By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
While construction has begun to build an ice cream shop and a shoe store next to the Kohl’s department store in Hermitage, a city woman on Wednesday kept up her criticism of the way vacant parcels are being maintained in the development and what she perceives as the slow pace of construction.
City officials said they had no expectation as to how quickly building would occur, while a commissioner said he visited the site after she made her comments and he failed to see the maintenance issues she complained about.
A contractor has begun building the shell for Famous Footwear and Handel’s Ice Cream on the east side of the Kohl’s building, a $783,000 project according to the building permit.
Diane Syphrit of 182 S. Kerrwood Drive sees the progress as too little too late. She said an April 2012 economic impact study prepared for Penn Northwest Development Corp., Mercer County’s lead economic development agency, seemed to assume the development by Levey & Co. of Akron, Ohio, would be fully built out in the first year.
Construction began in July 2012 and Kohl’s is the only business in operation on the site.
Because the property has not been fully built out, Levey is way behind in property taxes generated, jobs generated and related economic factors, Syphrit said.
City officials said the economic impact study by Impact DataSource of Austin, Texas, was commissioned by Penn Northwest, not the city, and was only one factor considered by city staff in recommending that a tax-incremental finance plan be approved for Levey, and by commissioners on approving the plan.
In a TIF, some new taxes from a development are diverted to pay for public improvements. In Levey’s case, the commissioners, Hermitage School Board and county commissioners allowed 69 percent of new taxes to be diverted for 20 years to pay off a loan taken to finance public improvements, most notably the widening of the Shenango Valley Freeway and installation of a traffic signal.
City officials never assumed Levey would fill all of the parcels in the first year, City Manager Gary P. Hinkson said.
Assistant City Manager Gary M. Gulla added that the land development and building permit approval process takes time that delays the onset of construction.
Gulla asked residents not to judge the development by any projections from before work began, and to wait until it is finished.
Hinkson noted that Buffalo Wild Wings, a sports bar and restaurant, is about to open, and its parcel will be assessed for tax purposes soon, driving up the property taxes and number of jobs generated by the entire site.
“I think the numbers are increasing regularly and they’re going to continue to increase,” Hinkson said.
Syphrit also kept up the heat on Levey for how workers are managing construction materials and debris on the site.
She complained last month about the former McDonald’s parcel at the intersection of Hermitage Road and the freeway.
Since then, workers have moved a brush pile elsewhere on the property and simply flattened out a pile of waste concrete pieces, she said.
Syphrit also complained of high grass and weeds, noting that she can let her grass get no taller than 8 inches before the city could begin enforcement action against her.
“Why is the city allowing this when we have to maintain our properties?” she asked.
Hinkson responded that he contacted Levey about her issues after last month’s meeting and he believes the company has responded.
“They have cleaned up a considerable amount since we made that request,” she said.
In terms of grass and weeds, Hinkson noted the city does not have an enforcement mechanism for high grass on properties on which there is no structure.
“I’ll talk to them about their landscape debris and high grass,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Commissioner Tim Ruffo said he drove to the site after the meeting and failed to see the brush pile Syphrit mentioned, or any high grass or weeds.
“I’m not sure what the resident was complaining about at this time,” he said. “It seemed pretty much cleaned up. At this point, I think the property is well-maintained for what has been going on.”