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Say hello to a goodbye: How Minnesota towns are trying to fill their empty Shopkos

Glencoe’s former Shopko site
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Glencoe’s former Shopko site could be used for retail again, but might also work well for light manufacturing.

Worthington director of community development, planning, zoning and building Jason Brisson considers his city’s former Shopko building, situated where Interstate 90 meets Highway 59, one of the best retail spots in southwest Minnesota.

It’s been closed since last year, when Shopko, which sold everything from clothes to home goods and electronics, shuttered all of its remaining stores as part of a bankruptcy plan. In Minnesota, most were located in small towns outside the Twin Cities metro.

Given its spot, Brisson says he’s a little surprised the once-Worthington Shopko hasn’t been bought or rented already. But at nearly 67,000 square feet, the former building is a big space to fill. Even some of the country’s biggest retail chains, like Target, Walmart and Macy’s have looked to do more with less space as online shopping eats away at brick and mortar store profits.

“The building is larger than most tenants are looking for,” Brisson said.“It just seems like the whole industry is finding it tougher and tougher. Commercial brokers are having a tough time leasing out buildings of that size.”

Worthington is far from alone. In recent years, the closures of Herberger’s, Younkers, Sears, Kmart, Shopko and other big box retail stores have rippled across Greater Minnesota, leaving consumers with fewer shopping options and city officials trying to figure out what to do with the open space.

Courting retail

Some Minnesota cities are hoping to court new retailers, whether one or more, to fill their former Shopko spaces.

In the rural community of Mahnomen, about an hour from Bemidji in the White Earth Nation, the loss of Shopko means one less place to shop in Mahnomen — and in some cases, one more reason to drive down to Detroit Lakes to shop, said Mitchell Berg, city administrator.

Bigger cities like St. Cloud can more easily absorb the loss of a Shopko, Berg said. 

“But these smaller communities … it’s a little harder. Not just because the retail aspect’s changed so much, but I look at it as a capacity issue in the sense of the city, we don’t have an economic development staff member. We don’t have a lot of robust economic development tools to throw at a project.”

Berg said residents have expressed interest in bringing an Aldi to town. But like a lot of retailers, the discount grocery chain has certain benchmarks required of communities it expands in.

“You go on their website, they want an average daily traffic count of 25,000,” Berg said — an average of about 25,000 people going past their store. 

The city of Mahnomen has the road with the highest traffic in Mahnomen County, but Berg estimated its average daily traffic is around 5,500.

He has hope, though. There’s a market for retail in Mahnomen even though the community is small — roughly 1,300 residents within Mahnomen city limits, the surrounding area has around 7,000 people. Mahnomen is more isolated than, say, Kasson, Minnesota, a convenient 20-mile drive from Rochester, which also lost a Shopko.

Berg would like to see another retailer fill the old Shopko space. Maybe one that also has a focus on hunting, fishing and farming, like a Fleet Farm.

As far as options are concerned, retail is better for the city’s tax base than some of the other possible uses of the building. Shopko would have generated about $7,000 in tax revenue at its appraisal value. Its loss means about a 3 percent decline in tax revenue –  not huge, but a bigger tax haul than the city would get if the building converted to, say, mini storage, he said.

Plus, Berg said, “If you’re going to have a prominent building located right off a major highway intersection, this is your building that people are going to look to when they come into town. Do you want it to be a mini storage lot or do you want it to be something more robust?”

Non-retail uses

In the age of Amazon, other cities — especially those where residents have lots of other brick and mortar shopping options — are looking at non-retail options for filling the former big box stores.

Glencoe, a city of about 5,500 residents an hour west of the Twin Cities, has a Coborn’s grocery store, a couple of hardware stores, a dollar store and small businesses.

“We’re pretty diverse with retail,” said Dan Ehrke, assistant city administrator, and unlike some of the smaller communities in Minnesota losing retailers, are about 20 minutes from larger Hutchinson, and not far from the Twin Cities’ western suburbs, so there’s always been some spill factor from residents shopping outside of town, he said.

Glencoe’s former Shopko site is adjacent to an industrial park. It could be used for retail again, but might also work well for light manufacturing, Ehrke said.

In Albert Lea, MercyOne, an Iowa-based chain of health facilities, has agreed to build a health clinic in space formerly occupied by a Herberger’s, according to the Albert Lea Tribune. In its initial phases, the clinic will focus on  primary care. Later, it plans to expand to include OB-GYN, medical imaging and an ambulatory surgery center.

Creative reuse

Other communities are considering repurposing former big box retail sites altogether.

In West Central Minnesota’s Fergus Falls, Shopko was one in a string of recent closures, including the closing of the local Target store and Herberger’s.

Mayor Ben Schierer doesn’t see many rural towns having big box retail the way they used to.

“I think very few rural communities are going to be able to have two retail shopping centers, just because of the sheer amount of online shopping,” he said.

Fergus Falls is paving the way in Minnesota in the creative re-use of former retail space. This year, the Fergus Falls school district bought the 89,000-square foot former Target building, which the retailer closed in 2018.  Even though the sale to the school district means a loss of tax revenue, it will save the school district money when it’s repurposed as a hub for early childhood education, Schierer said.

Until it closed this year, the city’s Shopko anchored the east end of its downtown. “For a lot of people who lived in the downtown area, it was within walking distance. It filled a need,” he said.

Nonetheless, Schierer said the city’s master plan envisioned eventual redevelopment at the Shopko lot, which is right on the Otter Tail River, which runs through downtown.

If Schierer could see anything go onto the old Shopko site, he said he’d want some kind of civic building, like a community center or a theater, as identified in the city’s master plan. Something like that, he said, could spur development on a parking lot across the street to make what was once the fourth block of Fergus Falls’ downtown more vibrant.

“This national trend and the closures of these national chains in Fergus Falls came at a time when we were really looking at what is our identify, what is our future,” he said. “Our historic downtown and our beautiful river — that’s what we have to focus on, that’s our unique asset, that’s what makes us different.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Scott Walters on 01/03/2020 - 11:04 am.

    Fergus Falls seems to have the best idea. Not much chance of finding another retailer. But an addition to downtown that will attract foot traffic? Entertainment, develop a river front park tie-in, the two-sided views of the river, and absolutely, that parking lot could be redeveloped to make the last block of downtown align with the other three…urban style buildings on the street front, parking behind, and looking like a real downtown, not a suburban strip. Good luck, FF.

  2. Submitted by Sheldon Mains on 01/03/2020 - 12:02 pm.

    Little known fact. Back in the 1970s (and maybe into the 80s) Shopco was owned by Minnesota based Super Valu corporation.

  3. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 01/03/2020 - 07:28 pm.

    A former K-Mart and Sears stores in Dundas (just down the road from Northfield) is now occupied by a liquor store, a 10-screen theater, a church, and an empty storefront.

  4. Submitted by Peter Spooner on 01/05/2020 - 10:11 am.

    Duluth has both an empty Shopko and an empty Kmart, not to mention an entire empty high school campus.

    For either of the empty big box stores, I’d like see a small scale plastics recycling / reuse center with a retail storefront – for sale of recycled plastic building and landscaping materials, fencing, countertops, etc…..

    Duluth’s plastic refuse could be dealt with locally. Yes, yes, of course there are obstacles, but nothing we can’t work on.

    The biggest obstacle to change is people who sit around and say “you can’t do that…” but don’t take action.

  5. Submitted by Susan Maricle on 01/05/2020 - 01:27 pm.

    I hated to see the Kasson Shopko go, but would love to see an Aldi in its place. 20 miles may not sound like a far distance to travel, but the distance can be treacherous in the winter: whiteout conditions, Hwy 14 going from four lanes to two lanes. Kasson has more than enough hair salons and antique shops, but a second grocery store would provide welcome (to customers) competition to the local grocery store.

  6. Submitted by Be Joeshmoe on 01/05/2020 - 02:28 pm.

    Minnesota has been home to quite a few large retail businesses. More than other states? I wonder. Maurice’s, Shopko, Super Valu, Minnesota Woolen/Fashion Bug, Dayton’s, and of course Target, are just some that come to mind. How many more?

  7. Submitted by George Carlson on 01/05/2020 - 08:00 pm.

    We ought to give some credit to our local retail giant Target. Some time ago, I traveled through many small to medium sized cities across the entire country. Places like Fergus Falls and Albert Lea. One thing that struck me was that in towns where Walmart had a presence and decided to go to something bigger and better, it always seemed to abandon the old building and built a new building in the same town. Target,on the other hand, more often expanded or rebuilt on the same site without leaving an large empty and hard to repurpose building to deal with.

    Examples can be found locally in Roseville. Walmart built a new building in Roseville, abandoning a relatively new building in nearby St. Anthony Village. Target rebuilt on its original Target site at Snelling and County Road B.

    In Albert Lea, Walmart abandoned its original building on the west side of town and built a new store on the northeast side.

  8. Submitted by Andrew Andrusko on 01/06/2020 - 02:41 pm.

    Large retail in Greater Minnesota (and across rural America) has been replaced in some ways by the small scale discounters like the Dollar General. This is partly due to reducing the operational costs of brick and mortar retail and partly due to online competition.

  9. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 01/08/2020 - 01:28 pm.

    The truth is that local businesses, and local economy are being given a chance to survive. The more of the big box stores that close means the better chance the economy will recover from what truly is “not” a strong economy.

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