Kaid Benfield Archive


Worship at Walmart: what to do with an empty box

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 25, 2008 at 1:57PM

, , , , , , ,


All across the country, communities have been struggling with what to do with their abandoned Walmarts.  Hundreds of the giant chain's stores have now become decaying, empty big boxes parked on asphalt in one town after another.  In most cases, the company has simply moved farther out of town to Kingston, Ontario (by: Brave New Films, creative commons license)build and occupy a larger, more sprawling piece of automobile-dependent land.  A blog that follows the company has a whole archive just on this subject.

Makes me proud to be an American.

Carlinville, Illinois has a particularly poignant story.  The city's leaders had hoped to find another retailer to occupy their old Walmart.  But the only buyer who came calling was the Southern Baptist Church, who purchased the building and planned to hold services there.

But that would have required a zoning change from commercial to religious use, and early this year the city council declined, because they didn't want to lose the prospect of tax revenue from the property.  As an Illinois faith-oriented blogger put it:

"Wal-Mart, as it has done in many communities, built a new super store in Carlinville, a community of 6,000 residents located between Springfield, Ill., and St. Louis and attempted to sell their old building. After six months, Wal-Mart had been unable to sell the property so Carlinville Southern Baptist Church, having experienced significant growth the past few years, purchased the 60,000-square-foot building . . .

"The church applied to have the property rezoned 'R' but was denied because the church is tax-exempt.

"Carlinville Mayor Robert Schwab told the local news media the city hasWindsor, Ontario (by: Spacing Magazine, creative commons license) been ravaged by business closings and needs the revenue of a commercial enterprise rather than a church. 'The city must look out for the economic interest of the entire community,' Schwab said.

Great.  The community has been "ravaged by business closings," some of them probably due to competition from Walmart, and now the abondoned site has become a revenue drain.  Talk about adding insult to injury.

The case went to court, with the city filing suit to prevent the church from remodeling the building, and the church filing suit claiming its first amendment rights were being transgressed, along with other claims.  Over the summer, the city council voted to settle the litigation and allow the church to proceed with its plans, but the mayor vetoed the resolution, clinging to the hope of a commercial occupant.

But, apparently on the advice of insurance counsel, the mayor has now changed his mind, and the case was settled out of court last week.  The church will be paid by the city for its legal expenses, and it will be granted a special-use permit to hold services in the former temple of consumerism.

The images accompanying this post are from Walmart abandonments in Ontario but, trust me, they all look more or less alike.  (There are specific photos - e.g., this one - of the Carlinville building with the church's banner across the front, but I can't show them here because they are copyrighted.)

Thanks to my colleague Justin Horner for putting me onto the Carlinville story.