Hempfield eyes future as ‘destination community’ through redevelopment
While officials work to steer development in Hempfield, they want to maintain some of the charm from the once-sprawling farming landscape when miles of grain fields and pastures were dotted by small patch towns.
Years of commercial and residential development has permanently altered much of that landscape, large swaths of which are now home to a second-generation shopping mall, big-box store plazas, chain restaurants and other businesses, including a string of auto dealerships.
Today, Hempfield has a population of about 42,300, with a promise of once again growing. On the horizon are plans for a casino and a residential project that could bring hundreds of new homes — one of the first large developments since the 2009 recession slowed such progress in Hempfield.
Calling residential growth key, township supervisors said they see the planned development of 200 homes as just the beginning.
Hempfield had more than 17,580 homes in 2010, the latest year for which figures are available. A new count will be conducted next year by the U.S. Census Bureau. Supervisors and planners, however, are preparing for an influx of single-family homes while maintaining commercial growth along the Route 30 corridor — which cuts east-west through the township and serves as the ribbon connecting its two business districts that bookend the city of Greensburg.
“I want to do my best to respect the traditions of our community but be prepared to take on the challenges that are coming our way … just through change,” Supervisor Robert Ritson said.
With a population that continues to get older, on average, and considering the fact that just 75 new houses have been built since January 2016, Hempfield officials are contemplating options that will appeal to young families and older adults.
Housing and schools
Decreased enrollment in Hempfield Area School District offers room to grow the housing market without burdening schools, Ritson said.
Since the 1993-94 academic year, the school district has lost 1,680 students from its rolls, falling to just more than 5,640 total students last year, Superintendent Tammy Wolicki said.
Enrollment totals increased only four times in the past 25 years.
“I believe there are multiple factors that contribute to the decline in enrollment,” Wolicki said. “The number of Westmoreland County residents has declined, and there are limited new housing developments.”
Census estimates show the county has lost nearly 15,000 residents over the past decade, with a population of just more than 350,000 people — and 22% of those being 65 or older.
School officials hope to enhance the district’s reputation by promoting programs, sharing student and staff achievements, improving academics and collaborating with local employers to prepare students for available jobs.
The 200 homes planned in the area of Swede Hill Road will create a bubble of growth that will benefit the district, Supervisor Doug Weimer said.
Originally proposed as Grandview II, 52 homes have been approved by the township’s planning commission and supervisors. Construction will be done in phases, Weimer said, with future entrances off Fosterville and Willow Crossing roads.
Planners also are looking into patio homes — attached units with maintenance handled by a homeowners association — and are expanding sewer lines along routes 30 and 66 in an effort to attract residential development.
Four projects along Route 30 will bring about 130 new customers to the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County for just over $6.1 million. The Route 66 sewer project will cost about $4 million and will add 48,700 feet of pipe to the township, allowing service to about 225 homes and businesses.
Westmoreland County’s new comprehensive plan, adopted in January, in part calls for reversing its ever-shrinking population by improving downtown areas and creating more recreational activities. Hempfield has no downtown. That’s another reason township officials, instead, are putting their focus on housing.
“We’re still a rural residential community,” Weimer said. “We’re surrounded by urban areas like Jeannette, Greensburg.”
Major housing developments are difficult to pinpoint over the township’s history, said planning coordinator Patrick Karnash. While large housing plans such as West Point and Fort Allen exist, they were likely smaller plans that abutted each other, eventually forming large neighborhoods.
Hempfield officials have no plans to expand commercially, at least not in the near future, Weimer said.
While several empty parcels remain scattered throughout the township’s roughly 77 square miles, Weimer said he doesn’t see commercial development moving past the areas around Westmoreland Mall or Greengate Center.
“I’ve continued to see the repurposing of commercial property, which I expect we’ll see in the future,” Weimer said. “I think the mall’s going to continue to evolve, the area around it’s going to continue to evolve. I don’t think you’re going to see them building another tier beyond that.”
Limited commercial growth isn’t new for Hempfield. Living in a farm town, residents often thought of Greensburg when it came to shopping or activities, said Thomas Harrold, president of the Baltzer Meyer Historical Society.
By the 1960s, the township saw a shift from farming with the development of Greengate Mall, a 650,000-square-foot shopping complex built on former farmland.
Development of a movie theater followed in 1974, located at what is now Eastgate Shopping Center.
Three years later, Westmoreland Mall opened five miles away, and underwent a $33 million renovation in 1994 — a renovation that led to the eventual closing of Greengate in 2001 and its demolition in 2003.
Greengate Center rose in its place, anchored by a Walmart Supercenter and attracting other businesses, such as Red Robin, PNC Bank, Starbucks and Panera Bread. The last parcel across the street from Greengate Center is set to be developed with three retail spaces and a restaurant.
But additions are in the works.
Work has begun to transform the former Bon-Ton department store space into a mini-casino. The $131 million project is expected to bring 500 full-time jobs to the area on top of 700 construction jobs expected to be needed to get it open.
The casino could attract restaurants like Guy Fieri’s Dive & Taco Joint, a nightlife area and a gaming and bar spot.
“The casino that’s coming, I’m a big believer,” Supervisor George Reese said. “That casino’s going to save that mall.”
A new restaurant and bar, IronRock Tap House, is set to open this summer on the mall’s outskirts along Route 30.
“We’re a gateway into the center of Westmoreland County,” Ritson said. “We want to be a destination community.”
Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, [email protected] or via Twitter .