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BLAIRSVILLE BOROUGH: Council takes first step to grant tax relief for supermarket plan

by on September 18, 2013 10:59 AM

BLAIRSVILLE — Blairsville council has given its consent to a deal in which a developer looking to return a supermarket to the borough’s downtown would receive a 10-year reprieve on local and state taxes through an economic development program.

Council approved the deal, with conditions, during a meeting Tuesday. If Blairsville-Saltsburg School District and Indiana County commissioners give their blessing, too, the former BiLo supermarket along Market Street would be designated as a Keystone Opportunity Expansion Zone, qualifying it for a state income tax and local property tax abatement for up to 10 years.

Ordinarily, properties in the program receive a blanket abatement. But in this case, the designation is coming with a few strings attached, conditions that are being pushed by the school district.

For the deal to pass muster with the school board, the project developers, Earl Hewitt and D. Craig Josephson, had to agree to a compromise, a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan that will provide for some revenue while the building is enrolled in the program.

Under that plan, they will pay an amount equivalent to what would be 25 percent of the store’s tax bill in year eight, ramping up to 50 percent in year nine and 75 percent in the final year. Also, they’ll pay an amount equivalent to the full 2013 tax bill for all 10 years on an outbuilding that houses a state liquor store and Hewitt Real Estate’s Blairsville office.

Smith said the compromise came about as some on the board weren’t keen on giving a 10-year break to the project. And in the case of the outbuilding, some believed it doesn’t make sense to provide an incentive to a building that already is in use.

The school board has a handshake agreement on the deal and is to vote on it tonight. Council followed suit on the compromise.

Byron Stauffer, executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, said the state frowns upon such deals related to properties enrolled in the program. But he said it will accept them if there is justification.

Stauffer told council and the school board there are no guarantees that the developers will be able to find a grocer for the space, especially as the business would have to compete with a Walmart just up the road in Burrell Township. There also is a small market across the street from the store.

But he said the building is not likely to be put back into use without some sort of aid because its interior has been gutted, requiring significant investment to return it to occupancy.

Stauffer said that should the developers fail to find a grocer for the space, they’ll look for some other commercial user.

Councilwoman Mary Ugoletti argued that having a downtown supermarket will be vital to the success of a proposed housing development along the Conemaugh River. Therefore, she suggested that the borough agree to enroll the building in the Keystone program without any conditions. However, she found little support for her suggestion. A motion to do so was defeated on a 4-2 vote.

Enrolling the building in the program is a piece of the overall financial aid the borough is looking to extend to the project — it has applied for a $500,000 state grant, which, if received, would fund a low-interest loan program to benefit business owners.

The borough is looking to create the program with an eye toward fostering development of the grocery store.

In other matters, council heard from Blairsville Municipal Authority Chairman Terry DiBiase, who talked about the flooding that occurred during a heavy rainstorm on Aug. 28. Officials said the storm was a 50- to 100-year event.

DiBiase said the authority is compiling a list of homes and business that were flooded during the storm and will use the data to better pinpoint problem areas and a course of action.

One thing was for sure, though — a lot of water fell in a short amount of time.

He said that on a dry day, the sewage plant will process 200,000 to 250,000 gallons of wastewater. During the storm, the plant took in roughly 4.1 million gallons. The authority’s new sewage plant was able to handle the increased volume, he said.

He said the authority and the borough are going to have to work together on developing a water runoff management plan as disconnecting storm drains from the sewage system doesn’t solve the problem of excess rainwater.

Also Tuesday night, police Chief Michael Allman asked council to consider working with Norfolk Southern to put up chain-link fence on the Walnut Street railroad overpass.

Allman said the request is being prompted by an incident that occurred early Saturday morning. Allman said someone standing on the overpass threw a garbage can and rocks at vehicles passing underneath.

No one was injured, but three or four vehicles, including a commercial truck, were damaged.

In addition, Mayor Joe Caugherty announced that trick-or-treat has been set for 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 27. Caugherty reminded residents who plan to participate to turn on their front lights. He also advised drivers to be careful and proceed with caution when traveling through the borough that afternoon.

Allman said his department will be conducting extra patrols that afternoon.

Sam Kusic is a staff writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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