It was an interesting side note to what was an area-wide brainstorming session.
As local and area politicians, as well as business owners, came together to discuss what could potentially fill the vacant Shopko building in Aitkin, people kept driving by – wondering what was going on.
The group of about 20 met Sept. 2 in the former Shopko store to consider ideas to fill the store with another retail opportunity. Among those in attendance were State Sen. Carrie Ruud, State District 10B Rep. Dale Lueck, a wide variety of representatives from area economic development agencies, and Aitkin Mayor Gary Tibbitts.
The brainstorm session was organized by Susan Ackerman of ReMax Northland in Aitkin, who is handling the marketing of the building. The Shopko building has been vacant since late summer of 2019.
The building became available in late January, just as the COVID-19 pandemic started to reveal itself. The intent of the meeting was to pull leaders together at the local, state and federal levels to discover what type of funding is available to help with start-up expenses, and look for ideas to fill the space.
“We have had continuing conversations with various individuals, and had talks with businesses similar to Shopko from outside the immediate area, but thus far we have no solid leads,” said Ackerman.
The Sept. 2 meeting provided both a number of options, as well as concerns that whatever fills the building fit both a market need and not draw away from small businesses. Ackerman said at the start of the meeting that she wanted a “conversation.”
“The hope is that we could replace the former Shopko building with something similar,” she explained.
Ackerman, Donna Weiss – the building owner and developer – and business consultant Bruce Eide all said the Aitkin Shopko had been one of the more successful stores in the former chain, in spite of its remote location.
Eide spoke highly of the store’s former manager, Mike Eisenbraun, and said the people of Aitkin deserved a retail presence to replace that.
Among the local business owners, Mike Patnode of Aitkin Pet and Farm Supply and Brian Finnert of Beartooth True Value expressed a desire to not only find a business that was the right fit, but did not threaten area small businesses.
But both also supported Shopko and the business it had brought in to Aitkin.
Taylor Erickson, executive director of the Aitkin Chamber of Commerce, asked people to start thinking strategy.
“What exactly does Aitkin need?” she asked.
The responses varied. Many felt a store like Shopko, one that offered many different products, would be a good fit. Others suggested something like a sporting goods store, or a multi-purpose crafting store like Hobby Lobby or Michael’s.
Patnode also tossed out the idea of having something “for the kids,” something like laser tag that every age could enjoy.
Ruud and Lueck had thoughts as well. Ruud wanted to make sure that Aitkin still had the workforce to support a large retail endeavor, which some of the people in attendance said would not be an issue.
She also mentioned the former store’s location in the city’s roundabout would be “a plus for access.”
Lueck said he wanted to “fill the tool bag,” meaning before plans were made, the city needed to know traffic patterns and have a market study.
Meanwhile, Tibbitts said he had spoken to some retailers, who may have interest depending on the building’s footprint. He also pointed out that the building’s location may cause some issues, as more traffic is on Hwy. 210 than Hwy. 169.
Several of the people in attendance pointed to the fact, though, that Shopko closing had left a hole in the community that needed to be filled.
Eide asked those people the same question he asked Eisenbraun.
“I asked, what would you do if you were king?” he said. “I ask all of you the same.”
Now others are starting to look for the answers.