases, property owners have been eager to make them available.

Brookfield Properties decided to offer space for vaccination sites rent-free. It was an easy call, Brager said.

“Our shopping centers really are an integral part of the communities they’re in, so it’s a pleasure for us to host these,” she said.

Even those charging for use of their space say they worked to get vaccination sites up and running fast.

Melody Winston, director of real estate at Living Word Christian Center, said she called local officials to offer the vacant space in Forest Park as soon as she heard vaccines were on the way.

Plans came together so quickly the facility was distributing shots before the license agreement for the vaccination site was signed, Winston said.

“I’ve got 100,000 square feet … and the place that was hurting was the West Side,” she said.

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