South Union Township supervisor Robert Schiffbauer refers to it as the “synergy hub of development” in Fayette County.
The retail center in the northwest corner of the township, abutting the west side of Uniontown and containing the Uniontown Mall and Wal-Mart Supercenter and Target box stores, saw continued growth and ample changes in 2014 to make the shopping area a primary destination for consumers.
“We’ve continued a long-term trend of retail that started to show back in the early 1990s. Ever since then we’ve had a flow of retail development in that area,” Schiffbauer said.
Since the start of 2014, the township has seen the commencement of the final stage of Fayette Crossing, the beginning stages of redevelopment at Cherry Tree Square, a series of hotel developments, numerous new stores and restaurants and the start of two major roadway projects that will provide motorists better access to existing retail centers.
“We’re just trying to maximize the potential at that area,” said Schiffbauer. “It puts less pressure on residents. That development is paying for the bulk of what takes place here in South Union Township.”
Schiffbauer recalled that the genesis of retail development in the township was the creation of a sewage authority in the 1960s that set the groundwork for the implementation of infrastructure that businesses would need to locate there.
When the Uniontown Mall opened in the early 1970s and was joined several years later by other large box stores, the area began to grow as a retail hub. It took off, Schiffbauer said, when the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority, after persuasion from local officials, decided to build the Mon-Fayette Expressway through Uniontown and provide better access points to the South Union Township business district.
“When we saw the commission’s (original) plans, it wasn’t doing anything to further the existing development,” said Schiffbauer. “That’s when we realized we had to do something proactive to bring these improvements that would bring this further development.”
Connecting the turnpike to Route 40 via Northgate Highway — and, more importantly, extending Matthew Drive to stretch from Route 40 to Route 21 — proved fruitful for business.
“Once the Matthew Drive Extension project began, it really allowed things at Fayette Crossing to pick up. Without the Matthew Drive development, there would be no Fayette Crossing,” Shiffbauer said. “That’s $40, $50, $60 million of development that would not have taken place.”
The 60-acre Fayette Crossing was born in 2008 with the construction of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and various restaurants. The development’s second phase, constructed just east of Wal-Mart in 2012, consisted of a strip plaza.
The third phase of development, which began construction in October, comprises a shopping center anchored by Hobby Lobby and Dick’s Sporting Goods stores, which are scheduled to open in 2015. When completed, the complex will consist of nearly 400,000 square feet of retail space.
Phase three came to fruition after lengthy discussions in 2014 between developer Cedarwood Development Inc. of Ohio and county, township and Laurel Highlands School District officials over the controversial tax increment financing (TIF) plan, which uses municipal tax dollars to reimburse the developer for funds spent on infrastructure.
The TIF was approved by the county and township after the school district opted out of the plan. Delays in the plan’s approval and subsequent changes to the deal caused several retailers to pass on locating in the shopping center.
“(Hobby Lobby and Dick’s Sporting Goods) would not have been able to be built if not for the approval of the TIF,” said Randy Hake, vice president of commercial development for Cedarwood. “We were in serious negotiations with national retailers who would come if we could get them a significant rent reduction. We lost a couple of significant opportunities,” said Hake.
Under the current agreement, the county and township will turn over to Cedarwood all of the tax revenue generated from the property for a 20-year period — a total of about $965,000.
Construction began in December on a major expansion of the commercial strip of Route 21 to turn the road into a four-lane highway. The $18 million project will include an overhaul of the intersection of Route 21, Matthew Drive and the Route 119 on/off ramps and provide the shopping area with improved ease of access, said Schiffbauer.
“Fifty-six thousand vehicles traverse that intersection on a daily basis,” he said. “Developers are going to see this and say, ‘Hey, this is the place to invest, so we can easily get our customers in and out.’”
The nearby redevelopment of Cherry Tree Square will feature a Harbor Freight Tools store, a grocery store and additional retail and office space.
Several hotel developments in the township will improve the area’s hospitality industry and add jobs. Construction began on a 119-room Hilton Garden Inn in South Union Township soon after the opening of an 80-room Comfort Suites a short distance away. An 88-room Holiday Inn Express is planned in South Union Township. Last year, a Pittsburgh hospitality company purchased the 178-room Holiday Inn in South Union Township, rebranding it a Park Inn by Radisson and beginning work on substantial renovations.
In January, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) announced that the Uniontown Mall is for sale, but Schiffbauer said it is not worrisome.
“What we haven’t seen is what we see in other towns, where the malls just die out,” he said. “PREIT is just shifting priorities. We’ve seen them put substantial money into improvements over the last couple years, including a new roof and newly paved parking lot. We think it’s going to be a very viable retail center for the township for several years to come.”
A road construction project at the intersection of Route 40 and New Salem Road will see the installation of an additional left turning lane from Route 40 West onto New Salem to better the flow of traffic towards Matthew Drive.
Among an influx of national chains, the township also anticipates a new Sheetz gas station and convenience store and Chili’s and Five Guy’s Burgers and Fries restaurants in the area. Chain restaurants new to the township in 2014 include Dunkin’ Donuts and Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches.
“It’s the agglomeration effect,” Schiffbauer said. “Businesses like to locate where there is existing, driving development.
“To try to eliminate (national) businesses from coming in wouldn’t do justice to the people that live here,” he said, noting that a substantial portion of the township and school district’s revenue is the result of various taxes derived from the businesses.
Schiffbauer is hopeful in developing vacant land owned by the county Redevelopment Authority east of Wal-Mart, an area where Mike Wood Toyota is currently building a new facility.