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Long-awaited grocery heartens Hill residents

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 12:08 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
A new Shop 'n Save grocery store in the Hill District, seen here Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 will soon be open.

Donald Hetzler waited more than 30 years for a grocery to open within walking distance of his Hill District home.

“It's going to be an absolute lifesaver for all of us in this neighborhood,” said Hetzler, 70.

He and other supporters say the Shop 'n Save opening Thursday on Centre Avenue will anchor a revitalized business district. The store will supply fresh produce and foods geared toward neighborhood taste.

Yet, critics say the $11.6 million supermarket, subsidized by taxpayers, lacks population to support it. The Hill lost about 45 percent of its population from the 1980s when its last supermarket closed, although it is on an uptick. Two proposed grocery stores in the Market Square area, Downtown, would compete.

“There's no question that everybody wants the supermarket,” said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park. “... The issue is, is it going to work financially? Is it going to be sustainable? I would have preferred an effort to build up the neighborhood, in terms of resident population, first.”

Marimba Milliones, executive director of Hill Community Development Corp., notes that more than 1,200 apartments and townhouses are planned in the eventual development of the former Civic Arena site, and more than 400 are planned at the former Addison Terrace public housing site and along streets near the store.

“In urban core neighborhoods, sometimes, you're developing the market as you're developing the retail,” she said.

The Hill House Association, whose subsidiary Hill House Economic Development Corp. is building the store, and other civic groups and churches will urge residents to buy from the store. Hill House plans a grand opening, followed by a block party.

Executive Director Cheryl Hall-Russell said she is working to organize senior citizen shuttles to the store. She expects it to draw Downtown residents and students from Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh.

“We didn't just go into this in a vacuum and not consider local market studies to see if that area would support a full-service store,” Hall-Russell said. “We had to prove through market studies that this neighborhood will sustain a full-service store. There were several that were done.”

Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a New York consulting firm that focuses on the food industry, said Shop 'n Save can be successful in the Hill if housing develops as planned.

A factor in its favor is that higher fast-food prices make it cheaper to buy groceries, Flickinger said. Government initiatives encouraging healthy eating will help, he said. Competing groceries could cut into the store's business by 5 percent to 7 percent, he said, but Shop 'n Save could build loyalty by “supporting community sports, Scouting, civic organizations and local schools,” Flickinger said.

Jeff Ross, who owns Shop 'n Save franchises in McKeesport, Connellsville, Mt. Pleasant and Versailles, will operate the store under a lease. Most of its 120 employees live in the Hill, he said. He plans to have security guards and surveillance cameras.

Ross said the Hill is vastly different from the depressed, crime-plagued neighborhood it was in the 1980s.

“Thirty years ago, I don't know that it made sense for a grocery store in the Hill,” he said. “Today, it's a new, invigorated place of business.”

The store is funded through a mix of public and nonprofit sources. They include $1.9 million in new-market tax credits through PNC Bank and the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority; a $789,000 federal Office of Community Services grant; $400,000 from The Heinz Endowments; $365,000 in Rivers Casino gambling money in the Hill District Growth Fund; and $300,000 from McAuley Ministries, the grant-making arm of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System. The Pittsburgh Penguins and the URA are contributing $1 million each, and store operator Ross is investing $1 million to buy equipment and inventory.

Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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