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Blairsville BiLo to close next month, 40 jobs affected

Jeff Himler
| Friday, April 27, 2012, 12:41 a.m.

The days are numbered for Blairsville's BiLo supermarket and the 40 jobs it provides there.

Late last week, Tops Friendly Markets, which recently purchased the Blairsville market and the majority of other assets held by the bankrupt Penn Traffic Company, announced that the Blairsville BiLo store is slated to close on March 13.

The pending closure will leave Blairsville Borough without a grocery store within its limits, creating a new challenge for senior citizens and others who have become used to walking to the East Market Street location to make regular food purchases.

As news of the store closure spread this past weekend, shoppers came from as far away as Latrobe to look for close-out bargains while many local residents simply carried on with their normal shopping routine.

Dean Tripodis, who was among shoppers at the store Sunday, called the announced closure "depressing. It's the only supermarket in town. Now it's going to be an empty building."

Tripodis said that despite suffering from bad feet, he walks the block from his home to the BiLo store as many as three times a day to make purchases. "It's my exercise," he said.

Echoing the comments of several other shoppers, Tripodis said the quality of products sold in the store's meat department were among factors that kept him a loyal customer.

"It's not just a supermarket," he said, explaining he comes to store to get checks cashed and enjoys sipping coffee and chatting with other residents at the deli bar.

He expressed sympathy for the workers, including some veteran employees, who stand to lose their jobs with the store's demise.

Another Blairsville area shopper -- Darla Glass, who resides on Penn View Mountain -- said the local BiLo store "definitely will be missed. Every town needs a supermarket."

Glass said she shops at the store once a week, looking for items that she can't find stocked at other local stores. She noted she could drive to another community to complete her shopping list, but, "I prefer to keep my business local."

With the Blairsville store set to close, she said, "I feel bad for the senior citizens that can't jump in their car and drive to Indiana."

"I'd like to see another grocery store come in, a chain that can do specials," she added.

Prior to its affiliation with Penn Traffic's BiLo chain, the Blairsville grocery store had operated as an A&P supermarket.

A few miles east of town on Rt. 22, in neighboring Burrell Township, a Shop 'n Save grocery franchise operated for some years at a shopping plaza now occupied by the Tri-Star Motors auto dealership. A Thorofare market was in business for a time on the opposite side of the highway. At a newer township plaza, Wal-Mart has more recently provided competition for the downtown Blairsville supermarket.

How it went down

Late last year, Syracuse, N.Y.-based Penn Traffic filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for the third time in about a decade. On Jan. 29, Tops, headquartered in Williamsville, N.Y., announced it had completed a court-approved purchase of a majority of Penn Traffic's assets. That deal bought Tops the Blairsville Bi-Lo location and 78 other supermarkets in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and New Hampshire, in return for $85 million in cash and substantial reductions in unsecured claims made against Penn Traffic.

On Feb. 18, Tops announced its decision to close the corporate-owned Blairsville Bi-Lo store along with three other markets in Clarion, Cornell, N.Y., and Vermont.

In a release, the company noted the Blairsville closing resulted from an ongoing 30-day evaluation of all its newly acquired stores that looked at such factors as "economic viability, current store condition and location within the geographic footprint for Tops."

Prior to the Penn Traffic purchase, Tops had 76 existing stores in Western and Central New York State and Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Tops spokesperson Kate McKenna could not identify which factor was most important in prompting the Blairsville BiLo closure. She noted the review of each store looked at "its ability to compete successfully in the marketplace."

At the Blairsville supermarket, signs were posted outside and inside last weekend announcing the store closing and merchandise discounts initially ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent.

McKenna said a company specializing in liquidation close-outs would be in charge of closing the Blairsville store.

"Operating hours will remain the same through the liquidation," she said. "We'd expect that the employees would stay on until that point."

Union workers at the store are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23.

"We are working closely with the union to discuss future employment opportunities," McKenna said.

A Johnstown area BiLo store is the next closest Tops-owned location that remained in operation this week.

The Tops purchase did not include independently owned BiLo supermarkets in Homer City, Seward and Indiana.

Dave Mercik, owner of the Homer City store, said his market would continue to operate under the BiLo name for the foreseeable future. He noted C&S Wholesale, which supplies items for his store, previously purchased the rights to the BiLo and Riverside trade names from Penn Traffic.

McKenna noted the Tops purchase of Penn Traffic assets included the equipment at the Blairsville store but not the physical property, which reportedly is heavily mortgaged.

"The bank owns that property," McKenna said.

Local officials responded to the announced store closure Monday, with the Blairsville Community Development Authority assigning its action committee to court potential grocers that might be interested in moving into the location once it is vacated. The committee is headed by Blairsville businessman and property owner Michael LaMantia.

"We have to act on this immediately," LaMantia said. "We have to find independent (grocers) and reach out to the corporates. We have to move, and we have to do it now."

BCDA board member Mary Ugoletti indicated it would be advisable for a potential new operator to occupy the store before the fixtures have been removed, in order to hold down costs of reopening the store under new management.

Ugoletti suggested also touching base with Indiana County and Chamber of Commerce officials to coordinate efforts to find an occupant for the location.

BCDA Executive Director Jim Carmo cited a proposed new 64-unit housing development along West Market Street as a "key selling point to get somebody interested in investing in this town."

Several BCDA officials Monday debated the factors that may have led to the BiLo store's announced closure.

Chairman Joe Serwinski cited the store's location on the southernmost end of the Tops service area. "Distribution would be a problem for them," he suggested.

Carmo observed that, over the long term, local residents were not shopping at the store in sufficient numbers to support it.

Serwinski theorized the store's offerings were "not the right product addressed to the right people.

"You have to bring to this town what it needs. There's definitely a need here."

Borough council member Carolyn Smith, who was among audience members at the BCDA meeting, suggested a smaller-sized store might find greater success serving the community.

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