The sign is clear as day outside the Centre Heldman Plaza in the Hill District.
“Shop ‘n Save, Now Hiring! Apply in store!”
But Hill District residents—and many residents city-wide—know that can’t be the case, as the Hill’s Shop ‘n Save location will soon be closing its doors—for good.
“It’s a shame,” said a man who identified himself to the New Pittsburgh Courier as Suber, with bags in hand leaving the Shop ‘n Save, Feb. 23. “I just moved up here (from Westmoreland County), this is the perfect place to shop conveniently for people around here.”
Suber has lived in the K. Leroy Irvis Towers for about a year, but as of March 20, according to reports, he, along with others, won’t be able to shop at the store, because it will permanently close.
Jeff Ross, owner of the Hill District Shop ‘n Save, along with other Shop ‘n Save locations such as in McKeesport and Mt. Pleasant, could not be reached for comment.
But the Courier found that the Hill District Shop ‘n Save was dying a slow death. The Courier, along with other media outlets, confirmed that Ross stopped paying monthly rent payments to the Hill House Economic Development Corporation almost 10 months ago. And Dollar Bank, which has a branch inside the store, recently announced they were closing the branch on Tuesday, March 19. Dollar Bank told various media outlets such as KDKA-TV that they were leaving because Shop ‘n Save ownership told them the store would close on March 20.
The Courier spoke with two current Shop ‘n Save employees on Feb. 23 who said that store management never officially told them that the store was closing—they found out like everyone else, “on the news.”
Jake Wheatley, the Pennsylvania state representative which encompasses the Hill District, told the Courier in an exclusive interview on Jan. 10 that local officials had known “for some time” that Ross wanted to close the store.
“He’s been saying this for months that he wanted to leave,” Rep. Wheatley told the Courier. “He’s been trying to leave for a while because he felt like it wasn’t what he initially bargained for.”
Out of the $11 million that it cost to build the store, Ross reportedly only invested $1 million of his own money. The remaining $10 million came from a mixture of public and private sources, including the Pittsburgh Penguins and Urban Redevelopment Authority each contributing $1 million. Money also came from The Reinvestment Fund, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the McCune Foundation, and the Heinz Endowments, according to a 2010 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
As Hill District officials were head-over-heels at the time of the store’s grand opening in October 2013, Rep. Wheatley told the Courier that in hindsight, “I think government was at fault” for giving Ross “a free space basically, and he didn’t have any vested interest financially in making this (a grocery store in the Hill District) happen. So his store, in my opinion, was run that way.”
Representative Wheatley added: “So I don’t think we’re disagreeing that he needs to go. I think all of us can agree, he’s not the right operator for the Hill District.”
Representative Wheatley said Ross knows how to run a grocery store. Ross, a McKeesport High School graduate, has fabulous-looking stores in McKeesport, Connellsville and Mount Pleasant, according to Rep. Wheatley. But because “the government and the foundation community basically built his store, they basically put his equipment in there…he came in there with his food product, but it was basically shovel-ready for him,” Ross didn’t care as much about the Hill District store as his other stores, according to the state Rep.
“We know he knows how to do it (run a store), but I don’t think he (Ross) really wanted to be in the Hill,” Rep. Wheatley told the Courier. “He didn’t make the money that he wanted, but he will tell you that he felt he didn’t get the support that he thought he should have gotten from the Hill House.”
Hence, the non-payment of rent. As far back as May 2018, the Courier has confirmed.
“After significant attempts to salvage this arrangement, we no longer believe its continuation is advantageous to our customers or the community as a whole,” said Ross, in a statement first reported by the Post-Gazette on Feb. 20. “I remain a steadfast believer in the vigor of this community and am hopeful that the Centre Heldman Plaza will be revitalized in the near future.”
As shoppers picked up some of the hot foods at Shop ‘n Save on your normal Saturday afternoon, Feb. 23, one man, who did not want to be identified but was a jitney, expressed to the Courier that he heard plenty of complaints “about the food being outdated” and “stale” in the store.
Suber added: “It’s kind of expensive in there, too. It’s more expensive than other Shop ‘n Saves I’ve been in.”
“To make these types of things work, because the margins (in the grocery store business) are always so close, you need an operator who really wants to be in the area,” Rep. Wheatley said. “Gotta be flexible with what you’re offering, how you’re offering it, how you are employing people, how you are investing in people that you employ, all of that.
“You have to be a vested owner.”
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