Old Sports Authority near Columbia Center to reopen as veteran-focused thrift shop
The former Sports Authority store at Kennewick’s Columbia Center will reopen this spring as Veterans Warehouse Thrift Store, the second outpost for a Wenatchee nonprofit focused on supporting homeless and struggling veterans.
Operation Veterans Assistance & Humanitarian Aid is converting the 40,000-square-foot retail space into a full-service thrift store that will sell furniture, clothing, household items and offer electronics and computer repair.
The nonprofit is led by director Thelbert “Thadd” Lawson Jr., who said it will open in late March or early April. Supporters can begin leaving donations in mid-February.
The new store brings life to a prominent retail space that sat empty for more than five years. It occupies a high-profile address at North Columbia Center and Grandridge boulevards, in the heart of Kennewick’s prime retail corridor.
Sports Authority closed in 2016, about the same time as its neighbor, OfficeMax. That left Lowe’s Home Improvement as the main occupant of the building.
Lawson said it was the only space big enough to accommodate the sprawling Veterans Warehouse Thrift Store concept. Like the original in Wenatchee, the store will sell furniture, clothing, electronics, books, videos, footwear, sporting goods, computer services and more.
Lawson established Operation Veterans Assistance in 2013 to serve homeless veterans and their families. Its mission includes providing humanitarian aid to the larger community.
PTSD, prison, new focus
Lawson is an Army veteran who served during Operation Desert Storm. Within three months of being discharged, he was in serious trouble. He was convicted in 1992 in Chelan County Superior Court for hiring someone to murder his wife.
The prosecutor’s office confirmed she was not killed. Lawson served more than 16 years of an 18-year sentence.
“The real story is I’m a veteran. I came home. I was broken,” he said, citing PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. He had ample time behind bars to see how many of his peers were incarcerated.
Lawson said he reset behind bars. In 2006, Vietnam Veterans of America honored him as its Incarcerated Veteran of the Year during a ceremony at the Twin Rivers Corrections Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
The Everett Herald covered the ceremony, noting Lawson was 41 and had been behind bars since he was 24.
A post-prison misdemeanor conviction in Chelan County District Court was reversed in 2016. Lawson said he accepted a plea bargain deal for fourth-degree assault to end the case and get on with his life.
Now 55, Lawson said he is dedicated to serving veterans.
“There has to be more done. That’s why I started my crusade in prison,” he said.
Outside of prison, he continued his education at Wenatchee Valley College, where he established a school-sanctioned club for veterans. He took a leading role in his local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.
Sales fuel nonprofit
Operation Veterans Assistance operates as Lawson did as a drill sergeant. Its “loose and off the cuff” approach adapts to changing conditions as well as needs. It hires and trains workers who can learn the job and then do it without supervision. He is not interested in babysitting, he said.
The seven people setting up the new store include a mix of ex-convicts and veterans. It reflects his mission to help veterans avoid the criminal justice system while giving ex-cons a chance to succeed when they get out.
The nonprofit is organized around thrift sales, first in Wenatchee and now Kennewick. It is a deliberate strategy that delivers a steady stream of earned revenue instead of an unsteady stream of donations.
The first Veterans Warehouse Thrift Store opened in November 2013 in Wenatchee. Business soared in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic as people staying home cleared out their closets.
Donations packed its basement in Wenatchee – enough to open a second store.
Lawson considered expanding to Spokane, but he turned to the Tri-Cities because another veteran-oriented thrift store already operates there under a similar name, Veterans Thrift Store.
The Tri-Cities offered an attractive combination of population growth and above-average income, as well as empty space in a prime retail location.
He signed a seven-year lease with the Kennewick building’s Spokane-based owners. The lease covers the sporting goods space as well as an adjoining mattress store. The two spaces are now linked by a passthrough.
The lease includes free rent for several months while the crew cleans and stocks the space. Sports Authority left racking and other equipment.
The nonprofit has big hopes for the Tri-Cities. A Richland store could open in 18-24 months. Proceeds could support housing for homeless vets, Lawson said.
The store serves as both an employment and job training center. Most apparel is priced at $6 with ample room to negotiate. Veterans with ID can sign up for a voucher that lets them shop for whatever they need, from clothing to household goods.
Proceeds support eight outreach programs aiding communities affected by disaster and organizations that provide humanitarian aid, and help veterans find and furnish homes when they return to civilian life, as well as clothing and food.
Through 2019, Lawson said the nonprofit has contributed $32.5 million in goods and mostly services and helped 24,000 veterans, including spouses and families.
It reported $7.3 million in gifts, grants and other donations between 2014-18, according to its most recent filing with the IRS.
Follow the store’s progress on Facebook @thrift410.