Hermitage Towne Plaza was John Sarandrea’s first choice for a location when he decided to open a Rita’s Italian Ice franchise.
The retail center is “as good as it gets,” says Sarandrea, a retired school superintendent in the New Castle and Sharon systems.
“As the people from the Gumberg Co. like to call it, this is the ‘50-yard-line of Hermitage’ right here,” he says. “There’s always a lot of activity in this plaza.”
Hermitage Towne Plaza, which is owned by J.J. Gumberg Co. of Pittsburgh, is one of two longtime retail centers in Hermitage, Pa., that are preparing to transform.
Further east on East State Street, at the Shenango Valley Mall, Hermitage officials are working with Akron-based LRC Realty, which just over a year ago announced plans to acquire and renovate the mall.
The city and LRC also are collaborating on a “town center” project that would involve infrastructure upgrades around the mall including walkable elements and public spaces.
“Communications are very positive. We speak to [LRC representatives] regularly and we’re very optimistic about their ability and efforts to deliver the project,” says Gary Gulla, assistant city manager.
“Obviously, COVID-19 has delayed things,” adds Gary Hinkson, city manager. “This isn’t the best environment for retail and restaurant expansion, but the developer continues to work with the city.”
Rita’s is just one of the new tenants at Hermitage Towne Center, which was one of the retail properties affected when Kmart began closing stores nationwide. The longtime plaza anchor closed in 2018.
Retail chain Gabe’s opened in late July in the former Kmart space, and earlier in the month The Perfect Bite opened in a small outparcel plaza, reports Sherris Moreira, executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce.
In addition, Big Lots expanded and Ollie’s Bargain Outlet is preparing to open a store in the plaza this fall.
“It just seems like there’s been a lot of stuff happening. It’s a hopeful sign,” Moreira says.
“J.J. Gumberg is an aggressive developer. They were right on it when Kmart closed,” Hinkson says.
Although the space remained vacant for a while, Gumberg had discussions with the city throughout the process regarding what they might do with the space, whether to find another big-box retailer or subdivide the space, city officials say.
“There’s always a lot of activity in this plaza,” Sarandrea says. He attributes the plaza’s desirability to its anchor stores and East State Street’s high traffic count, the highest in Mercer County.
Sarandrea’s Rita’s stand posted nearly $6,000 in sales its opening day in July, the biggest in the chain’s history for an opening, he says. Sales the next day broke that record, and sales each day since have been between $4,000 and $6,000, regardless of the weather or day of the week, he reports.
Ron Taylor and his wife, Lori, own two restaurants in an outparcel plaza that’s part of the Hermitage Town Plaza site: a Simple Greek franchise and The Perfect Bite, a concept that Lori Taylor conceived.
He acknowledges the fast casual segment is “challenged” during the pandemic, but both are doing a lot of carry-out business.
Taylor touts the traffic and visibility of the site, as well as its proximity to an iconic local store. “It’s real easy to find when you tell people you’re near Kraynak’s,” he says.
Meanwhile, work is going on behind the scenes at LRC Realty related to the potential purchase of Shenango Valley Mall and the town center project, says the city’s Hinkson.
Last year, the commonwealth awarded Hermitage a $2.5 million grant to fund construction, property acquisition and infrastructure expenses related to the town center project, he notes.
The city also received a $730,000 grant for infrastructure improvements at the mall property that includes rebuilding a roadway connecting East State Street and North Hermitage Road.
At the same time, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is “making good progress” on a new roundabout that borders the south end of the mall property and related sidewalk improvements, according to Hinkson.
The $4 million roundabout was among projects that got delayed by the coronavirus pandemic but is on track for an October completion.
“Those are amenities that will benefit the town center project when it gets started,” he says.
The city, he says, also received grant funding for another related project: renovation of the pedestrian trail that runs parallel to Pennsylvania Route 18 from the mall north past the municipal building.
Pictured: Construction of the $4 million roundabout near the Shenango Mall is expected to be complete in October.