SHARON, Pa. – The president of Eyes of Faith Optical in Sharon, Pennsylvania, Jim Schneider, reports a common reaction customers have to the company’s space in the Applegate Center in downtown:
Last July, the optical practice moved from the nearby Buhl Armory building, where it had been since May 2020, into the second-floor space at Applegate, one of several downtown buildings being renovated and re-tenanted by JCL Development.
“It couldn’t be any better,” says Schneider, who operates Eyes of Faith with his wife, Amy, an optician. “People come in here and say they cannot believe the space is in downtown Sharon, Pennsylvania.”
JCL Development’s efforts are taking place even as city officials eye a possible purchase and demolition of the closed Huntington Bank branch on East Main Street. The property – once the building is demolished, the site cleared and remediated – could, provide a park-like setting that overlooks the Shenango River – at least in the short-term
Sharon city officials have applied for a $1 million grant from the commonwealth to acquire the building at 1 E. State St., where Huntington closed its Sharon branch last year. According to an online real estate listing, the five-story structure was built in 1970, decades before the river was viewed as a downtown recreational asset.
“We’re very fortunate to have the river that goes through Sharon,” the city manager, Robert Fiscus, says. “It’s an asset that I don’t know we’ve always done the best to highlight.”
If the city succeeds in acquiring the property, Fiscus envisions demolishing the building and initially using the cleared and landscaped site for green space, with seating that focuses on the river and complements events such as WaterFire Sharon.
Removing the building would open “a whole different vantage point,” says Sherris Moreira, not just in a literal sense but also by opening the concept of “what a thriving riverfront could do for a downtown such as Sharon.”
Moreira recently was hired by the city as its director of downtown development.
“That could also be an area where we put in some permanent downtown staging” she says, “so we can have music and live events all year round, that can help support WaterFire [and] other things.”
Such a space would allow the city to stage events downtown without necessarily having to close off the main streets, Moreira says.
“Having that area where we can congregate and not close everything down would be very helpful,” says another recent city hire, Courtney Cilli, downtown events coordinator.
Downtown events provide exposure for existing businesses and showcase available properties for future development, Cilli says.
Sharon’s new downtown development team is assembling marketing materials to highlight available properties and tours to showcase them, Moreira says.
They began March 19 with a tour of several buildings owned by JCL Development, the company led by businessman Jim Landino. Tours of property owned by other developers are planned, Moreira says.
In addition to the Armory and Applegate buildings, the JCL tour included the Harmony building on Vine Avenue, the Chestnut block and the Sunshine building, where Landino plans to move his JCL Energy transformer business in June.
Landino estimates that JCL controls upward of 150,000 square feet of space downtown.
“The commercial space is starting to move in a little bit more positive direction,” he says.
Building new is more difficult now because of inflation and supply shortages. And the buildings JCL owns are “remodel ready,” as he terms them. This moves those properties “almost to the top of the deck as far as what the opportunities look like.”
Several JCL Development projects are mixed-use space. The Buhl Armory building has individual offices and five high-end apartments, as well as a co-op office space designed by Landino’s wife, Jen Krezeczowski.
“I think it fits the model of the day, right? People have come off the pandemic. They’ve been working from home. They’re looking for some office space to call their own. But you know, not be there all day long,” Landino says.
People are willing to share furnishings. They also want “comfortable, cool space” where they can access high-speed fiber, he says.
Another JCL mixed-use project about to get underway is the former Carine & Co. warehouse, adjacent to the Shenango campus of Penn State University. JCL, in partnership with the Hudson Companies, a general contractor based in Hermitage, Pennsylvania, is redeveloping the property as a mixed-use space that will comprise 10 apartments plus commercial and potentially recreational space, Landino says.
If Penn State Shenango continues to add sports programs, the city will need to react to the need for more housing. The lack of dedicated student housing presents a challenge for parents who bring their college-age students to town and look for a place to live while they attend school.
“Our market rate housing in Sharon has been pretty solid. These apartments here are all over $1,000 a month and they ran out about as fast as we got them empty,” Landino says. “This idea that the city won’t attract high market rate tenants is a fallacy.”
Had he known what he knows today when he began to redevelop the Armory building, Landino says he likely would have done 10 or 15 apartments there.
He says he hasn’t had a problem with commercial space rents, getting $12 per square foot for office space. He recalls a recent conversation with individuals who reported rates were going up to $18 per square foot and were surprised that JCL was charging $12.
In many cases, JCL is doing a “larger portion of the build-out,” he says, for the tenants.
“It’s not really their fault that the building needs a new roof and new windows [or electrical upgrades],” he says. “We’re kind of recognizing that.”
JCL also has nearly every piece of property on the main block of State Street, among them the former Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Wilson’s Furniture buildings.
Landino sees “a lot of opportunities” on the block. He notes the city has grant money available to help to attract restaurants.
“We’re going to be a fairly aggressive, best-friend landlord … to try to lure somebody in that’s already in the restaurant business,” he says.
“Startups are tough in the restaurant business so we’re hoping that one of the big-name guys we’re talking to might show up, take the Brewtus space and convert it into a really cool, full- range restaurant.”
The building on Chestnut Street that JCL owns now houses the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce. It might end up being demolished, the developer says.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be worth trying to save it. That’s always our first choice,” he says. “The building probably would be best served as a tear-down.”
Passing along the costs associated with renovations to tenants can be a challenge, says Jack Campbell, vice president and secretary of the Winner Companies.
Winner owns the former Westinghouse Electric Corp. complex in Sharon. About half of the complex is occupied by The Landing, a multitenant space operated by Valley Shenango Economic Development Corp.
Interest primarily is in the commercial side, with people looking for large commercial space, Campbell says. There is less interest in the inside office area.
Lease rates in the Landing are about $4 or $5 per square foot for industrial space. Office space is up to $7.50 per square foot.
“The big problem we have with that space is bringing these old buildings up to code,” Campbell says.
Features like elevators might cost up to $500,000, which can be difficult to pass along. That’s why the nonprofit corporation is seeking grants, Campbell says.
To make the rent numbers work requires having a tenant lease long-term space, so renovations and upgrades can be spread out over time, he says.
COMMERCIAL MARKET IN HERMITAGE
In the city of Hermitage, there appears to be movement in the continuing saga of the Shenango Valley Mall that could lead to its long-awaited redevelopment and renewed activity in the Mercer County commercial real estate market.
People looking at various restaurant properties are “starting to pull the trigger” on deals, as Bob Collins, puts it. Collins is a commercial real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices The Preferred Realty, in Hermitage.
Where before prospects were “just inquiring, now they are requesting additional information and doing more due diligence on properties,” Collins says.
Collins also expects to see activity rise with a FedEx Ground distribution center going in on Route 18 in Hermitage.
David Westrick, a media relations representative for FedEx Ground, confirms that the company has entered into a ground lease for a 250,000-square-foot distribution center on Hermitage Road near
Tam’O Shanter Golf Course. Expected to open in 2023, the center will employ a mix of full and part-time workers.
“That’ll even probably spike up some other things,” Collins says.
In terms of the market for retail properties in Hermitage, the biggest question mark is the uncertain future of the Shenango Valley Mall.
An attorney for the mall reports progress on its litigation with JCPenney could mean a resolution is forthcoming – and that could lead to redevelopment of the property.
In 2019, Hermitage officials and LRC Realty in Akron announced they had reached a deal for LRC to buy
the mall, which also was to become part of a town center redevelopment project.
The LRC deal fell through because of litigation between the McConnell family, which owns the mall property, and JCPenney, which maintains it and has veto power over redevelopment of the property under the terms of its lease with the operators of the mall.
The litigation has been complicated by JCPenney filing bankruptcy in 2020.
In January, the mall owners received a favorable trial court decision, although JCPenney is appealing the ruling, attorney William McConnell says.
The family also “is attempting to work out an amicable agreement” with the retailer regarding its future on the property and lease rights.
“We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to work through our issue with Penney’s and be able to remove that cloud on the mall property and be able to market it and, hopefully, see the city’s town center project come to fruition,” McConnell says.
The city of Hermitage is “still focused on a town center redevelopment project,” says assistant city manager Gary Gulla.
The city is well-positioned with financial resources to support Town Center initiatives consistent with the city’s ‘Hermitage 2030’ comprehensive plan,” he adds.
Redevelopment of the mall area would create traffic and spur other business in the area, Collins says.
Collins is working on a deal with a buyer that likely would go forward if the mall development takes place.
“It just seems to draw people to the area,” he says. “When you’ve got cool things going up and improvements, everyone benefits.”
Pictured: Amy and Jim Schneider operate Eyes of Faith Optical in Applegate Center, a building redeveloped by JCL Development.