What To Do With An Empty Big Box Store? This May Be The Answer

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RENO, NV - Our landscape is littered with the casualties of the economic downturn. Some of them "big box" stores left empty for years. One of them is finding new life with a new business model.

Most of us will remember it as the Super Kmart just off the freeway in northwest Reno. It closed in September of 2008 and sat empty. Now with a facelift inside, this big box is open for business once again, as the Great Western Marketplace.

Step inside and you're reminded just how big this store was.
And that's the challenge. There are few businesses that need this kind of space.

But, the thinking goes, there might be a lot of small businesses out there, needing a little space at a little price. That's the concept they're trying at the Great Western Marketplace.

The inside is now filled with rows of cubicles--they're calling them studios. They lease for as little as $400 a month: heat, light, security, Wi-Fi, everything included.

"It's great for those who've always wanted to start a business or those who want a presence in the northwest," says Director of Leasing and Special Events Lee Marazzo.

Look around and you'll see the people you see at craft fairs and farmers markets or who rent kiosks at the mall, veterans and first-timers, selling everything from fresh fish to cutlery to beauty products to produce.

The idea has appeal for certain entrepreneurs. "We love the idea," says Jim Higgins. People coming here together selling. It's great for the city of Reno."

Friday was Higgins' first day at a stand he and his wife call Sweet Yellow Bath Company. Both have other full-time jobs. In fact, when she isn't making soap, she manages another big box store.

Dominic Marazzo of Sierra Scoops is a student. His ice cream stand is his first step into the business world.

Leanna Crocco has been in the Whole Foods nutrition business called Recipe to Health online selling, among other things, a hydroponic indoor garden device growing salad greens indoors in the winter.

Next door Susan Sherman-Kobz welcomes customers at a counter filled with tasty-looking cheese cake. She used to bake and sell to restaurants. Her business dried up with the economy. Now she's selling direct to the public. "This gave me a place of my own," she says.

Individually on their own, it's unlikely most of these businesses could make it in a stand-alone bricks and mortar location. Together they just might, and doing so they may have found a new life for this empty store.

The jury is still out on that question, but the answer depends on filling all those open spaces. It is, to be honest, still a work in progress. There's a lot of variety here, but the overall impression is still one of emptiness. But they're off to a good start.

There's room for 280 businesses here. There are 70 now, 15 more, we're told, in the pipeline. "The proof will be in the numbers," says Marazzo. "We have to drive people here or the vendors won't stay."

The key is to make it a destination and that may take promotion and special events. Outdoor concerts and other events are planned.

The Great Western Marketplace opened on Black Friday with results that surprised and delighted many of the vendors we talked with. The challenge will be building on that success.