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Neighborhoods: Hill residents sound off on proposed grocer

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Alicia Jackson walked into Wilkinsburg's Save-A-Lot grocery store with a good deal of skepticism. She walked out with bags full of groceries -- and a desire to bring the discount grocery store to her Hill District neighborhood.

"It's better than what I expected," said Jackson, 57, loading her cart with frozen vegetables and English muffins. "They carry just about everything. I think a lot of people are impressed."

Among those people were roughly 15 Hill District residents who toured -- and shopped at -- the Save-A-Lot with city Councilor Tonya Payne on April 12. The Hill has gone without a grocery store for years, but recently the St. Louis-based chain has expressed interest in opening a Hill District location.

Payne and Howard Slaughter, the CEO of Landmarks Community Capital Corp., organized the tour, as well as a forum with Save-A-Lot representatives to find out whether residents want the grocer to open a 1,700-square-foot store, which would be located at Centre Avenue and Heldman Street in the Hill.

Both the tour and the proposal were well received.

"It looks pretty good," said Hill District resident Naim Saahir, 53, as he pushed his shopping cart through the Wilkinsburg store. "Their prices are at least half as much as Giant Eagle."

Landmarks Community Capital is a nonprofit corporation designed to help initiate community revitalization. And, according to Slaughter, "There is a definite need for a grocery store in the Hill District."

Payne says lots of behind-the-scenes work has already been done to make a grocery store a possibility, including the allotment of 3.5 acres of land across the street from the Hill House. Surveys asking whether residents would welcome a Save-A-Lot to the neighborhood were passed out to more than 50 people who attended the after-tour meeting at New Light Temple Baptist Church. Depending on the results of those surveys -- and others throughout the community -- Payne says the Hill District could potentially have a Save-A-Lot in about a year.

"This is an opportunity to not only have convenience, but also to have our money be spent in our neighborhood," said Payne. "We're not going to drag our feet on this."

Of Save-A-Lot's roughly 1,200 stores nationwide, five are located in the Pittsburgh region. The chain boasts discount prices of up to 40 percent, but just as important to Hill District residents is its desire to locate near their homes.

Payne and Slaughter quoted a January Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story, saying "Giant Eagle, Kuhn's Market and Aldi have said they are not interested in opening a store in the Hill." According to Slaughter, Giant Eagle contends that its stores on the North Side, South Side and Shadyside already serve Hill District residents.

"At first, I was against [a Save-A-Lot]," said Jackson, standing up in the pews of the church. "We thought [the city] was just giving us anything.

"Your store is going to be successful," she added, addressing the store's representatives at the front of the church. "You support us, and we will support you."

Mark Goodman, chief operating officer of Save-A-Lot, called his store "small but mighty.

"We are honored to be a part of the Hill's evolution," he added.

Although criticism of the store was minimal at the forum, some residents wish Save-A-Lot offered amenities like a pharmacy, bakery and deli.

"You have a bunch of seniors in the Hill, and [not having a pharmacy] still makes them have to go across town," Jackson said.

Slaughter explained that Save-A-Lot can offer food at discount prices because they don't have a pharmacy or bakery. And since the Hill District is composed of mostly low-income families, he said, the need for lower prices trumps the need for extra services.

"Everyone needs food -- not everyone needs a pharmacy," Slaughter explained.

Added Payne: "I expected the majority of people would be happy," Payne said. "But this went beyond my expectations. ... We're going to assume that we're moving forward with this."

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