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Casino at Meadows generates building boom

| Sunday, Jan. 26, 2014, 7:40 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Businesses, signs, and attractions crowd the skyline along Racetrack Road in South Strabane, Wednesday, January 22, 2014.

Before a string of hotels, fast-food joints and office space joined a burgeoning outlet mall and full-fledged casino, Frank J. Valencic remembers when the only thing on Racetrack Road besides his family's car dealership was a horse track and cows. Lots of cows.

“There were dairy cows grazing everywhere, and hay fields,” said Valencic, 57, a third-generation owner of Tomsic Motor Co., a former Chrysler dealership that opened in Canonsburg in 1929 and moved to Racetrack in 1972. “In the last 40 years, it's all changed. You can't stop progress.”

The transformation of the roughly 2-mile stretch that straddles North Strabane and South Strabane and extends just beyond Interstate 79 to Route 19 has been remarkable, with much of the development coming after the state announced one of Pennsylvania's 12 casinos would be located there. The Meadows Racetrack & Casino opened a temporary facility in 2007, the same year Tanger Outlets broke ground across the former two-lane road that's been widened to accommodate nearly 14,000 vehicles a day.

Eight hotels dot the road, adding more than 700 rooms. The Meadows is building a ninth, a $27 million, 155-room Hyatt Place slated to open next year.

The casino helped attract Cecil-based Horizon Properties Group to build The Street at The Meadows, a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development of retail, offices and casual-dining restaurants. The $20 million, 14.5-acre project will offer an element of cohesiveness missing on Racetrack Road, which largely requires driving from location to location.

But that hasn't deterred development.

“It's growing faster now than Southpointe in terms of diversified businesses,” said Don Hodor, executive director of the Southpointe Chamber of Commerce and the year-old Racetrack Road Business Association, which has more than 100 members. “It's becoming the mini-Vegas of Western Pennsylvania. It's becoming quite a metropolis.”

In 2011, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked Washington County third among the top 10 large U.S. counties based on its 4.3 percent rate of employment growth. Jeff Kotula, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, estimated there has been $1 billion in investment in the Racetrack Road corridor. He credited most of that to the $650 million casino development and the $75 million Tanger Outlets.

Much of the economic development has been spurred by the casino and growth of the natural-gas industry, Hodor said.

Natural-gas producer EQT opened an office on Racetrack Road next to the South Hills Audi dealership and a Cambria Suites hotel. Across the road is Meadowlands Business Park.

“The casino came into play, and the rest of it fell into place,” Hodor said. “The backbone was already there in the road and the land, and there's still more land.”

A developer is trying to secure financing to build several phases on more than 150 acres next to Tanger Outlets across from the casino, said Scott Fergus, Washington County's director of administration.

Several other large parcels are available for sale or lease on the road. Metro Property Management of Morgantown, W.Va., plans to break ground on a 200-unit apartment complex as part of the second phase of the Park Place at The Meadowlands project it started planning in 2011 on Racetrack Road and Route 19.

The company opened one office building with medical businesses, eateries and salons as well as a convenience store complex with a Dairy Queen, Little Caesars Pizza and Tim Hortons doughnuts.

“We think Washington is kind of like home to us,” said David Biafora, who owns Metro Property with his brother.

By July, the company plans to start construction on a second office building with 36,000 square feet in South Strabane.

Both phases of the 46-acre project will be connected, Biafora said.

“We want to continue to invest in Washington County,” he said. “We are very up on it, very sold on it.”

Valencic, the car dealer, said the rapid growth hasn't translated into big business for his dealership.

“It brings people by going to The Meadows or Tanger, but it doesn't bring a lot of customers,” he said. “My question is, how many hotels and restaurants can you have? How many can survive? You have to wonder and shake your head. But I guess they know what they're doing.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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