Article by Jeff Ostrowski – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Entrepreneur Hannah Wickins scoured Palm Beach County for space suitable for the indoor pet park that she calls “Disney World for dogs.” She settled on the long-empty Home Depot Expo at Woolbright Road and Interstate 95 in Boynton Beach. Wickins signed a bargain lease for 20,000 square feet for her Dog Activity World Group.

“It was a very desolated plaza,” Wickins said. “But the location had potential. I knew it was only a matter of time before that plaza turns around.”

Indeed. The former Home Depot Expo space has sat empty for nearly a decade. But in a recent flurry of activity, Wickins leased the 20,000 square feet at the south end of the property, and Illinois-based retailer Camping World this spring bought the other 88,000 square feet for $8.25 million.

Wickins hopes both tenants will open for the 2018 holiday season.

One empty big box has been filled, but other merchants’ struggles have emptied big boxes in Palm Beach County. Some call it “retail Armageddon.” The closing of a Sam’s Club and the collapse of the Gander Mountain and Toys R Us chains have vacated hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space with tens of millions of dollars of taxable value in Palm Beach County alone.

As Wickins’ dog park and daycare illustrates, many of the new tenants for retail space aren’t traditional retailers. A trampoline park is moving into a former HHGregg electronics store in Wellington. Elsewhere, churches, charter schools, gyms and co-working spaces have filled empty stores.

“A lot of these boxes will become more focused on entertainment,” said commercial real estate broker Bill Reichel of Reichel Realty in Palm Beach Gardens.

Even as Amazon has decimated many merchants, Palm Beach County’s retail vacancy rate remains in the single digits. After Sports Authority closed its locations in 2016, its Palm Beach County spaces were filled by such retailers as Rooms to Go, HomeGoods and Burlington Coat Factory.

The return of homebuilding is buoying Palm Beach County’s retail market, said Bruce Corn of NAI/Merin Hunter Codman.

“They’re building again – and they’re building a lot,” Corn said. “With residential comes retail.”

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