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Conversion of old Kroger into storage units good for company, community, owner says

Cost savings could make other vacant buildings attractive, too

Friday, August 2, 2013 - 12:01 am

There are several vacant “big box” stores in Fort Wayne, but that number is about to drop thanks to a local self-storage company whose latest project may herald something of a trend.

“Conversion (of an existing building) can reduce costs by 30 percent,” said Fort Wayne Storage General Manager Kyle Zimmerman, whose firm will open its fifth location this month in the former Kroger store at Spy Run and State Boulevard, which closed in 2007. Two out lots are also available for development, since the self-storage facility does not need as much parking as Kroger did.

Although Zimmerman knows some nearby residents would have preferred another grocery, he said the project will nevertheless benefit the neighborhood by providing a service not available nearby, by creating about five jobs and by putting to productive use a building Zimmerman said was becoming an “eyesore.”

But the project is not entirely altruistic. The company paid about $1 million for the 46,000-square-foot building and property and is spending another $1 million or so to subdivide the store into offices and 440 storage units, but that 30 percent differential could still save Fort Wayne Storage hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And although the store is the company's first conversion project, it's not likely to be the last. An office strip mall on Dupont Road near the company's existing facility and the new Parkview Regional Medical Center is also slated for a self-storage makeover, Zimmerman said.

The new “Downtown Storage” facility will offer storage units of various sizes, about half of them climate-controlled because some items are sensitive to temperature and humidity. And because of the building's size, it will offer two floors of storage, the upper level serviced by an elevator.

In addition to Dupont and the downtown store, Fort Wayne Storage also operates facilities near Lima and Cook roads, on Tomas Road and will soon open on Stellhorn Road.

Because of that and several competitors, Zimmerman said he believes Fort Wayne's self-storage market is nearly saturated, at least for now. But he expects the industry as a whole to continue its expansion. There were 6,601 facilities nationwide in 1984 and more than 48,500 today, according to the Self-Storage Association, which reports that about 9 percent of American households rent storage units.

Self-storage has become so popular, in fact, that it has spawned a reality TV show called “Storage Wars,” which chronicles fortune-hunters who attend auctions of goods sold to pay overdue locker rent. “We do that (kind of auction), too,” Zimmerman said.

The north-side housing boom due in part to Parkview's new facility is creating demand for more storage along Dupont, Zimmerman said, but the storage business does well even in economic downturns. “When people move in with family members, we solve their dilemma (about where to store items for which they no longer have room).”

And Zimmerman said the company is still looking to grow, even if the local market is saturated. There are a lot of empty buildings in other cities, too.