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'Heartbroken' Monroeville leaders, businesses left reeling

| Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The future just became cloudier for Javid Shojaie, owner of Jaden's Catering in Monroeville.

"I have one word for you: heartbroken," said Shojaie. His largest customer, Westinghouse Electric Co., announced yesterday it plans to begin moving its headquarters -- and the 2,000 jobs located there -- from Monroeville to Cranberry, Butler County, in 2009.

Each week, Shojaie caters from two to 10 meals at Westinghouse's Energy Center, located just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

By late 2010, the sprawling building will be empty unless local leaders can lure a replacement tenant. The headquarters on Northern Pike were built for Westinghouse, which moved there in 1971.

"It means a lot to local restaurants. It means a lot to (Forbes Regional) hospital (and) to the caterers that do business in Monroeville. It's to the point of even the local repair shop and somebody getting their car fixed," said Democratic state Sen. Sean Logan, a former Monroeville mayor.

Visitors to Westinghouse account for as many as 15,000 hotel nights every year, said Chad Amond, president of the Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The job loss leaves Forbes Regional Hospital, with 1,500 employees, as the town's largest employer, Amond said.

"In some ways, it's kind of like losing a member of the family," Amond said. "They've been a member of this community for 35 years or so, and they've been in the eastern suburbs for about 100 years."

Gateway School District and Monroeville could lose about $370,000 in business privilege taxes, $310,000 in earned income taxes and $70,000 in emergency municipal services taxes each year.

The owner of the building -- currently HRPT Properties Trust, a Boston-area real estate giant that purchased the 535,000-square-foot building from Westinghouse in 1999 -- will be responsible for the $1.2 million in annual property taxes, even if no tenant moves in, Logan said.

HRPT Properties did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"'Frustrating' is probably an understatement," Logan said. "Monroeville and Gateway School District and Allegheny County worked hard on a proposal that was equal to, if not better than, what Cranberry offered."

The package included exempting the building from property taxes for 15 years and setting up training courses for Westinghouse employees at Community College of Allegheny County, Logan said.

Today, the adapting begins. The company said it plans to work with local leaders to develop a marketing strategy for the building.

"I think we're at the point where we say, 'Let's let this sink in for 24 hours,'" Amond said. "The decision has been made. We may not like it, but there's only one option: to look forward and try to bring in another employer to fill the void. It isn't the end of the world for us."

Shojaie said he hopes the contacts he has made with Westinghouse give him an excuse to expand further into Butler County, where he already makes occasional trips.

"We travel anyway, so I'm hoping some of my business will carry over," Shojaie said.

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