No operator for Hill grocery store, Search goes on

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When 20 or so Hill District residents attended the regularly scheduled Dinwiddie Community Alliance meeting, they expected to hear from Hill House CEO Evan Frazier that construction would soon begin on a grocery and retail center anchored by a Kuhn’s market.

Instead they heard Kuhn’s has not committed to the project, despite giving that impression to the community, the Hill House and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh for nearly a year.

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NO GROCERY DEAL— Seated next to Dinwiddie Community Alliance President Marlene Jackson, Hill House President and CEO Evan Frazier explains that Kuhn’s has not yet agreed to operate a new grocery to be built on Centre Avenue in the Hill District and other operators are being contacted.

Frazier, turning the Nov. 9 meeting over to developer Jason Matthews, who he said is working on the day-to-day grind of finding an operator for the center to be built across Centre Avenue from the Hill House.

Asked if Kuhn’s was out of the project, Frazier said, “They aren’t out, but they aren’t in. They haven’t confirmed.”

In February, Frazier told the URA the $8.4 million in project financing had been secured, the bulk coming from government and foundation grants. Of that, Kuhn’s was expected to contribute about $1.3 million.

The audience of mostly elderly residents, who either have to shop at convenience stores or at groceries in Shadyside or the South Side, was not pleased

“We’ve waited 20 years, 21 now, for a grocery in the Hill,” said Mary Finnson. “How can they keep us dangling? They’ve been doing it for over a year. Can’t we send them an ultimatum?”

Matthews said he gave Kuhn’s ample time to commit to the project, but “they haven’t responded to our (proposal) letter.”

“We can’t wait for them, we have to move on,” he said. “So now we are aggressively pursuing an operator. We can only control what we can control, and that is to move on.”

Joe Dentici, president of Franklin Square, Inc., which operates Kuhn’s Market in the Pittsburgh region, could not be reached by phone for comment. E-mail inquiries on the delay were not answered.

Matthews said he is currently dealing with “more than 10 full-service grocery operators in the tri-state area that have experience in operating urban stores in “challenging and recovering neighborhoods.”

“We’ve laid out our expectations for employment for Hill residents and they know that they would have to meet with the community if things progress,” he said. “But during negotiations, they’ve asked us to protect their identities.”

Matthews reiterated that market studies show that such a store would draw from Uptown and Downtown, as well as the Hill, and also includes commuter traffic going to and from Oakland.

“The market is here, but this is a tough economy right now,” he said. “In a challenging economy, people often try to protect what they have rather than expanding. I feel it, too. I live here and I don’t want to drive to Shadyside every time I need to go shopping. So, I have a vested interest in getting this done.”

But with winter on the doorstep, he said, even if a deal were signed today, construction could not begin until spring. Even then, it would take another 12-16 months of construction to realize the project.

(Send comments to cmorrow @newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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