Gander Mountain, the financially troubled outdoors chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Friday and will close 32 underperforming stores, including Waco’s at South Valley Mills Drive and the Interstate 35 frontage road.

Dallas-based Leon Capital Group had chosen Gander Mountain to anchor a development that now sprawls across the former site of University High School, which it demolished. The area has continued to attract new restaurants and retailers since Gander Mountain threw open its doors in 2014.

Despite occupying what local commercial real estate agents consider a prime location, the 52,000-square-foot store reportedly has struggled to find its niche in a market that includes a Cabela’s outdoors store in Central Texas Marketplace and Academy Sports & Outdoors at Franklin Avenue and New Road.

“Its closing really does not surprise me,” said Brad Davis, a commercial real estate specialist. “I’ve never been in the Waco store when there were many people there. And I rarely could find anyone to help me. But filing bankruptcy means they were having problems in a lot of places. It does not reflect poorly on Waco.”

The Minnesota-based chain released a statement saying, “With much regret, we will be closing our Killeen and Waco stores, among 32 we’ll be winding down in the coming weeks. The decision to close these stores was not an easy one and was made only after an extensive strategic review of our options.”

A Gander Mountain store generally employs 20 to 30 full-time staffers and another 20 to 30 on a part-time or seasonal basis.

“Our employees at stores affected by these closings may be considered for employment opportunities elsewhere within our system,” the company said in its statement.

The struggling retailer, which bills itself as America’s firearms superstore, said in another statement it has secured debtor-in-possession financing from Wells Fargo and is in discussion with “a number of parties” interested in bidding on acquiring the company. It reportedly hopes to present a winning bid to the bankruptcy court in early May and close on a deal by May 15.

Pat Farrar, a local real estate agent who deals in commercial properties, said Waco is a hot market, and property along the Interstate 35 corridor through the city is especially appealing.

“But I haven’t been calling prospects about a 52,000-square-foot building,” Farrar said, acknowledging the difficulty in attracting new users for a building that size. He said that if the building is divided in half for marketing purposes, “you probably could double or triple your list of prospects.”

Farrar said the building is owned by an investor, not Gander Mountain, and he would welcome the opportunity to pursue a user.

“If you want to find the silver lining, this is the only 50,000-square-foot big box on the market,” he said.

Waco commercial real estate agent Mike Meadows said he does not think the building will become a long-term vacancy and blight on one of Waco’s prominent corners.

“I think there is an opportunity to market that property either to another big-box user or to split it up into multiple retail units,” Meadows said. “I don’t think it will be mothballed for an extended period of time. I believe there are viable uses for it.”

Like Farrar, Meadows said the closing of the store “has nothing to do with Waco at all. Gander Mountain didn’t declare bankruptcy based on the performance of one store.”

‘I have concerns’

Commercial real estate agent Brad Harrell said, “Honestly, I have concerns about that building and its usefulness going forward.” He said retailers are rethinking the big-box concept in today’s marketplace, where online shopping is flexing its muscle.

“I do believe the building will have to be subdivided, but I worry about it becoming another haven for discount stores,” he said.

Jake Key, 34, made an apparently rare stop at Waco’s Gander Mountain store on Friday. He had not heard about the bankruptcy filing or that the store he just left would close in the near future.

“I live in Lorena, so Cabela’s is closer and Academy is cheaper,” Key said. “But I visit Gander Mountain occasionally for fishing tackle or hunting supplies. I have to admit that it’s pretty much empty every time in here, but I still hate to hear the news.”

Bob Staats, 65, traveled to Waco from Meridian on Friday, making a stop at Gander Mountain, “which always has a good shooting department.” Staats said he visits the store every few weeks.

He shrugged off news of the bankruptcy filing, saying Gander Mountain “has a checkered past when it comes to finances. This is not the first time it has closed a lot of stores.”

Indeed, Gander Mountain sought bankruptcy protection in the 1990s and began to restructure its operations. It was taken private in 2010 by Gratco, a company controlled by Gander chairman and CEO David Pratt and Minnesota’s Erickson family.

The company embarked on a growth surge in 2012, building 60 new outposts to bring its total number of stores to 160.

Besides stores in Killeen and Waco, Gander Mountain will shutter other Texas locations, including two in Houston and one each in Lubbock, Laredo, Round Rock, San Antonio, Sugar Land and Texarkana.

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