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Wal-Mart plans supercenter at Highlands site

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By Jason Walker
Thursday, June 9, 2005
 

The developer of a proposed shopping complex that would replace the Highlands Mall and include a Wal-Mart Supercenter is touting it as a community oriented center.

Guy DiRienzo, a partner with Michael Joseph Development, said Wal-Mart doesn't think its customer base will be driven by traffic going to the Pittsburgh Mills mall, which is being built in Frazer, but rather from area residents.

"We're going to serve the community," DiRienzo said.

Michael Joseph Development is partnering with the mall's owner, R.H. Kuhn, on the development. The proposed site sits less than 9 miles north of Pittsburgh Mills.

A Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's bulk sales store, are expected to open in late January near Pittsburgh Mills. There also is a Wal-Mart in the Waterworks mall, less than 10 miles south of the Mills mall. Wal-Mart also has stores in East Franklin, Butler Township and Delmont. A Supercenter similar to the one proposed in Harrison is planned to be built along Saltsburg Road in Penn Hills near the Plum line.

John Bisio, regional manager of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart, said plans for the Harrison Wal-Mart are concrete and there are no plans to close any of the existing stores in the region.

Bisio said the new stores are long overdue based on the shopping patterns of area residents who travel to other regional Wal-Mart locations.

"Each of those stores will probably be very busy despite their close proximity," Bisio said.

Plans for the Harrison center call for Roomful Express to stay, along with two other larger retail stores, two sit-down restaurants, two fast food restaurants, a bank, an ice cream stand and a gas station.

DiRienzo said developers had discussions with officials from J&S Pizza, one of the current Highlands Mall tenants, about staying. He said it's also possible that Dollar General Store, another current tenant, could remain in the development.

The fate of the mall's other anchor store, Bilo Foods, still is uncertain. A company spokesman said Tuesday he was unaware of plans to demolish Highlands Mall and said he didn't know of any plans to close the store.

The proposed center would sit on 51 acres and dwarf Highlands Mall. The major portion of the center would sit behind the current mall site, which occupies about 15 acres.

Demolition of Highlands Mall is expected to start next year, with an anticipated spring 2007 opening.

DiRienzo said developers have been looking at Harrison for a while.

He said Highlands Mall, which was built in the early 1970s, is antiquated.

Business at the mall has declined since its anchor stores, first Gee Bee Department Store and then Value City Department Store, vacated. That created a chain reaction of departures that included GNC, Walden Books, Hallmark and King's Jewelers. Many of those businesses never were replaced and there are several vacant storefronts in the mall. Mall officials also were never able to draw in another anchor and the spot most recently occupied by Value City is the site of a weekend flea market.

DiRienzo said the Wal-Mart Supercenter and adjoining businesses will fill a much needed shopping void for area residents.

The developer also said reaction from the community is positive, and township officials are proactive with trying to get the development going.

He said Freeport Road is equipped to handle the added traffic and a third entrance will be added.

Harrison Commissioner George Conroy said the center has been cleared with the township.

"It looks like it's the real thing. They have a signed agreement," Conroy said.

He said plans for the Highlands Mall site look more concrete than the shopping center that was proposed in 2003 off of the Route 28 expressway along Burtner Road. Those plans evolved into plans for a horse racing track and slots parlor, but those fell through, too. Conroy said he hasn't heard of any current plans for that site.

The commissioner said he hopes the development will bring more traffic into the township, something he said could help other businesses and lead to other development.

"Any kind of commercial development is good," he said, noting that the Wal-Mart development will be a boost to the township tax base.

Commissioner Mike Stanoski said the addition of the complex could create new jobs.

"We've needed something like this for a long time," Stanoski said.

When Wal-Mart Supercenters move in, there's often a fear that they will drive out small businesses in the area.

Paul Rosenberg, part owner of Community Market in Heights Plaza, shares those concerns. "We're always concerned when a big guy like that comes in. They show no mercy," Rosenberg said.

Heights Plaza Manager Lori Moran welcomed the new center.

"I think it's going to bring a lot of traffic and excitement to the area," Moran said.

She said sales at the plaza are strong. Moran said she believes Wal-Mart will be a good neighbor.

DiRienzo and Bisio said they are aware that business owners often fear Wal-Mart, but both said existing businesses can learn to live with the development and often thrive.

"I think you have the old school of thought that they (existing businesses) can't compete, but I've seen otherwise and heard otherwise," DiRienzo said.

"Many businesses fine tune their model or sharpen their pencil, and they compete just fine."

Wal-Mart pros and cons

Wal-Mart's presence in Pennsylvania and in the Valley is increasing. Here's a look at the positive impact Wal-Mart touts versus the detriments claimed by store opponent WalmartWatch.

According to Wal-Mart:

  • Wal-Mart has 61 Supercenters, 48 Discount Stores, 21 Sam's Clubs and four distribution centers in Pennsylvania.

  • There were 46,475 Wal-Mart employees statewide as of March 15.

  • The average wage for a full-time hourly employee in Pennsylvania is $9.25 per hour.

  • Wal-Mart spent $4.3 billion for merchandise and services from 2,500 suppliers in Pennsylvania last year.

  • Wal-Mart contributed $270 million in sales tax and $60 million in state and local taxes in Pennsylvania last year.

    According to WalmartWatch:

  • A University of Iowa study found that when Wal-Mart opened 60 stores in Iowa, more than 1,500 pharmacies, grocery, hardware, building supply, variety and women's stores went out of business.

  • The average Wal-Mart clerk earns $14,000 a year, which is below the poverty level for a family of three.

  • Wal-Mart will import $18 billion from China and $2 billion from India this year, not to mention billions of imports from other low-wage countries.

  • Taxpayers nationwide paid for $1.5 billion in federal subsidies for Wal-Mart employee health care, food stamps and housing.

    Sources: www.walmart.com , walmartwatch.com

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