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County chief exec visits Valley

| Thursday, April 17, 2003

The earth will be moving soon in Frazer.

On the first leg of an Allegheny County North Council of Government's tour Wednesday, Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey and a Mills Corp. official said crews should begin moving dirt within the next couple of weeks to make way for the proposed Pittsburgh Mills mall.

The $285 million shopping and entertainment complex, which is being developed by the Mills Corp., a national real-estate investment trust, will be built on 340 acres in southern Frazer on land owned by Johnstown-based developer Damian Zamias. It's on schedule to open in late 2004 or early 2005.

Elizabeth Link, group vice president for pre-development for the Mills Corp., who met with Roddey at his stop in Harmar, said an official ground-breaking ceremony should take place sometime in June.

She said crews will need to move 8.5 million cubic yards of soil. In comparison. That's more than double the 3.7 million cubic yards of dirt moved when crews built the A-15 Bypass in Manor Township. Officials said dirt moved to complete the highway could have filled the former Three River Stadium eight times.

Construction on a $26 million interchange to connect the mall with Route 28 should also begin soon, Link said.

The mall could create about 2,300 full-time jobs, and about 8,000 jobs during construction. But Link still is mum on which tenants the mall will attract, and said it is up to them to make their own announcements.

The prospect of earth moving has created a great deal of optimism for a project that's been talked about for nearly a quarter of a century.

"It is a different type of retail development," Roddey said. "The project is exciting because it draws people from all over."

Company officials expect 40 percent of the mall's shoppers to come from within 20 miles away, 40 percent to come from 20 to 40 miles away, and the remainder to come from even greater distances.

Roddey also noted that Franklin Mills, which is outside of Philadelphia, is the state's No. 1 tourist attraction.

Frazer Supervisor Christine Heintzinger said it's nice too see Roddey behind the project and said she's happy for all the support the long-awaited project has received.

"We're actually beginning to see things happen," she said.

The mall could create other developments, drastically transforming the look of the heart of the Allegheny Valley.

Link said there are typically several off-shoot developments that spring up within a year after the malls are completed.

Roddey also sees potential in the area, and he said he's encouraged by the enthusiasm of local leaders who have hung in when support was hard to come by.

"The riverfront will become prime property," Roddey said.

One developer taking advantage of the riverfront is the Acorn Group. Roddey and other local leaders stopped by the Tarentum site where the Pittsburgh-based development company hopes to build a 36- to 40-unit upscale apartment building on First Avenue, along the Allegheny River between Adams and Wood streets.

Scott Rittman, President and CEO of the Acorn Group, showed Roddey a conceptual plan of the complex, which would include such amenities as an elevator, a view of the river from every apartment, and a parking garage.

"It's going to be a pretty much a pristine setting from this side (of the river), looking over," Rittman told Roddey while standing at the proposed site.

The developer is still working to obtain all approvals and permits, and hopes to break ground by spring 2004.

"I've already had inquires about rentals," Rittman said.

The tour, which began at the Harmar municipal building, also swung by the Alle-Kiski HOPE Center, The Alle-Kiski Historical Society in Tarentum, and the Fourth Avenue Bridge in Tarentum, which is in dire need of repairs.

The bridge has been reduced to one lane and Tarentum officials only have a portion of the money needed to repair or replace it. Money at the state level is scarce.

Roddey told officials he'll do his best to find money to help fix the dilapidated bridge.

"We'll try to find out as quickly as we can. It's a bad situation," Roddey said.

The chief executive also talked about dealing with a nearly $2.5 billion state budget deficit, slot machines at racetracks, combining municipal services, and the proposed Allegheny Valley Commuter Train.

He also said there's a good possibility that the traditional Army-Navy Football game could be coming to Pittsburgh in 2005. That year, the city will also host the senior Olympics, and possibly the World Champion Bass Fishing contest, although bringing in a professional bass fishing contest likely would mean having to change a state law that prohibits "culling." That's the practice of catching fish, placing them in live-wells and then releasing smaller fish as larger ones are caught.

One of Roddey's major budget concerns is that state budget cuts proposed by Gov. Ed Rendell will cull about $2.5 million from the county's budget, much coming from human service and the Port Authority.

"It hurts the people at the lowest end of the economic scale," he said.

Roddey said he supports slot machines at the state's five racetracks, and said they may become a reality in about a year. He also said he hopes another track will be built in Allegheny County, as one is being proposed in the Hays section of Pittsburgh.

The Allegheny Valley Commuter Train, which would run from Arnold to downtown Pittsburgh, has been talked about for several years, but it's never come to fruition.

Roddey said he sees advantages and disadvantages to the project. The advantages being that it would relieve some traffic from Route 28, and it would also provide sight-seeing and excursion trips.

But he said the challenges include the fact that it would cost about $30 million, not take that much traffic off of Route 28 relative to the number of motorists who use the road, require the closing of several gate crossings, and it would also require an agency, such as Port Authority Transit, to pick up the operating costs.

But county Councilman Rick Swartz remains optimistic about the train, and said another public hearing on the proposal will be held April 30 at the Harmar municipal building.

"We want to show that support is not just based on the other side of the river," he said.

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