What’s Going On: A building problem disguised as an opportunity

Earlier this week, New Ulm city officials toured the former Target location to get a first hand look at possible uses for the vacant building.

After we posted a story about the tour online and on Facebook, public comments quickly followed, most of which either criticized city officials for even considering an out-of-the box use for the building, or wishing for a new occupant.

Many of those wishes centered around Target returning. Folks, it’s time for a reality check: Target is never, ever coming back to present-day New Ulm.

The only reason I add the “present-day” disclaimer to that statement is because if somehow New Ulm doubled or tripled its population, maybe then Target would come back. But short of that miracle, it’s not going to happen.

When Target left three plus years ago, it wasn’t because this store was struggling. It was a conscious and strategic decision on the company’s part to invest online and in larger markets instead of in communities with 15,000 people. And in bad news for communities like New Ulm, it appears their decision was a good one as Target reported record holiday sales in 2019.

So again, the chances of Target reversing upon its decision after posting record profits is somewhere between zero and none.

And unfortunately, for many of the same reasons Target left, a similar retailer won’t be coming. Our society’s love affair with Amazon and its sort all but guarantees national retailers featuring general merchandise will have to stay in larger markets to survive. In another testament to that, ShopKo announced last week it would be closing all its stores nationwide, joining the Herberger’s and Kmarts of the world.

Where communities this size might have some more luck, though, are with specialty retailers, such as Hobby Lobby. A few months ago, Hobby Lobby officials announced they would be opening a store in Marshall, a community of a similar size to New Ulm.

The problem, though, with Target’s building is its size. It’s just too big. A Hobby Lobby, PetSmart or Petco won’t be able to take on that much space, but an option would be to simply lease out a portion of the building, if it’s owner is willing and able to make that sort of investment to make that possible.

Another frequent comment recently made is the building needs to be turned into something for “kids” or “teens,” be it a roller rink, wow zone, trampoline park, or some combination thereof.

That’s a great idea, albeit an impractical one. There’s a reason you don’t see businesses like that in markets this size: they don’t make money. High overhead combined with a customer base that doesn’t have much disposable income is a bad combination that can only be overcome by volume … something a town of 15,000 doesn’t have.

Remember the miniature golf course in town? That was something fun and inexpensive teens and families could do and guess what? It’s closed and not because it was making money hand over fist.

So what might be the most practical solution for a building like Target’s might be is a non-traditional one. There will need to be some out-of-the box thinking applied here. Maybe part of the building is used for a teen center. Or a senior center. Or a community center. Or all three. Maybe the city takes ownership and consolidates city offices with the chamber of commerce.

I don’t have the answer. I wish I did. But I do know this … if and when that building is filled again with a viable, long-term occupant, it won’t be another ShopKo, or Target, or Kmart, or Herberger’s or JC Penny. It’s going to take something different. Something new. Something we haven’t seen before in this community.

So if someone comes up with what seems like a crazy idea, let’s give it some consideration before just criticizing it ad nauseum. Something crazy may be just what is needed.

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Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, “What’s Going On,” has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at gorear@nujournal.com.

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