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Back to School Shopping

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Sugar Creek Charter School in Charlotte, North Carolina, isn't your typical little red schoolhouse. Sure, it serves 525 students, grades K-8, all of whom wear a uniform of polo shirts and khaki pants. But if the windowed front looks a little familiar, it's because the building used to be a Kmart.

Here at home, the county school system is converting a Schnucks in southeast Shelby County into a temporary school to ease overcrowding in the area.

"It's an interesting idea that's working around the country," says Maura Black Sullivan, director of research and planning for SCS. "Memphis City Schools could look at it, as well. In Florida, they've converted whole shopping malls."

But it's an interesting idea that has generated controversy here. Last week, because they didn't want students going to school in a Schnucks, a County Commission committee discussed additional, emergency funding for the school system.

The district initially looked at the grocery store several years ago. "That particular building kept coming up from the owners. At the time, we were looking at a long-term lease, adding another whole wing, a gym, and a new front, so it would look just like any one of our current school buildings," says Sullivan. "I think people were so excited about the possibility that they started talking about it before a full study could be done."

I can see why. With new school construction seemingly out of control, renting a big empty building could be a bargain as well as a benefit for the community.

A few years ago, drivers could travel south on Germantown Parkway from Cordova and actually see empty, undeveloped land. Now, virtually the only land that's "empty," is where a Wal-mart and a Kmart have both been built, used, and now abandoned.

Across the country, communities are struggling with what to do after big box retailers ditch their old buildings for new ones, sometimes only a few miles away. And because they don't want the buildings used by their competitors, they often sit empty.

Unfortunately, the Schnucks school project has hit several speed bumps. First the district realized the long-term lease would cost more than $37 million.

"We have had several private developers come to us with the building lease idea before," says Richard Holden, chief of operations. "None of those ideas ever panned out, because no one can borrow money cheaper than the government. ... One part of the Schnucks equation is that it was built as a grocery store, and it would take extensive renovation. Adding all that in, it costs the same as building a whole new school, especially with the cost of the long-term lease."

The school district still plans to use the building -- albeit only for one to three years -- because the other option is adding more portables, and the district already uses 145. But some parents are concerned that the facility can't compare to other school buildings. How do you go from "clean up on aisle three" to teaching the ABC's?

Under the current plan, the school will use the building's existing lighting and HVAC system. Because of fire codes, classroom back walls will reach to the ceiling, but the remaining walls will only be 60 inches high.

The administration is still unsure how the district will use the building, but it's expected to present a plan to the board in March.

"It looks like the way it is set up, it will lend itself better to a K-8 environment," says Sullivan. "We have to decide: Do you do a grade, a series of grades, or draw a little attendance zone and do K-8?"

One popular idea is moving the kindergarten and first grades of Highland Oaks and Southwind elementary schools to the Schnucks building. Only, the former grocery store cannot accommodate more than 37 classrooms.

"To do that, we would need 42 classrooms. Those are the kinds of problems that we're battling to get the right environment for kids," says Sullivan.

I hope they figure it out, if just to show that schools can work in buildings that once saw blue-light specials and people going Krogering.

"It's costly," says Sullivan, "but if it's a building that has value to the community and it gives it new life, I think that's a smart use."

Big boxes aren't necessarily valuable in themselves. Their design is almost anti-architecture; they're not historic; and they're certainly not rare. But abandoned and empty, they're like a retail black hole, sucking the value out of the surrounding area.

In the case of the Schnucks school, the long-term lease was too expensive for the school district. But if a retailer has a building that they're going to let sit empty anyway, why not offer a discounted lease to the local school board? Could we get a price check on that, please?

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