Big box vacancies

Posted Aug. 28, 2009, at 6:38 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — At any given time, there is likely to be some empty or unused retail space in a city of Bangor’s size, but there seems to be an unprecedented amount at the moment.

At least seven “big box” type buildings in the city are vacant and some have been for some time. Rod McKay, the city’s economic development director, said the economy has been partly to blame but he also said the phenomenon is cyclical.

“We’ve never been too concerned with the [Bangor] Mall area,” McKay said, referring to the area where most of the vacant buildings are located. “There is typically enough activity where we haven’t had to look for new retailers.”

Case in point, Lowe’s Home Improvement is planning to take over the old Wal-Mart store on Springer Drive, which became vacant when a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened off Stillwater Avenue last month.

Similarly, Linens ’n Things Inc., a national home goods chain, went bankrupt last year and vacated its store in the Bangor Parkade development. McKay said Big Lots Inc., a department store franchise that offers overstock and closeout items at low prices, has agreed to move into that space.

“Usually, tenants find their own replacements,” McKay said.

Even with eventual turnover, though, there are some buildings that have been vacant for some time with no sign of being filled. At a recent meeting in Bangor, a market analyst reported that Bangor’s vacancy rate, based on available square footage as of July 1, was 12.3 percent, much higher than the national average of 7.5 percent.

When The Home Depot decided to upgrade its Bangor location and move to Stillwater Avenue, it left its nearby Springer Drive location empty. That was more than one year ago. World Over Imports on Hogan Road shut it doors for good last summer. Consumer electronics giant Circuit City, whose parent company filed for bankruptcy, closed its Stillwater Avenue store in January. The former Office Depot in the Parkade Development also has been vacant for many months. Shaw’s grocery store on Springer Drive closed in January and has indefinitely postponed its plans to build a new store on Stillwater Avenue, according to McKay.

Other retail areas of the city, such as the Airport Mall and the Broadway Shopping Center, haven’t seen much in the way of long-term vacancies. Bangor’s downtown, which caters to smaller retailers, has always had some difficulty with retention.

One big reason the city doesn’t worry too much about keeping an empty building is because it can still collect taxes.

“Obviously, we’d like to see our retail space full, but taxes get paid whether it’s full or empty,” City Council Chairman Gerry Palmer said.

“From purely a fiscal standpoint, we’re better off as a city to keep building new, but we do want to keep buildings filled,” McKay said. “Certainly the longer buildings stay empty, the less likely retailers are going to consider moving here.”

Palmer said that in most cases stores become vacant not because they are doing poorly but because their parent company is forced to make a business decision.

Earlier this year, University of Maine economist Jim Breece told members of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce that the area of Springer Drive, which has several of the city’s vacant buildings, could be ripe for other types of use. He mentioned computer programming, medical research or film studios as possible ideas.

“There is some talk about using those buildings in other ways, such as an academic parks,” Palmer said. “We’d certainly listen to those ideas.”

The problem with that, McKay said, is that other retailers still exist in that area — Target and Burlington Coat Factory, for example — and have not expressed an interest in either moving or closing.

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