By the end of the last week's Allegheny County Council meeting, real-estate developer Stephen Coslik of Fort Worth, Texas, calmly waited to thank certain councilors for their votes, tapping a Palm Pilot and discretely whispering with his attorney.
An hour earlier, 60-year-old secretary Evalyn Bodick had fought on his behalf for a big-box mall called Deer Creek Crossing in Harmar Township near the intersection of Route 28 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It will sit atop what's now 245 acres of woodland traversed by Deer Creek, one of the least polluted fishing areas in the county.
Facing the council on Feb. 1, Bodick, who lives in Springdale Township next to Harmar, gave her impassioned appeal: "I'm a 39-year resident of the Allegheny Valley. This will bring jobs to young people. The seniors, they are losing their homes because of high taxes. The taxes that are incurred by this will allow us to keep our school taxes down."
Bodick's voice rose. "I love our valley!" she pleaded, sounding besieged. Many other speakers that night had urged the county council to stay out of the Deer Creek Crossing plan. The public-private deal has generated five years of legal controversy, largely due to environmentalists' resistance. "Don't let these people who don't even live in the Allegheny Valley keep us as the forgotten valley!" Bodick said. Half the room erupted in cheers, shaking pro-mall placards like Terrible Towels.
Parts of Bodick's valley have been abandoned -- the downtowns of Springdale, Cheswick, New Kensington and Arnold. But Coslik has no plan to develop there.
County council's 12-2 vote in favor of the tax breaks might finally complete Coslik's five-year campaign for $22.5 million in public loans. The money will pay for road improvements necessary for the mall. The project -- with a total cost of about $124 million -- will also flatten a hillside, run Deer Creek through a culvert and "relocate" six acres of wetlands.
The public money comes via tax-increment financing. In a TIF, the county, the municipality and the school district borrow money on behalf of a developer, to be paid back using some of the new property taxes -- in this case, 80 percent.
School-board members and township supervisors were happy to get the 20 percent left over. They would've taken nothing, but Coslik offered 20 percent of the tax after the environmental group PennFuture delayed the project with lawsuits.
The older towns of the Allegheny Valley -- like many parts of the county -- desperately need some redevelopment. But the county's own business analysis says some businesses will close as a result of Deer Creek. While the mall will likely generate $147 million in new spending from out-of-county visitors and from locals proffering more plastic, another $192 million spent at Deer Creek will probably be diverted from local stores. One of the other new TIF-funded malls, Pittsburgh Mills in Frazer Township, is less than five miles away. Since Deer Creek will also compete with Pittsburgh's Waterworks Mall, the city's tax collections could take a hit, too.
Because the economic analysis wasn't released until after the public hearing, PennFuture says they haven't ruled out another lawsuit.
One mall critic was architect Christine Brill of Lawrenceville. "I have a question," she began, "and I really don't think it's a rhetorical one. What's so special about this development? What happens if every single municipality and township wants a TIF for their own retail development?"
Most councilors voted with Eileen Watt, in whose district the mall will be built, who claimed that council would risk its reputation by defeating the TIF. Only Democrat Rich Fitzgerald of Squirrel Hill and at-large Republican Dave Fawcett voted no. "I don't think we're leveling the playing field; we're leveling a hillside," Fawcett said.
That's apparently fine with some valley residents, like the guy who congratulated Coslik when it was all over. "Start the bulldozers!" he said.