More than a year after blaze, Heights Plaza stores struggle
By Tom Yerace
Published: Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 12:06 a.m.
Although work on its facade appears to be ongoing, the UPMC Outpatient Center in Harrison will be doing business again on Monday.
The facility is in the part of the Heights Plaza Shopping Center that was damaged by a fire on Dec. 17, 2012. The blaze forced some businesses to close at least temporarily or move out of the plaza.
“The UPMC Outpatient Center located in Natrona Heights is scheduled to reopen on Monday, Jan. 6, and will include primary, women's and cardiac care, diagnostic services, 17 exam rooms and a laboratory,” said Carly Manino, a UPMC spokesman.
The UPMC facility, a key component of the plaza because it occupies the largest space, had just opened in the fall of 2012 when the fire occurred. It caused damages estimated at more than $10 million, although much of the damage was limited to store facades.
While some of the businesses were able to reopen quickly, others have not.
A year after the fire, work on other facades in the plaza is moving slowly.
The slow pace of construction has made it difficult to do business, according to some plaza merchants.
Joel Varga, manager of the Family Christian Shop, said it has been difficult to attract new customers because people passing by on Freeport Road can't tell whether stores are open.
Varga said his store had a great Christmas season and had new customers come in, but he credited that to a mailing sent out by the Family Christian Shop's corporate headquarters in Michigan.
He had high praise for the people doing the work, saying they have tried to accommodate any request he's made. But he thinks they are understaffed.
“I think there are too few of them working,” Varga said. “If it was up to me, there would be at least 50 people working here, like ants all over the place.
“I am discouraged because I had hoped that the construction would be done and new businesses would be in.”
Kim Vo, who owns Kellie's Nails, said attracting new business has been tough and staying open has become a struggle.
“The business has gone down,” she said. “People looking from the outside don't know that we're open.
“I asked one of the construction guys, and they told me it will take a while (to finish). I don't have a clue.”
The Heights Plaza is owned by Wild Blue Management of Fairless Hills, N.J., whose principal owner is Steve Kogut. Kogut did not return a voicemail message seeking comment for this story.
A representative for Colliers International, a Pittsburgh company retained by Wild Blue Management as the plaza's leasing/marketing agent, did not return a call seeking comment, either.
A stroll along the section damaged by fire and an adjacent section close to the Harrison High Rise revealed that there are 18 vacant storefronts in the shopping center, although renovations appear to be under way inside some of the storefronts.
The eight businesses that remain in operation in those parts of the plaza include First Commonwealth Bank, Little Caesars Pizza, Quinio's Barbershop, the Family Christian Shop, Dollar Bank, J&S Pizza, Luna Vision and Kellie's Nails salon.
While employees were busy getting ready for Monday's opening inside the UPMC facility Friday afternoon, there was no activity outside despite the fact that the stone facing has not been completely installed on the facade and around its pillars.
A UPMC employee, who would not speak on the record because it is against UPMC policy, said that concrete for a portion of the sidewalk was poured that morning despite frigid temperatures. A tent was constructed over the poured walkway and heat blown in to facilitate the process, the employee said.
A chain-link fence that blocked vehicle traffic at that corner had been removed. About 50 yards away, other sections of the fence that separate a pedestrian walkway from the parking lot remained.
Last spring, when Colliers became involved, company representatives said they were confident of bringing in new tenants, but there has been no word of new tenants. They said they proposed the new facade design for those two sections of the shopping center, and Kogut endorsed it, along with renaming the plaza Harrison Town Center. As of Friday, however, the marquee along Broadview Boulevard still proclaimed it to be Heights Plaza Shopping Center.
Meanwhile, Vo said, profits for her business, which she opened in May 2012, have been cut in half since the fire. She said that does not seem to concern Kogut.
“The fire was on Dec. 17, and he came to ask for the rent on Jan. 7,” Vo said. “I said ‘I don't have the money to pay you. The shop hasn't been open.' ”
She said she later asked Kogut if he would discount the rent while construction is ongoing, but he refused. In order to get the business going again, she said, she had to pay for needed interior renovations with the promise that Wild Blue would reimburse her at least partially.
“This is all the money out of my own pocket to fix this,” Vo said, her arm sweeping around the shop. “I didn't get any money yet from them.”
She said it is difficult to reach Kogut, who usually does not return her phone calls.
“He never called and asked us how we're doing,” Vo said.
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or email@example.com.
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