Big Box: Big Disappointment to Big Opportunity

Photo courtesy of Katie Moore/Topeka Capital Journal

Photo courtesy of Katie Moore/Topeka Capital Journal

Last month all the major news outlets in my city reported that the North Topeka Kmart will close it’s doors this spring. And this saddens me, not because I shopped there (because I didn’t), but it still saddens me. The North Topeka closure is just one of hundreds in the U.S. spanning half a decade.[1] In a press release Kmart officials state that closing stores will “better enable us to focus our investments on serving our customers and members through integrated retail - at the store, online and in the home.”[2]

While there is nothing inherently wrong about preserving the company bottom line I am convinced big box retail closures like Kmart do not serve my community well, and here’s why…

My community can’t handle another vacant building.

A reasonable argument can be made that a property like Kmart (with tens of thousands of vacant square footage) is worth millions of dollars. But I see it differently. Vacant buildings like Kmart are worth about one dollar because my city is already saturated with hundreds of vacated properties (including an abandoned shopping mall) in desperate need of new life and new business breathed into them. We don’t need another unaffordable, purposeless storefront. Big boxes are great when they are operational, but when those retailers exit our city we’re left looking at the leftovers - monstrous reminders of what once was with no assurance of what will be. What we need is something different.

Maybe the best we can hope for is a developer to buy the building, tear it down, and build something attractive to potential business owners. We may not be able to prevent big boxes from coming or from exiting our community, but I believe we can prevent these monstrosities from sitting empty year after year after year.

Rather than hoping and praying for another big box retailer to open its doors in an existing structure, I believe one possible answer rests in engaging our gospel imagination.

What would it look like if instead of praying for a developer or for another big box to inhabit empty space, what if we prayed for the hope and holiness of Jesus to transform the space into something beautiful and useful - something for everyone to enjoy? What if Christians partnered with big box owners like Kmart to donate and transform their empty buildings into spaces that are:

·      part church

·      part community center & indoor playground

·      part indoor sports arena

·      part art studio

·      part educational institution

I’m disappointed to see Kmart go. The last thing I want to see is another vacant building sitting empty year after year in my community, but big disappointments can be big opportunities when we exercise our gospel imagination and pursue the hope and holiness of Jesus to transform our community by making something ugly into something new.

How that all works, I’m not sure. But I know it begins with gospel imagined prayer...and the dollar in my pocket.