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URA to gauge Sheraden grocery store interest

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 4:30 p.m.

Sheraden could be the next economically depressed Pittsburgh neighborhood to get a taxpayer-subsidized grocery store.

Yet other than support from two city politicians, officials offered little evidence on Thursday to demonstrate a store would be sustainable.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority authorized a plan to seek proposals from grocery operators who might be interested in opening a store in the closed Sheraden Market on Sheraden Boulevard near Langley Pittsburgh K-8 school.

“I do have major reservations about the likelihood of survivability of a supermarket,” said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park. “The approach should be broader than just the notion of a food store.”

Ferlo, a URA board member, said he voted in favor of seeking private proposals because the process doesn't cost money.

Four hours before the board met, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who represents Sheraden, circulated a news release praising the proposal and predicting the authority would approve it.

“Providing residents with quality, fresh food options in their own community is key to ensuring a neighborhood's strength and potential for growth,” Ravenstahl stated.

Kail-Smith did not return a call seeking comment.

Late last year, the URA used a $425,000 community development grant that Kail-Smith, an ally of Ravenstahl's on City Council, provided to buy the shuttered store with 25 parking spaces.

URA Chairman Yarone Zober, Ravenstahl's chief of staff, said the authority generally relies on private grocery operators to determine the economic feasibility of stores.

Zober, a voting URA board member, said he wasn't sure whether the URA conducted a market analysis for the potential Sheraden project. He referred questions to acting Executive Director Robert Rubinstein, who said he would look into the matter.

Zober said the URA relied on outside market studies to determine the viability of a long-delayed Hill District grocery store.

“This isn't about whether or not the URA is going to pay for a grocery store,” Zober said. “We don't bring grocery stores places. If a grocery store wants to be somewhere and if a community needs a grocery store, then we can help bring those resources together.”

Zober said some grocers have expressed interest in Sheraden, but he wouldn't identify them or say whether they are discount chain grocers. Discount operators, as part of a nationwide trend, have been opening stores in urban neighborhoods that offer few options to buy food.

The URA committed $1 million to the planned $11.5 million Shop 'n Save in the Hill District. Construction was to begin by the end of November, but the site showed no evidence of activity on Thursday. Zober said the project's organizers told him work would start soon.

Roughly $850,000 in state and URA grants and loans last year backed the opening of the Market on Broadway IGA store to replace a shuttered Foodland in Beechview.

“We've done so in Beechview, (the owner is) kind of getting his legs underneath him there, and we're hopeful to do a similar thing of attracting a grocery operator or developer to the Sheraden community,” Rubinstein said.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or jboren@tribweb.com.

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