Haywood County commissioners are joining a burgeoning nationwide movement that is making use of abandoned Wal-Marts and foresaken strip malls in creative ways.
Deserted Wal-Marts across the country have been reworked into a library, a mega-church, an indoor flea market, an early childhood center, a go-kart track, and even a museum devoted to spam in Minnesota.
Haywood isn’t even the first county to house its Department of Social Services in a Wal-Mart. Orange County and Person County, both in North Carolina, have already taken that step.
Local governments have increasingly taken the reins after locking down replacement retailers for these behemoth stores proved fruitless.
Countless municipalities across the U.S. have experienced the flightiness of corporate giants that plant then quickly uproot their businesses to build bigger and newer somewhere else — leaving the blight of a forlorn big-box strip mall in their wake.
Wal-Mart and Lowe’s seem to be the biggest offenders, according to Meg Ryan O’Donnell, former advisor to a N.C. smart growth commission. O’Donnell dubs the trend “big-box syndrome.”
Those who have gone before
Just like Haywood, Orange County needed a new home for its aged social services building, which had limited space, security and privacy.
“We needed, instead of just a patchwork arrangement, something that would give us a little bit of room to meet needs and be able to expand,” said Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs.
The abandoned Wal-Mart in Orange County sat vacant for a number of years with no takers. A worsened economy certainly didn’t help sell the property.
“There was no movement,” said Jacobs. “It was an eyesore and a drain for the retail establishments that were nearby.”
The county added energy efficient fixtures and windows, and even skylights to the space.
At first Orange County toyed with the idea of converting the old Wal-Mart to a community college before settling instead on DSS as its new occupant.
Jacobs said the county might move the health department there as well, to create a one-stop facility for residents.
Haywood County Manager David Cotton said utilizing the old Wal-Mart would already be an environmentally friendly move.
Renovating the aged DSS building or building a new facility from scratch would lead to much more waste being hauled off to the landfill, Cotton said.
And Haywood hopes to pursue even more green benefits, including a pitched roof, energy-efficient heating and cooling units, solar panels and even roof mounted compact wind turbines.
Jacobs warned that making the structure more durable would be one challenge looming ahead.
“The problem with those buildings, they’re not built to last,” said Jacobs. “They’re just shells with a roof ... In our society, we’re too ready to throw things away.”
Nevertheless, Haywood Commissioner Mark Swanger is strongly in favor of moving into the old Wal-Mart.
“This is the best and highest use for these types of construction,” said Swanger.
What neighbors have to say
Haywood County officials seem confident that the new DSS and health department would bring significant traffic to surrounding businesses, whether it’s from its 200 employees or clients.
“Albeit it’s not going to be the financial economic anchor that Wal-Mart served, but I think it would serve as an anchor for businesses that are there,” said David Cotton, county manager for Haywood.
For example, clients could make one trip to pick up food stamps then head a few doors down to a grocery store to use them, Cotton said.
Cathy McBride, manager at Dollar Tree in the same shopping complex as the abandon Wal-Mart, said her business had actually improved after the giant left town.
But McBride looks forward to Haywood County taking over the vacant space.
“It’ll bring more business to us,” said McBride. “I think it’s good for the area. It looks bad, sitting there empty.”
McBride said she’d appreciate the security of once again walking out to a lit up parking lot at night.
Debra Surrett, an employee at nearby Food Lion, said she also supports Haywood’s move.
“If anyone’s ever been to DSS, it’s old,” said Surrett. “There’s a lot of people coming in there. They need a nicer building.”
Surrett has definitely noticed a decline in customers at the grocery store after Wal-Mart picked up and left. She expects more customers after the county moves in.
“It’s really gonna boost everything in this shopping center,” said Surrett.
While Surrett has heard opponents complain about the county yanking the business out of the tax rolls by taking it over, she said DSS and health department employees deserve a new space.
“Sure it takes taxpayer money, but they serve the county,” said Surrett.