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Thinking outside the big box - Denese Rodgers

A big box is a supercenter, a megastore-type of big, retail facility that is usually surrounded by some combo of smaller stores.

With the challenges in our economy, there are some empty big boxes among us, and that is not really best for all concerned.

A few years back, someone showed me a cool web site called, "Big Box Reuse" (www.bigboxreuse.com) that explores the ways a community can come together to utilize this type of real estate.

One in New Orleans had been converted to a guitar center - think of all the room for display?

One in Nebraska was being used for a Head Start program (could you imagine plenty of parking at the daycare for a change?) My favorite, in Austin, Minn., had been converted into a museum - for Spam! Now, that's innovative. Weird, but innovative.

Having lived up in Fairview since the mid-1990s, I've seen some boxes coming in - and changing. When Ingles built its new hypermarket, somebody was smart enough to renovate the old one into a fitness center. I think I'd like to know how that transition happened relatively seamlessly, as compared to those that stand empty for eons.

I've always been excited to see new business coming in, because businesses, and progress will be followed (hopefully) by expanded services and infrastructure. Yeah, I know I'm the eternal optimist again.

One group, the Orton Family Foundation, has posted an evaluation tool to look at big boxes (www.bigboxevaluator.org). I sort of wondered why, so I went and looked them up, too. They are -- according them -- a "non-profit operation foundation that seeks to transform the land use planning system as a pathway to vibrant and sustainable communities. In partnership with non-profit organizations, local and regional planning agencies and others, the Foundation helps engage and empower people to make land use decisions inspired by their community's heart and soul."

The Foundation embraces the poet Gary Snyder's belief that "People who can agree they share a commitment to the landscape, even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other, have at least one deep thing to share (www.orton.org)."

Ha! I am not the only optimist, although their offices are all north of the Mason Dixon line, so they may need to open an Orton Family Foundation South (OFFS), in order to achieve any real credibility locally.

Now, for all the "pros," you know there are some "cons." The Big Box Toolkit (www.bigboxtoolkit.com) teaches you how to fight sprawling development with instructions on "How to Stop a Big Box."

It has a symbol of a big, red circle, with a line drawn through it, on the web site. I don't get a real sense of negotiation or common ground on this one. The daisy bomb is not always the best answer, ya'll - go look up the phrase, "Pyrrhic Victory."

Or there's always the humorous angle - The Big Box (www.big-box.com) is a hoot of a parody of the genre that includes arial views of enormous stores with "Big Box" stenciled on the top and a description of nonsensical services and business within.

That probably wouldn't have been funny to Sam Walton, but I got a kick out of it.

Denese Rodgers is executive director of Connecting Henry, a social-services, networkng, community organization in Henry County.