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Plan unclear for former Sam's Club space in Ross

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Shattered windows and a crumbling parking lot mar the front of the former Sam’s Club off McKnight Road in Ross on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Wal-Mart bought the Sam’s Club property off McKnight Road for $9.85 million in 2002, according to the county assessor’s office. In 2006, the company closed that Sam’s Club, on 6.14 acres, after it opened a new store on Mt. Nebo Pointe Road in Ohio Township.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to demolish a former Sam's Club store in Ross, but it is not saying why.

Once the building is demolished, Wal-Mart will own 9.6 acres of vacant land off McKnight Road.

That's enough space for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer to build a supercenter or Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, one retail expert said, but whether it would have township support to build off heavily traveled McKnight Road is another matter.

“They are the biggest retailer the world's ever known, so there's going to be a tremendous amount of traffic where there is a Wal-Mart,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director at New York-based retail consultant Strategic Resource Group.

Wal-Mart spokesman William Wertz confirmed that the company is razing the former Sam's Club, but he wouldn't provide details about plans for the site.

A Wal-Mart subsidiary, Sam's Real Estate Business Trust, was approved for a township demolition permit for the building in June, said Dan Hankins, Ross' building code official/zoning officer. McCandless-based general contractor Bridges & Co. Inc. picked up the permit on Tuesday, he said.

Wal-Mart plans to start demolition next week, according to a solicitation for work bids.

The work could be less about immediate construction plans and more about lowering the company's property taxes by eliminating an unused building, Hankins said.

The retailer discussed putting a Wal-Mart at the site in 2007, but talks with township officials fizzled for several reasons, including concerns by some residents and leaders about a Wal-Mart increasing congestion at high-traffic intersections on McKnight Road, Ross Commissioner Chris Eyster said.

Wal-Mart had proposed putting a traffic light about 1,000 feet from the McKnight and Siebert roads intersection, but its traffic studies showed that the intersection and one nearby at Peebles and McKnight roads were congested.

Eyster and other commissioners told Wal-Mart that they wouldn't sign waivers clearing the way for the traffic light and increased traffic at the intersections, Eyster said.

McKnight is a state road, and PennDOT would have to approve installation of any traffic light.

The closest Wal-Mart stores to the former Sam's Club in Ross are about 7.7 miles away in Richland and 9 miles away in the Waterworks Mall near Aspinwall. The company planned to build a Wal-Mart on Route 65 in Kilbuck, but now is stabilizing that site because of a landslide in 2006. The state Department of Environmental Protection withdrew a permit to allow construction on that land, so the company is not likely to build there.

Wal-Mart purchased the Sam's Club property for $9.85 million in 2002, according to the county assessment office. In 2006, the company closed the store, on 6.14 acres, after it opened one on Mt. Nebo Pointe Road in Ohio Township. It bought 3.44 adjacent acres that held a former Chi-Chi's restaurant for $2.1 million in 2006, and demolished that building in 2009.

The combined amount of Ross land, about 9.6 acres, is enough for a Wal-Mart store, given the direction the retailer is taking, Flickinger said.

Wal-Mart used to build stores on 12- to 20-acre sites, but it is now using 2- to 9-acre sites, with the latter being more common, he said.

The former Sam's Club in Ross is a 92,771-square-foot building that was constructed in 1980, according to assessment records.

Before becoming a Sam's Club, the business was a Pace Warehouse, part of a chain of warehouse stores that Kmart Corp. sold to Wal-Mart in 1993.

This year, Wal-Mart paid a total of $115,244 in property taxes on the old Sam's Club site to Allegheny County, Ross and the North Hills School District, the township said. The retailer paid $33,857.17 in property taxes on the vacant former Chi-Chi's land.

If businesses operated on the sites, the township could collect mercantile, business privilege, local services, and, likely, earned income taxes.

“You don't have employees there who are paying taxes who are working in Ross Township, spending money in restaurants and stores and stuff like that. … It's a dead zone, basically,” said Eyster, who said he would like to see a hockey rink or some other recreational facility at the old Sam's Club site.

Franklin Park resident Ryan Repp, 35, who was raised in Ross, said a recreational facility could be a good use of the property since McKnight Road has its fair share of big-box stores.

“I don't know that we need a Wal-Mart,” he said while outside a Ross post office near the old Sam's Club on Wednesday.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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