Eating Spam Downtown: A Story of Big Box Reuse

What to do with the empty boxes at the edge of town?

The small town of Austin, Minnesota, was faced with this question. They had an answer. The largest employer in town, Hormel Foods, swept-in and transformed an empty K-Mart into something special.

The Spam Museum is one-of-a-kind; there are no others. And, for this small town –home of the famous meat product – it’s an economic driver. Julia Christensen, author of the book Big Box Reuse, describes the feeling of driving into Austin.

As you pull into Austin, MN, you begin to see billboards along the highway advertising the Spam Museum. The billboards say things like “The Spam Museum– Even we don’t really understand,” and “The Spam Museum– Yes, we do answer the ingredients question.” This sense of humor carries over into the actual museum, the shrine to the canned meat that is produced and packaged right there in Austin, Minnesota, otherwise known as Spam Town, USA.

In the early 2000s, the Spam Museum was celebrated as a best-practices example of a repurposing a big box store. Christensen continues;

The renovation on this building has barely left a trace of the original use. In fact, the actual shell of the structure is all that is left of the old K-Mart. Windows, doors, walls, ceilings, and the entire exterior have all been completely overhauled. … This location sat empty for many years, and as a result, the entire end of town began to decline in business, and eventually in value. A grocery store across the street also closed down, leaving another empty big box across the street.

The situation in Austin is similar to so many across the country: The abandoned K-Mart building was on the far edge of Main Street, but in the booming 1990s, K-Mart abandoned this location to construct a new store 1.8 miles away, off the interstate. This is a problem that is most visibly evident in small towns.

The new store has since been shuttered. The Spam Museum and some Hormel office space moved into the old Kmart space after extensive remodeling. It was a success, or was it?

Years passed and local officials started to notice a problem: the location at the edge of town didn’t lend itself to spillover business. People were visiting the museum, and then just leaving town. To quote Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm;

“Today’s visitors can exit Interstate 90, park next to the pork paradise, then pop back on the highway — passing little more than a Kwik Trip along the way.”

Six years after being heralded as a pre-eminent example of big box reuse, it was announced that the Spam Museum was moving downtown.

Herein lies the problem with many big box reuses: the mentality is to dominate markets; to be an island in and of itself. Big box stores do best when they limit customer spillover. This rule imposed, by land use, applies as much to retail as it does to a museum.

We need to start thinking about how we can design places so that they are reusable after their first life-cycle.

When a store is left empty, there are often restrictions imposed upon it. Now, as a direct result of land use covenants that prevent competitors from moving in, many re-use efforts are non-profits, churches, and government agencies, such as the United States’ largest library in McAllen, Texas.

These types of institutions play an important role in society, which should not be understated. But, we should be conscious that big-box land uses are a zero sum game even when they are paying property taxes. For example, a Wal-Mart store pays very little in comparison to the infrastructure used, but a new church pays literally nothing for the large amount of infrastructure used. This problem is something that no reuse can address, aside from possibly the suburban retrofit model (see: Brainerd’s infamous Taco Johns).

Don’t interpret this as a slam against churches, government agencies, or non-profits. I support all three. Yet, when placed within a big box island, the spillover effects are minimized unlike when placed at strategic locations within downtowns or neighborhoods.

I mentioned the country’s largest library in McAllen, Texas. Architecturally speaking, it’s an impressive example of re-using an empty space. The building looks remarkable, but the situation is actually kind of tragic. The public library is in the old Wal-Mart. It was abandoned because Wal-Mart wanted to build a bigger store less than a mile away.


McAllen was clever and did well with the question they were dealt: how do we turn a liability into an asset? You can’t fault McAllen officials for making this move, nor those in Austin. Real progress will be made when we answer by changing the deck to one that doesn’t allow such uses to prosper. Not every town needs (or can support) a library as large as the one in McAllen. What do we do when we have more empty stores than we have civic or religious groups?

We need to start thinking about how we can design places so that they are reusable after their first life-cycle.

17 thoughts on “Eating Spam Downtown: A Story of Big Box Reuse

  1. Monte Castleman

    So it’s no surprise that the people that have zero interest in leaving the interstate and putting up with the hassle of going to the downtown area on slow, tedious surface streets aren’t doing so. Is there any evidence that they’ll change their behavior if we force them to do so. Once they’re downtown are they going to spend enormous amounts of time eating at slow-food restaurantg and browsing the shops, or are they going to get into their car and leave, stopping at a Kwik Trip and McDonalds drive-through by the interstate entrance, contributing to traffic and parking issues downtown at no net increase in downtown business?

    1. Nathaniel Hood

      This is a small town, and traveling downtown isn’t a hassle. Travel is easy, and parking is free and convenient. I think the spill over to local businesses will likely be improved by the move. It’s a case of urban import substitution economics.

      The mentality of the “big box” is dominate a marketplace; to be an island in and of itself. This land use does best when it limits customer spillover. This rule imposed, by land use, applies as much to retail as it does to a museum. I think there will be more convenience for people to spend at other locations in downtown than out on the periphery.

    2. Peter Bajurny

      I understand you have an intense aversion to experiencing anything outside of your very narrow comfort zone, but are you, for just a second, able to imagine that people that aren’t exactly like you that don’t hold your exact worldview exist? This isn’t even about some imagined hippie urbanist car free fantasy, it’s about imaging that a human person may, from time to time, want to experience something slightly outside of their ordinary from time to time.

      That’s not to say that your worldview is wrong per se, or that any other worldview is right, but merely that there exists a wide spectrum of people with a wide spectrum of wants and desires and fears and goals, and a vast majority of those people will in some way be different from you.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Of course I can imagine people with other world views exist. RIght now there’s nothing stopping them from also going to the downtown area before or after visiting the Spam Museum. The fact that they aren’t tells me the type of people that want to visit the Spam Museum aren’t the ones that want to spend time in downtown.

        1. Peter Bajurny

          I suspect many people just don’t care if any area is defined as “downtown” or “freeway adjacent” or “barren moonscape” or whatever, they care about doing something. Again, because of your inability to imagine people other than yourself, you can’t possibly imagine that such a person would exist, you assume all people are constantly defining the locations they are in to decide which are ones they want to be in and which are ones they don’t want to be in.

          People will go to the Spam Museum, which in and of itself is already a kind of weird experience. And if at that point life is just too weird, they can scurry west back to the freeway, passing a number of fast food restaurants and gas stations on their way. If they’re ready for a little more weird, maybe they’ll go to a nearby restaurant and have some spam.

          There’s perhaps an integral quality to urban life that you’re missing, which is spontaneity. Maybe if you were to go to the Spam museum you’d start by mapping your trip, picking exactly which well known fast food restaurants and gas stations you’d go to on the way there and on the way back. In that world where the Spam Museum is doesn’t really matter, because you’ll have planned anything. The vast majority of people, not just “urbanists” but again, normal everyday people, are willing to have a little more spontaneity in their lives. Maybe the plan is “well go to Austin and go to the Spam Museum and find some food.” And that’s a good plan. At the Kmart location, they’ll find their choices for food lacking, and end up quickly back on the Interstate finding a roadside fast food joint. In the downtown location, they’ll have many more options. And maybe they’ll find something totally not in that original plan to stop and do. Maybe there will be a little shop that they find interesting. Or not!

          I just can’t imagine how uncreative a person has to be to not be able to see why things locating next to each other might both benefit each other.

    3. Stuart

      My sense is that people interested in visiting a museum are not the type of people that “have zero interest in leaving the interstate…” and are possibly people more interested in an afternoon diversion that could involve shopping at quaint stores and sitting down in a small town restaurant.

      1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

        Totally agree. We would look up roadside attractions on long trips and often eat nearby.

        Also, a nitpick, but “we should be conscience that” should be “conscious” in the article above.

  2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Of all the hardships motorist endure in this world, the slow and tedious drive off the freeway to the core of Austin surely ranks pretty low:

    There’s probably a good middle ground policy here for small towns:
    – Build fewer exit/entrance ramps near small towns that end up sucking unnecessary local trips onto the highway
    – For things like fast food or gas, which maybe make sense to locate near a highway (especially for towns a bit further than Austin), sure let em go at the exit ramps. Consider not extending water/sewer or low-response time emergency services their way though.
    – For daily retail, grocery, sit-down restaurants, and even things like offices or light manufacturing, near the center of town (where the people who shop/eat/work there live) is maybe a better choice. Some people might walk or bike!
    – Same goes for hotels, etc.
    – Same goes for schools.

    Freeway drivers still get their quick food and gas fill-ups. Municipal budgets stay a little tighter. Residents have the option of not owning a car but can still access the majority of destinations in town easily.

    1. Monte Castleman

      -Build Fewer Exit Ramps: Have to agree with you on this one. Mn/DOT would like to go this direction but towns (Willmar, Perham, Mankato) keep insisting and normally finding money to pay for new ramps both to fix local congestion and for economic development

      -Daily Retail: I guess that’s the point of the article is (although it’s not clear if the author thinks that residents shouldn’t have the choice of getting low prices and convenience at big boxes, if they should build them different to faciliate reuse, or if we can do better with reuses.)

      -Hotels: This one is interesting because the line is getting blurred between motels and hotels. The fastest growing segments are mid-priced hotels like Holiday Inn and Hampton Inn, that are nice enough that you won’t get a bedbug infested hovel but are cheap enough that most vacationers can afford them (after too many disasters with Super 8 I now stay at HI exclusively). You have both people that are staying a night and want to get on their way, maybe after getting gasoline, so they should be by the freeway exit. And those that have business in town, so they should be in the city center. These mid-priced chains have a lot of both types of locations.

      -Schools: we’ve had this discussion before with respect to St Cloud so no sense going into it again.

      I’ll also mention hospitals since I work in the industry. Right now a lot of hospitals find themselves in facilities that are functionally obsolete to the point that they need to be razed to the ground and rebuilt. There’s really a couple of reasons for that:
      1) New technology- Fitting a Gazooks 9000 Scanner into your old facility may be cumbersome
      2) The typical inefficiencies and maintenance issues of older buildings
      3) Evolving standards of care, meaning private rooms. If you just remove one bed from each existing room you have huge, inefficient rooms and half the beds you did before, nor is it easy to retrofit a ward. There are two reasons for this.
      A) First, people demand more privacy than in days past. If you get taken to a hospital after a car accident obviously you have no choice in the matter and it’s probably not your biggest concern. But things like obstetrics and elective cardiology procedures are the huge revenue sources for hospitals, and a patient might very well choose one with better facilities. Remember those ads for “our brand new birthing suites” from a while ago?
      B) Second, fewer people are inpatient than in days past, meaning they’re sicker and need more intensive care and are more likely to infect others.

      So you have a hospital in the center of town that needs to get rebuilt? You can’t just take it offline for a few months like rebuilding a McDonalds. Even if you’re wiling to put up with the disruption of building it in the parking lot, is there enough room? Is there room anywhere else in downtown? Building from scratch in a cornfield is getting more and more attractive.

  3. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Several friends of my friends have repeatedly visited the Spam Museum; they find it fascinating. That said, it appears that this worthwhile article and series of comments relates to the typical suburban land use model that has spread to highways in rural areas, like Austin’s, and–by means of big box stores–to the inner city. That automobile-based model has damaged or destroyed both small towns and inner city neighborhoods by draining the vitality of local small businesses. Towns and neighborhoods that once functioned as communities become less individual, less idiosyncratic, and take on a more stereotypical mass produced character. The chain stores are there to make money, not have a life. What once may have been vital communities tend to diminish, erode, and possibly vanish as social entities.

    I grew up in a small town in Southern Minnesota that had its own economy–a canning factory, other small added-value business, lots of retail–population less than 2,000 but we had a movie theater, three barber shops, a bank, two pharmacies, four hardware stores, etc. etc. — now decimated as a center of commerce because of Walmart, farm consolidations, school consolidations, young people usually moving away, etc. etc. Later I spent nearly two years stationed in the Army on the outskirts of a small town in Northern Bavaria that was the headquarters of Adidas and Puma, where I met some local community residents who had never in their lives traveled the few kilometers to the major regional center of Nuremberg. Still later I spent more than a year in Boston’s North End, home of the Old North Church and Paul Revere’s house, rather isolated physically from the rest of Boston by freeways, etc. The Italian-American residents, who tended to know one another or know of one another, had their own economy. When I moved back here, my Boston neighbors warned me, “Don’t move to the outside, things aren’t as nice on the outside, things are more expensive on the outside!” Having now spent years in Minneapolis on the West Bank which used to strongly resemble a small town within the city and to a surprising degree had its own economy, I can say that although the area has a remaining vestige of that small town character–perhaps most evident to visitors at such establishments as Hard Times Cafe and Palmer’s Bar, and in the somewhat sequestered daily life of the present Somali immigrants–it has changed and diminished.

    So I’ve experienced real communities and lived in them. I suspect many others have spent their childhoods and adult lives in the suburbs and wouldn’t understand the difference.

    At the same time, though a dedicated pedestrian I own two automotive vehicles and use them frequently.

    What to do about these issues? First, many don’t see them as problems. Second, in comparing my neighborhood with others, and small cities or towns with others, each one has its own history and peculiarities. So if there will be solutions, they will depend on perceptions and the capability of dealing with each situation.

  4. Janne

    As someone who grew up in Austin — shopping in the K-Mart before it sat vacant for years, before it was the Spam Museum, before the Spam Museum moved out — this article has me scratching my head. Some local context will help.

    The K-Mart was NEVER on the edge of Austin, not went it was built, and certainly not now. It’s near the Hormel plant and the lake which was a bit flooding prone, so it was on the edge of the historical grid pattern, but always (at least back to the early 80s) had more of Austin outside of it.

    The location was never “just off the freeway,” at least not in Austin terms. It was possibly closer to the heart of downtown than to the freeway. Of course, it being Austin, nothing is far from the freeway.

    The big box Spam Museum location relocated to Main Street this past spring. If anyone is concerned about the ease of parking in Downtown Austin, blocks of historic downtown have been demolished to create (free) parking lots, and there’s ample (free) on-street parking as well.

    And, Austin has laughably many freeway exits, indeed.

  5. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    Keep reading… Because the next paragraph reads as below.

    “Don’t interpret this as a slam against churches, government agencies, or non-profits. I support all three. Yet, when placed within a big box island, the spillover effects are minimized unlike when placed at strategic locations within downtowns or neighborhoods.”

  6. Peter dodge

    This is the first I have heard of a SPAM museum. I have visited Austin before. My travels have been extensive.. On the way back to Minneapolis from Nova Scotia this fall i am going to visit the Spam museum. Hopefully they have a Spam diner or one next door. growing up in Eastern Canada, before refrigeration, Spam was a tasty treat for my family that was always featured on the back cover of National Geographic. The one fact I can see about Austin and how it develops is that you have a well tuned engine, Hormel, in Austin which affords the opportunity for this discussion. Will I find the squeal in the museum?

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