Tax-relief plan eases path to new North Huntingdon grocery
When Norwin Town Square changed hands in June 2012, there was little the new owners could offer to entice potential tenants to set up shop in the half-empty, deteriorating strip mall in North Huntingdon.
“The tenants who were still there had to use buckets to catch water that dripped through the roof when it rained. It was horrendous,” said Don Tarosky, a partner in Colony Norwin LLC, which is redeveloping the strip mall.
“The building's façade was worn out; the parking lot was cracked and had poor lighting; and an old tractor-trailer that had been sitting out front of a former tire shop blocked the view of the mall from Route 30,” he said. “It was a very dated, dark and dank place and little had been done in the way of maintenance.”
Last Thursday morning, a steady stream of customers turned out for the grand opening of a 38,000-square-foot Shop 'n Save supermarket that serves as the second “anchor” tenant in the center. The other anchor, a Planet Fitness gym, is surrounded by smaller businesses, including a sporting-goods store, a frozen-yogurt shop, a tailor and a beer distributor.
Construction continues for a Wooden Nickel restaurant, which already has a “six-pack” shop and bar connected to the supermarket. The restaurant is slated to open in late summer or early fall.
The new store has amenities including a deli, an in-store pharmacy and a dry-cleaning service.
“I'm a bargain hunter, so I came out to see the new store today and start comparing prices,” said Mary Ann Kostrubanic, 67, of North Huntingdon. “I think having another grocery store in town creates competition and keeps prices down.”
The store's main competitors are Giant Eagle, Aldi and the Walmart and Target stores, which also sell groceries.
While Colony Norwin has invested millions of dollars to demolish and rebuild portions of the center and refurbish what remained — including constructing new sanitary- and storm-sewer systems — the project likely would not have been possible without a tax break the development company received, Tarosky said.
Township commissioners and the Norwin school board in late 2012 declared the property blighted and approved a tax-abatement program through the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance Act, or LERTA.
The LERTA abatement gives the developer 100-percent forgiveness on property taxes for five years on any new construction or improvements made to the property.
The abatement does not affect the amount of property taxes currently collected on the shopping center, which is assessed at between $4 million and $5 million.
“I can't say we wouldn't have been able to do this project without the LERTA, but it would have been extremely very difficult,” Tarosky said.
The owner of the new grocery store, Jeff Ross of North Huntingdon, said the abatement resulted in lower rent, which made it easier to move forward with his desire to open a store in North Huntingdon.
“Taxes make up a big chunk of the rent landlords charge,” he said. “So it can be challenging for a retailer like myself to come in and lease the space, develop a store and then get things up and running. Without the tax abatement to lower the rent, it wasn't very attractive.”
Ross, who grew up in White Oak and moved to North Huntingdon in 1998, said he has wanted to open a store in the township for years to give residents “more choices.”
“For years, my neighbors have asked when I was going to open a Shop 'n Save here,” Ross said. “So I'm thrilled that it's finally happening.”
The Ross family operates six other Shop 'n Save supermarkets, including two in McKeesport.
The Shop 'n Save in Norwin Town Square will be managed by Ross' daughters, Shannon Ross-Faulhaber and Natalie Bello.
Township commissioners Chairman Rich Gray said he was glad the tax abatement was able to help the developer turn the strip mall into “a first-class operation.”
“The place was loaded with code violations, and we were getting complaints from neighbors,” Gray said. “While I think they would have been able to do something with the property with or without the LERTA, I don't believe it would have turned out nearly as nice as it is proving to be.”
Gray said the addition of a supermarket closer to residents living in the western part of the municipality is welcome.
“For many years there was a grocery store in that shopping plaza,” Gray said. “So this really fills the void that was left, while at the same time creating convenience and competition, which I believe is good for our community.”
Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or at firstname.lastname@example.org