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Hill developers says grocery remains in works

Bob Bauder
| Thursday, April 19, 2012

Leadership changes, cost estimate errors and a funding shortfall are the latest obstacles delaying construction of a long-awaited grocery store in the Hill District, officials said on Wednesday.

The Hill House Association, a community nonprofit developing the property across from its Centre Avenue headquarters, had said crews would complete work on an $8.5 million Shop 'n Save supermarket and adjoining retail plaza last year. Now the opening date is uncertain.

Cheryl Hall-Russell, who became the organization's president and CEO in September, said project estimates are closer to $9 million. She cited inaccurate estimates for store equipment, such as freezers, but would not disclose the amount Hill House needs.

"The clear message is we're going to have a store," she said. "The funders are still on board and ... I'm very confident that this will happen."

Hill House received financial pledges from government agencies and private donors, including $3.2 million from the state, Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority; $1 million from the Pittsburgh Penguins; $1 million from Philadelphia-based The Reinvestment Fund; and $525,000 from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, officials said.

The URA donated property worth $500,000. Dollar Bank is lending $1.5 million.

The project involves a supermarket to be operated by Jeff Ross, who owns four Shop 'n Save stores, and additional retail space. Ross, who did not return phone calls, is contributing $1 million and will lease the property.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said he directed the URA to help get the project back on track. Robert Rubinstein, the URA's acting director, said the agency is involved but referred questions to Hill House.

"It's taken a little bit longer than we would like at this point but we're 100-percent committed to getting it done," Ravenstahl said.

One major delay was the firing in February of Hill House Executive Director Julie C. Matthews, 39, and the subsequent resignation of her husband, Jason Matthews, who was project manager, Hall-Russell said. Julie Matthews filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired because she told Hill House management that project money was mishandled.

Hill House denied the claims and Hall-Russell said an independent auditor found nothing amiss. She said she asked for the review before Matthews sued, to make sure finances were in order.

"I'm glad we did it now," she said. "It was important for me to be able to go to our funders and say monies have been used exactly the way they should have."

Workers cleared the property at Centre Avenue and Heldman Street, Hall-Russell said. Hill House is seeking bids for a general contractor. Hall-Russell would not say how much money the group has spent.

Councilman Daniel Lavelle and state Rep. Jake Wheatley Jr., D-Hill District, said neighbors are frustrated that the long-promised store is not open but delays are common with large projects. Lavelle said the store could open in 2013.

"I think there were just some things that we could have done better," Hall-Russell said, without specifying.

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