Downtown Butler project calls for new hotel, pharmacy
Bill Atkinson has been hearing for the past few years about plans to revitalize downtown Butler, including a hotel and small convention center.
The owner of the Chop Shop restaurant along North Main Street, Atkinson, 32, said a down-scaled plan for a hotel and adjacent pharmacy spurred by a multimillion dollar state grant could attract more people downtown, and to businesses such as his, which has been open for two years.
“I think it could be another step in the right direction, if they can get others to come to town,” Atkinson said.
Gov. Tom Corbett awarded a $2 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RCAP) grant in January, and now the city redevelopment authority must work to provide matching financing through private development funding and tax credits.
The city, county and Butler Area School District approved the $9.7 million project as a tax-increment financing district, meaning that a developer could use projected tax revenue increases as a funding source.
Current plans for the Centre City project are for an 80- to 90-room hotel and adjacent Rite-Aid pharmacy, but there's no timetable yet on a groundbreaking.
“We've been in discussions for such a long time,” Butler Mayor Maggie Stock said. “We're closer than we've been. I think it'll be sooner rather than later.”
Paul Dunn, a project manager with developer J.S. Capitol Construction Inc., which owns the Fairfield Inn and Suites in Slippery Rock, said he didn't want to discuss the project until a meeting is held, probably this week. O'Malley estimated funding would be 80 percent private, and 20 percent public through the RCAP.
The downtown Butler business district struggled for decades as a downturn in the steel industry created a steady population drain. The city's 2012 population was just under 14,000, according to the U.S. Census.
For more than six years, city leaders talked about bringing a hotel and small convention center, along with retail and residential development, to an area of town bordered by South Main, East Jefferson, East Cunningham and South McKean streets, on land the city and redevelopment authority own.
In 2006, Stock said, the state promised the city RCAP money for the project, which kept getting delayed.
“Three empty parking lots are not economic development,” Stock said. “We're not only sprucing up downtown, but supporting the other things that are going on.”
Perry O'Malley, the former executive director of Butler's redevelopment authority, said that the 2008 recession brought the project to a halt. A market study conducted several years ago, O'Malley added, shows that the market could support a downtown hotel, but developers were interested in bigger markets.
“We were pretty far down the list on getting a deal done,” O'Malley said. “That's what we started with.”
Among the dozens of hotels in Butler County, from Cranberry to Slippery Rock, occupancy rates range from 70 to 85 percent, depending on the time of year, said Jack Cohen, president of the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau. A bed tax has brought about $900,000 to the county since July 1, Cohen said, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year.
Butler does not have a hotel within city limits, but Cohen said several hotels surrounding the city, offering several hundred hotel rooms, “are very strong.”
City and county officials are hoping to capitalize on the city's ranking last year by Smithsonian Magazine as the seventh-best small town in America, citing the city's Pullman Park and collegiate summer league baseball team, community theater and symphony, museum, and annual Jeep Bantam Festival.
“If people come and stay here, they need things to do,” Cohen said. “It is a wonderful linchpin for all of us.”
“That's significant,” O'Malley said of the hotel plans. “They got it, take it, put it up and let it drive the next step.”
O'Malley said among the benefactors to new development in Butler could be the nearby Penn Theater along North Main Street, which has had renovation plans stall the past few years.
“I would think the Penn Theater would be the next major project to go after the money to get renovations done,” O'Malley said.
Lifelong Butler resident Larry Bumbico, 65, said he wasn't sure the project is feasible.
“It's a dead town. There's nothing here,” Bumbico said. “The big money in this town doesn't want to spend money. But I would like to see it do well.”
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.