Walmart store could be built behind Northern Lights in Economy

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Zamias Services was about out of ideas for the moribund Northern Lights Shopping Center on Route 65 in Economy, Stephen Zamias said.

"We are great at the hands-on stuff, turning properties around," Mr. Zamias said of his company. "This one has befuddled us."

So how's this for a plan? Lose a chunk of property to eminent domain, get a road built through the middle of the plaza and have a huge competitor build next door.

"We think it's going to open up the floodgates," Mr. Zamias said. "We believe it will increase significantly the integrity of our shopping center."

The road would open up 225 acres behind Northern Lights, and Wal-Mart is interested in building a super center on the site.

The plan, which has the enthusiastic support of Economy officials, could bring a projected 440 jobs and draw shoppers from up and down the Ohio Valley.

It also would improve the borough's tax base. The property is the only significant commercial land available in the borough, but without access, it isn't worth much.

"We're thrilled to death," Economy Mayor Dave Poling said.

Jason N. Klipa, senior manager for public affairs and government relations for Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said he didn't have any information on the proposed store.

But according to Mr. Poling, brokers working for Wal-Mart initially met with borough officials in March 2006 to talk about coming into Northern Lights Shopping Center. Giant Eagle's lease in the plaza, however, guarantees that it operate the only supermarket there, and "there was no way around that lease," Mr. Poling said.

That was shortly after the former J.C. Penney building in the shopping center was razed. With that three-story edifice gone, the hillside behind the plaza was clearly visible, Mr. Poling said.

The Wal-Mart brokers noticed.

"They asked, 'Well, who owns that property up there?' " Mr. Poling said.

The borough filed an eminent domain claim in 2007 to obtain a right of way through the middle of the shopping center for a road to link Route 65 across from the former J.C. Penney site.

Giant Eagle opposed the claim, but when the state Supreme Court last month declined to hear a Giant Eagle appeal, it apparently cleared the way for the access road.

Dick Roberts, of Roberts Communications, which handles media relations for Giant Eagle, said the company declined to comment due to the legal situation.

Ohio Valley hillsides have not always been kind to Wal-Mart.

The company abandoned plans for a super center on the former Dixmont State Hospital site in Kilbuck after grading work led to a 2006 landslide that buried half of Route 65.

Mr. Poling said the slope up to the Economy site is not significant, and that soil testing already has been done. He also noted that the chain was interested in Economy before the Kilbuck landslide.

Wal-Mart also has struggled with its plans for a store on the site of West Hills Shopping Center on University Boulevard in Moon, where a number of regulatory issues have bogged down the development.

The actual planning in Economy is just beginning, and no time frame has been set for the super center to open.

But Mr. Zamias said it would be a boon to the Northern Lights Shopping Center for one simple reason: "You have to pass through it to get there."

He said there is a "universe of tenants that go with Walmart" -- restaurants, banks and specialty stores -- and he believes a number of them will be attracted to the plaza. He also can see new spaces opening along the road leading back to the Walmart.

The road would eliminate about 162 of the plaza's 1,136 parking spaces, but with J.C. Penney gone, the plaza has more spaces than it needs.

He also believes the changes could be good for Giant Eagle. If nothing else, more traffic would pass the store.

"Competition is what made this country great," he said, "and Giant Eagle is a great operator. They may have to do some new things, but I think they could do well, and I hope they will stay."


Brian David can be reached at bdavid@post-gazette.com or 412-722-0086.


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