$3 million in state funds for Save-A-Lot came without state rep’s OK

The proposed Save-A-Lot development at Chelten and Pulaski avenues in Germantown is flush with state grants, yet local residents and one state representative say they were left out of the loop.

Fresh Grocer closed at the location Feb. 26. Some local residents say that plans to redo the strip mall site with two discount outlets, a Save-A-Lot grocery store and a Dollar Tree, come as an unwelcome surprise.  They feel those changes would downgrade the commercial mix at this key location, which is near Chelten Train Station and some of Germantown’s most stable residential communities.

Reaching out to ownership

Representatives of the Germantown Community Connection civic group say that Fresh Grocer President Patrick Burns confirmed the plans in a recent meeting with them. Previously, a Fresh Grocer spokesperson denied the rumors about changes at the site.

Burns is also involved with the real estate group that owns the site.

One of the residents at the meeting, Irv Ackelsberg, said the group tried to explain to Burns the prevalent feeling in West Germantown that the two proposed stores represent a step backward for the neighborhood.

“Many people in Germantown have the idea of that end of Chelten Avenue as the place to begin signaling the return of Germantown,” said Ackelsberg. “And instead, what it feels like for many of us is a signal that we should stop hoping.”

Burns did not respond to several requests for comment.

Taxpayer money backs the deal

State Representative Rosita Youngblood, whose district includes the store, said she tried for over a week to reach Burns when she learned of the plan. He never called her back, she said.

“There are certain questions that I would like to ask him,” she said. “You didn’t notify the community [of the development plans], which you said you did – but you didn’t – and you’re just pillaging ahead as if no one else existed.”

Youngblood is also steamed, she says, because she was not informed about $3 million in state grants lined up for the new plan. Normally, she said, Harrisburg protocol is that she would get a chance to sign off on state grants for a development inside her district.

At least $1 million in the state money comes from last minute appropriations by former Gov. Ed Rendell. According to an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, it’s part of the nearly $1 billion in spending that came in his final days of office.

Some of the new public funding for the Save-A-Lot project will go to pay off the remaining balance of a $556,000 state loan that Fresh Grocer did not close out before vacating the site, according to the The Reinvestment Fund.

Gov. Tom Corbett has vowed to review each of the new grants on Rendell’s exit list.

A state representative sees red

Youngblood said the Chelten Plaza situation is typical of the lack of transparency in how the former chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), used to operate.

Kimberly Turner, a spokesperson for Evans, confirmed that he was behind the Fresh Grocer/Save-A-Lot deal, but she said his office would “agree to disagree” about transparency.

Eighth District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller also knew of the plan for the site several months ago but did not inform local groups, according to a previous statement by her spokesperson.

The lack of public information about changes at the site may rub some residents the wrong way, but the project does not require a zoning variance since it is merely a reuse of an approved strip mall. No community consultation is required under city zoning rules.

Still, Youngblood said she is so incensed at how things have gone up to now that if Burns continues moving forward in a way that seems to disregard local wishes, she would work to hold up the remaining state funds for the project during Corbett’s review.

“I’m going to have to do a letter to the governor and to Joseph Markosek [current Democratic chair of the House Appropriations Committee] and say we cannot continue in this move,” she said. “We can’t go forward with the way this money was allocated.”

More questions, more involvement

Workers at an existing Save-A-Lot store on Chelten and Wayne avenues, just one block away, said they expected to move to the site at Pulaski and Chelten avenues soon. NewsWorks has not been able to confirm these plans with Burns or with Save-A-Lot owner Shawn Rinnier who also did not respond to requests for comment.

At least 100 community members discussed the situation at the Germantown Community Connection meeting March 10. See related article by Kristen Mosbrucker March 11 for details.

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