Updated: Nov 5
Mike Thorson of Cornerstone Cabinets & Countertops on Rethinking Big Box Buildings
Twenty years ago, Mike Thorson was going to teach high school social studies. He never set out to foster an innovative way to repurpose abandoned big box stores; it just sort of happened. Today, Thorson has breathed new life into the 54,000 square foot former Sun Mart building – housing two of his own businesses, commercial storage, and even a regional delivery center for Amazon.
The knock-on effects of his own project have supported the redevelopment of ShopKo, Target, and Hedahl's.
Like most big ideas, it started in a garage with a mix of optimism and necessity.
"What am I going to do with all this space?"
When Thorson graduated with his teaching degree, local full-time teaching gigs were in short supply. It was going to be a while. Rather than wait, he fell back on his past experience in construction, opening a residential contractor business from his garage after passing his license exam.
What began as home additions and decking grew to include countertops and cabinetry. Eventually, inspired by a request from a client, he opened another business, Midwest Bevel Edge, and increased his offerings and his staff while continuously moving from one workspace to the next whenever floor space became precious.
Every move followed a pattern of first being overwhelmed by all the new room, to only a few years later being packed in from wall to wall and needing more. When his most recent facility, today Sted Foods, reached capacity, he went shopping for 10,000 square feet of manufacturing space. He looked for nearly five years without success.
"I attempted to buy two different buildings. Both didn't work out," Thorson says. "After the last building fell through, I was talking with Greater Fergus Falls, and they said, 'Why don't you buy Sun Mart?"
It seemed crazy at first. The space was five times what Thorson was seeking, but too much room was better than too little, so he collaborated with a local realtor on a multi-business redevelopment of the old grocery.
Like a strip mall for manufacturing and industrial.
Quickly, they gathered a list of fifteen prospective tenants and had five at least he expected to come through. Greater Fergus Falls and the City of Fergus Falls collaborated on the final hurdle, which required an amendment to local ordinances to allow for manufacturing in a retail zone. That hard-won change, he says, helped lead to the eventual renovation of several other abandoned big box stores.
But when Thorson finally uprooted his pair of businesses to the new location (claiming one-third of the building's space), every one of his prospectives disappeared.
"It has not gone to plan at all," he jokes.
Late in 2021, Thorson, still with space for lease, received a call from a realtor in the Twin Cities. The man represented a client interested in Thorson's available room, but he couldn't say whom for just yet. In fact, the conversation couldn't even continue without both Thorson and his own realtor signing NDAs.
Confidentiality ensured, the realtor traveled to Fergus Falls, spent ten minutes reviewing the remodeled Sun Mart site, and made for the door.
"And that was it," Thorson says. "Then he left."
A short time later came a call from retail giant Amazon. The company wanted to place a final-mile delivery center in west-central Minnesota, and Thorson's building fit the bill. Negotiations lasted for more than half a year before word broke in fall of 2022 that Amazon was coming to Fergus Falls along with nearly 150 new jobs.
"Because we had bought this and because we had already done the facade work and it was listed when Amazon was looking, we met their criteria," says Thorson. "If I had done it two years earlier or two years later, they wouldn't be in this building."
He says that one of the greatest challenges of any redevelopment project is being unable to share the big news until it's ready. And news stories about modifying city ordinances often fly under the radar.
"So much of that stuff is invisible to most people," he says. "That took five years – from genesis to me moving into this building. Once they changed that city ordinance, Hedahl's is full, this is full, Target is full. People keep saying we have all these empty box stores; we've got one."
Thorson wants to see his business continue and means it to do good and be good to the people who depend on him – the community included.
"Reusing existing structures is one of the greenest things you can do, if you want to be environmentally friendly," he says. "The worst thing you can do is tear something down that already exists and put something up new."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls
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