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Inside the Shell of an Old Sears Store, Innovation Springs Forth in Midtown

Removed from the former retail building, this blackened Sears sign rests behind a chain link fence in a parking lot on Main Street in Houston. Photo credit: Ralph Bivins, Realty News Report.

HOUSTON – (By Ralph Bivins of Realty News Report) – A hub of innovators. Brilliant tech people work there. Venture capitalists roam the halls. Entrepreneurship drips from the ceiling.

In a modern looking cafe, an egghead from Stanford and a nerd from MIT are huddled together over cups of bitter coffee. And you’re pretty sure that by the time they leave the table, a new startup company will be born.

This is an Innovation Hub.

And the most logical location for an Innovation Hub? … Inside an old Sears, of course.

Wait. It can’t be. Sears and Innovation don’t go together. Sears hasn’t done anything innovative since they came out with the Sears & Roebuck catalog a hundred years ago.

Is this the same Sears that sold off its crown jewels – the brands that really meant something – Craftsman tools (introduced in 1927) and Kenmore appliances (introduced in 1913)?

Is this the same Sears that had 423 million square feet of real estate in 2004, a portfolio that’s now been pared down to a mere 425 stores?

How can an Innovation Hub be located in an old Sears store?

Sears was an American-born business that was surpassed by Walmart and Amazon while Sears chieftains were asleep and obese after many comfortable trips to corporate buffet.

A friend of mine who worked as a retail copywriter in Sears tower in the 1970s says ambition and creativity were quickly snuffed out, lest they spread. The arrogance in Sears tower was thick. “We don’t have any competitors,” they would say. They laughed at Kmart, J.C. Penney and all the upstart discounters that would pop up, destined to be crushed by Sears’ hobnail boot.

But this is all true. Pride and power faltered. Sears declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy last October.

The 1939-vintage Sears store on Main Street in Midtown Houston closed in January of last year. It’s now being reborn as an Innovation Hub, called “The Ion.”

The former Sears building, a four-level, 200,000-square-foot structure, has been stripped of its unfortunate 1960s wrapping installed in one of those misguided remodelings. The Art Deco structure, 4201 Main Street, is being transformed by a formidable team. Hines is handling the redevelopment process with Gensler and James Carpenter Design on architecture.

The Sears store is owned by Rice Management, the overseer of Rice University’s sizable endowment. Rice controls over 10 acres around the intersection of Main and Wheeler, near an area where the homeless population had grown so large that city health officials recommended a clean-up last year.

A groundbreaking for The Ion will be celebrated this week. The visionaries believe The Ion will be the heart of a start-up ecosystem, the midpoint in an innovation corridor stretching from downtown to the Texas Medical Center.

Back to the question: Isn’t this a case of odd bedfellows? The old cave of a retail dinosaur becoming the home of start-up innovators? Sears and The Ion?

Amazingly, the Houston Sears is not the first Sears store to be repurposed as an innovation center. In Cincinnati, the old Sears was just transformed into the 1819 Innovation Hub, in conjunction with the University of Cincinnati.The 133,000-square-foot research and technology center was once the city’s first Sears, according to a report by Hilary George-Parkin in the Footwear News trade publication.

And in the Arkansas town of Fayetteville, a portion of a Sears store that was shuttered in 2018 is being transformed into a start-up location called Anchor.

So innovation becomes a hermit crab, looking for an empty shell where it may reside and thrive. The empty shell of the Sears in Midtown will become the nest for a new species of start-ups for Houston. The ecosystem will be completely different: No Kenmore. No Craftsman. No Sears & Roebuck Catalog.

But maybe The Ion will yield some innovations that will make a difference. Maybe The Ion will lead to the creation of some excellent new companies and new jobs. And maybe Houston won’t suffer the embarrassment of not even making the Top 20 finalists list the next time an Amazon starts looking for another HQ2.

July 16, 2019 Realty News Report Copyright 2019

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