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Business owners view New Ken-Arnold as right place to set up shop

| Monday, May 5, 2003

Their stories and specialties are different, but their idea is the same. Both believe the New Kensington-Arnold area is a great place to do business.

Wholesale Transmissions opened in New Kensington in 1983. A landmark at Ninth Street and Fourth Avenue since 1987, the business has transformed during the past six months and has gone so far as to invest in a blacklight.

In neighboring Arnold, two young business partners are hoping for the longevity Wholesale Transmissions has experienced.

Eric Lee, 31, and Brenna Kouchak, 28, both of Monroeville, plan to open a grill at Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. What they said will be called Babbo'z Grill will offer a mixture of steak, seafood and other grilled specialties.

"This was just the right building and the right place," Lee said.

Lee and Kouchak said they purchased the old Slovak Catholic Sokol Home for about $25,000 and will invest between $60,000 and $70,000 renovating the interior, which now is exposed brick and concrete. They plan to employ about 10 people, Lee said.

Lee, a builder and owner of Royal Custom Homes, said the restaurant area will be on the bottom floor of the two-story building while the top floor will be converted into an office.

"This (building) just kind of jumped out at us," said Kouchak, who has family in Arnold.

Officials in New Kensington and Arnold are hoping more business owners show the same confidence in the area. The cities are involved in the state's Weed and Seed program, which, in part, aims to bolster the economic base in the area.

New Kensington already has attracted a new business that many expect will draw interest from across the Valley. The Valley Sports Complex, which features an ice rink, tennis courts and other athletic facilities, is scheduled to open in the fall at Falcons Park at Craigdell Road and Route 56.

In addition, a quiet but booming business along Third Avenue in New Kensington is preparing for an expansion.

Fastenal, an industrial-supply company sheltered in relative obscurity behind an unassuming storefront, has purchased the former Dyke Automotive and Nu Ken Tavern buildings for a planned expansion.

By early fall, motorists crossing the Ninth Street bridge should be looking at a new storefront.

Fastenal plans to tear down part of the two buildings -- which it purchased for about $75,000 -- to create a 5,000-square-foot showroom with 10,000 square feet of storage space. The company now houses its operation in slightly more than 1,500 square feet.

Fastenal, a national chain, will sink about $200,000 into renovations, according to district manager Don Neimetz.

"We leased the current building just to get up and running," Neimetz said. "This new building is probably the best location you can have in town."

To staff the new outfit the company plans to hire three people. One will be a full-time manager trainee earning about $25,000 per year, and two others will be part-time earning about $8 per hour.

Fastenal does about $1 billion annually in sales and has stores in all 50 states. The company plans to open stores in Latrobe, Uniontown and the North Hills.

Ron Ciciarelli, owner of Wholesale Transmissions, said he, too, is looking to expand to other locations after recently investing about $70,000 in an expansion in New Kensington.

For a while it looked as if the business might move entirely, Ciciarelli said. But the combination of a good location and the promise of a better business climate was enough reason to stay and expand, he said.

Wholesale Transmissions, which employs 10 people, since September has expanded its parts business to compliment its transmission re-manufacturing operation and do what Ciciarelli said very few other transmission businesses are doing.

"The concept of wholesale-retail has never been done successfully in the business," he said.

As part of its overhaul, which Ciciarelli said started shortly after he hired a consultant to streamline the business, Wholesale Transmissions added a touch of art -- a blacklit room that shows the components of a transmission.

"We cater to shiftless people," is the business' motto. And one of its continuing business practices is lending its services to walk-in clients rebuilding transmissions on their own.

The business continues to do work for other garages and dealers.

"This is still a hell of a location," Ciciarelli said. "We felt that we were probably further ahead by putting the money in and staying here."

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