What Do We Do With These Empty Wal-Marts?

A closed Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. (Kevin Green/News-Journal Photo)

The McAllen Public Library is a breathtaking space. Its 20-foot ceilings are illuminated with streams of natural light, its cozy reading nooks invite young students to get lost in its books, and its brightly colored walls and artistic furniture offer a stark contrast to the traditional municipal look of a public facility.

It all masks the building’s dark secret: It used to be a Wal-Mart Superstore.

McAllen Public Library (Lara Swimmer/Texas Tribune Photo)

Vacant big box stores are becoming a fixture in cities across the country. Wal-Mart plans to close 154 stores in 2016 alone. This leaves a major city planning challenge of what to do with the massive vacant buildings left behind, which have often become the centers of economic activity.

The people of McAllen, Texas, found a brilliant solution and soon my region will have to find one of its own. One of Wal-Mart’s smaller locations closed on January 28 in San Bernardino, which is just outside my congressional district. In the last fifteen years, vacant retail spaces have been renovated and converted into libraries, schools, government offices, and churches. These are all worthy purposes that contribute to the strength of the community. But I have a slightly different idea.

We should convert these abandoned buildings into thriving Makerspaces.
A mock-up of Open Works Baltimore a two-story, 34,000 square foot warehouse being converted in to a Makerspace

The Maker Movement is building momentum as a response to the impersonal mass production that currently dominates product development. It combines individual creativity and new technology — such as 3D printing — to create customized items ranging from original art to prototypes of innovative designs for new products. Makers are jewelry crafters, electronics enthusiasts, furniture builders, welders, and in my area, often costume and prop designers.

A Makerspace captures the movement’s energy in one building by filling it with classrooms, workshops, studios, manufacturing equipment and event space, as well as showrooms and shops. It collects local talent in one place and makes it accessible to local residents. In places like Long Beach and Brooklyn, it has become a hub for the cities’ creative class and helped small business merchants connect with their customer base. This is a model that can be replicated all over the country.

The proposed floor plan for Open Works Baltimore

On a practical level, empty big box stores make perfect Makerspaces because they provide the basic essentials: open space for projects, loading docks, an industrial grade electrical system, a prime location with parking, and access to public transportation. It also solves a common barrier to repurposing retail buildings, which is that there are often non-compete clauses that prevent other large retailers from filling the space.

Introducing a Makerspace can have a positive impact on the local economy by filling the void in local tax revenue and commerce with a thriving collection of small businesses. The Baltimore Industrial Arts Collective hosts a pop-up retail shop that sells items from roughly 100 local producers. It also brings educational opportunities for students to engage in small-batch manufacturing that add a new dimension to the STEM curriculum.

Finally, there’s a pleasing symmetry in replacing the archetypes of mass production with hundreds of entrepreneurs and artisans that contribute to the culture of our communities.

I believe that the Maker Movement has an opportunity to change our economy and our culture for the better. In 2013, I co-founded the Congressional Maker Caucus to support the innovation and creativity of Makers. Remaking failed mega-retail stores into spaces that empower the ingenuity of small business is a great opportunity to continue that support.

Gene Sherman, founder of Vocademy a Makerspace in Riverside that took over an old warehouse

Local governments have an economic and civic responsibility to find innovative ways to repurpose these vacant buildings. I’m calling on local community leaders, stakeholders, and Makers to partner with local industry and government to take advantage of the spaces that Wal-Mart and other big box stores have left behind.

We have an incredible opportunity to create a renewed sense of pride in our local communities and provide an important boost to our local economies. We should take it.

The Congressional Maker Caucus hosted the 1st ever Capitol Hill Maker Faire in 2015