Former Sam’s Club store in Moorhead. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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FARGO — On the tile floor of what was once a home-improvement store here is a 120-foot-long area covered with netting where baseball players can replicate throwing from about second base to home plate.

Mike Skogen, owner of the Ball Yard indoor practice facility, said he managed to squeeze into the 16,000-square-foot space another 11 practice cages for pitching and batting, three with pitching simulators.

When the former F-M RedHawks assistant coach was planning to expand his business in 2016 from an industrial space with only enough room for four cages, he said the old Menards near Interstate 29 and West Acres proved to be just about perfect in terms of rent and space available.

“We needed a big open-space building,” he said of the structure that also houses Savers thrift store. “At the time it was kind of the only one that was available.”

All he had to do was hang up his nets and roll out the turf, he said.

What Skogen’s done is an example of how big retail spaces can be repurposed when the supply of such spaces exceed demand.

That’s something Fargo-Moorhead will likely see more of over the next several months. Already, Gander Mountain, a portion of Sears, a Sam’s Club, a former grocery store in Southmoor Plaza and a Family Fare are vacant. Toys R Us, both Herberger’s stores and the current Best Buy building are expected to soon join them; Best Buy is moving into a portion of Sears.

Altogether, that’s about 549,000 square feet of space, a little more than half the size of West Acres mall, going dark. Put another way, it’s just shy of 10 football fields in total vacant space.

While demand for small and medium retail spaces is strong, that’s not at all true of big retail spaces, according to Rick Flacksbarth, a Realtor with Cityscapes Development and listing agent for the former Gander Mountain building. “As commercial realtors, we have to get creative. We have to go find people that can take and repurpose a building perhaps not for retail use. That’s always a challenge, especially in a market our size.”

But don’t expect repurposing to happen quickly.

“The vacancy rates always run higher in commercial and industrial than, say, apartments, and part of that is the users all have different requirements,” said Kevin Swann of Swann Real Estate. “It just takes more time.”

Fargo-Moorhead isn’t alone in this apparent glut of retail space.

Nationwide, Sears and other department stores have announced hundreds of store closures since the beginning of 2017, the year Google Trends says the term “retail apocalypse” saw widespread use. Smaller retail chains such as Rue21 also closed hundreds of stores.

In their scope, these sweeping changes have been unnerving to many observers who blame the boom in online retail, the overbuilding of mall spaces and nimble “fast fashion” retailers.

But the shuttering of big retail spaces, those exceeding 20,000 square feet, and the need to repurpose them is nothing new.

Here in Fargo-Moorhead, it’s not hard to find many repurposed spaces.

The Ball Yard and Savers are in a 52,000-square-foot building that was Menards’ home until 1998 when the home-improvement giant moved to a bigger store in West Fargo.

Hobby Lobby, Kirkland’s home decor and Dollar Tree are in a 95,000-square-foot building that started life as Builders Square, then became Ernst Home & Garden and then Kmart, which closed in 2003.

Noridian Healthcare Solutions has offices in a 156,000-square-foot building that had been home to a factory outlet mall in the early 1980s, which later became home to local stores, a hair salon, a bank and a night club.

The concern around the country with so many big retail spaces going dark is that they may become blighted, attracting vandals and harming small businesses that had depended on traffic the big boxes had brought, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which focuses on community development. Strong Towns, a group opposed to costly sprawl, said big retailers require a lot of costly infrastructure, and when they go dark, they pay less taxes to support that infrastructure.

Jim Gilmour, a top Fargo city official in charge of planning and economic development, said he doesn’t believe these problems will afflict Fargo-Moorhead.

“If we were in a weaker economy, I think I would be concerned. But some of these locations are really good and tend to turn into some other use,” he said. “You might change from a big box into an apartment complex or an office park. We haven’t seen them stay dark that long.”

Different directions

There are many ways a big retail space can go.

The most worrisome from a community development perspective would be if it stayed dark for a long time.

Sometimes a retailer will quit before its lease expires, and the landlord need do nothing, according to Flacksbarth. There are a couple of locations in Fargo-Moorhead like that, he said.

Sometimes the landlord worries that lowering the rent might lower the building’s value, which can affect the use of the building for financing, according to Swann.

Stopgap uses are also possible.

Swann, who was hired by Axis Clinical to look for appropriate real estate, said there were several temporary tenants at the former…