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Business district improvement studied

| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2002

A local real estate development and consulting company is using federal funds to research improvement ideas for the business district in Wilkinsburg and to decide whether a grocery store can be brought to the community.

Synergy Real Estate Corp., based Downtown, has received a grant from the Sanders Task Force to provide real estate consulting services and could decide by the end of September whether it thinks a grocery store for Wilkinsburg is a viable concept.

The task force is using more than $30 million in federal funds to prop up the economies in seven low-income communities to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit against Allegheny County and the Allegheny County Housing Authority that was settled in federal court in 1994.

The two-pronged contract with Synergy provides $20,000 for groundwork to see whether a grocery store can be established, with a $20,000 bonus should a grocery store company commit to putting a store in Wilkinsburg.

The other part of the contract gives $60,000 to Synergy to work on providing consulting services for the business district with a $6,000 bonus for each new business that commits to the business district, according to Julie Kascal, a task force administrator.

Kascal said Synergy and its president, Allan Wampler, a former head of the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development, have the economic development sense the project needed.

"They're pretty much more experienced at this than anybody else that has taken a tack at it," Kascal said.

Although many believe a full-service grocery store is key to improving Wilkinsburg's business district, Wampler said residents and officials need to look at the possibility of a store realistically.

He said the size of store that could work in Wilkinsburg, — about 15,000 square feet — runs counter to market trends, which tend toward grocery stores that are tens of thousands of square feet.

"When I was a kid, 10,000 square feet was a big one; today it's more like 110,000 square feet," Wampler said.

He said although real estate might be relatively inexpensive in Wilkinsburg, constructions costs just as much as in other communities.

He said in putting together a better retail environment in Wilkinsburg, Synergy would try to serve as an information source for businesses interested in putting down roots in the borough.

"We serve as the one-stop shop for information," Wampler said.

Longtime Wilkinsburg resident Danielle Mason said she thinks a lack of a sizable supermarket in Wilkinsburg is a big impediment to the borough. Mason said she has to take a bus to the Edgewood Towne Centre on South Braddock Avenue to go to the Giant Eagle there.

"That's the thing for a lot of people, especially single parents — they don't want to travel," Mason said.

Wilkinsburg Mayor Wilbert Young said the business district has 22 new businesses and has seen building permit fees more than triple since 1998.

But he said a grocery store, which has been talked about in Wilkinsburg for years, is still near the top of his list for improving the business district.

Wampler said even if his company decides that a grocery store can't work, his group can make other recommendations to pump up Wilkinsburg's retail and business district.

"We're not convinced the grocery store is the only thing that will create foot traffic," he said.

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