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Former Coal Patch Awaits the Developers

July 22, 2008

By David Guo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jul. 20–STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — The listings at Guida Real Estate on Sunset Boulevard include lots of rough-cut gems. Take a three-bedroom ranch on Fernwood Road for $109,000, which Anthony Guida would be happy to show all comers.

If, of course, somebody were more suitably endowed to consider the Hope Diamond of his collection, the New Horizons property down the road, then the broker would be even more pleased — make that Super Bowl trophy-hoisting giddy — to oblige.

So, too, would Teresa Schiappa and Huberta Siciliano, the daughters of Anthony Schiappa, a former strip mine operator here. They are the beneficiaries of the family trust that wants to see New Horizons turn into, well, a bit of everything.

One thing’s certain: Given that New Horizons covers nearly 6 square miles — more land than Carnegie, Coraopolis and Sewickley combined — there’s more than enough room.

With an asking price from $25,000 to $125,000 an acre, the scope of New Horizons dwarfs whatever else is on the drawing boards of the Tri-State area. It’s been on the market for more than two years, with plenty of feelers but no takers.

If her father were alive, Ms. Siciliano said, he’d be wondering “What’s taking so long? He’d be out there today with the developers going through the land.”

Ms. Siciliano said her father worked on acquiring the land from Consolidation Coal Co. for nearly five years, closing the deal a year or so before he died in 1966. Consolidation eased the groundwork by striking deals with more than 60 original owners, she said.

Ms. Schiappa said her father always envisioned the property having life after coal. That’s why he worked step by step to reclaim it.

“In my mind this was my father’s last big project before he passed on,” she said. “He had a lot of vision about what to do with this land after the mining. He saw a little city out here, with all these things.”

“All these things” are captured in a September 2005 master plan that penciled in space for warehouses, office parks, homes, shops, playgrounds, a school and an assisted-living center.

Ms. Siciliano said her father might be ticked that it doesn’t include an airport and a golf course like he wanted, but that’s another tale.

Still, the scope of the undertaking dictates that no less than a battalion of developers would have to step up to give life to Mr. Schiappa’s vision. Each lot-by-lot piece of what’s now only a concept would require approval of county if not state planners, Mr. Guida said.

The process could take years.

Still, in hailing the long-range vision of New Horizons, Jefferson County leaders cite the punchlist of positives that the coal-miner daughters have going for them: The land is mostly flat, highway accessible and, thanks to the neighboring Wal-Mart Distribution Center and Jefferson County Industrial Park, at the foot of freshly minted infrastructure. (A formidable presence in its own right, the Wal-Mart center employs 800 and supplies 120 stores in a 225-mile radius extending well beyond Pittsburgh).

Another plus is that developers have a single point of contact. All of the acreage is owned by the Mary A. Schiappa Trust, named after the sisters’ deceased mother. The JP Morgan Chase Bank-held trust also controlled an adjoining 300 acres before selling it to Wal-Mart and Jefferson County about 10 years ago.

As chairman of the Jefferson County commissioners, David Maple also heads the Progress Alliance Executive Committee, the county’s economic development arm. While it’s premature to talk about what role the county can play in New Horizons, he doesn’t doubt that it will have one.

“From a government perspective we think the same argument goes for New Horizons as for the industrial park,” he said. “We both have available land, workforce, excellent location and we believe a good line of transportation between Pittsburgh and Columbus. It really is the old adage, location, location, location.”

Like many other leaders here, Dr. Ed Florak, retired president of Jefferson County Community College, sees Steubenville as a hub not only for this neck of Ohio but for the 160-mile corridor between Columbus and Pittsburgh. New Horizons lies in Island Creek Township just west of Steubenville.

Mr. Florak, recent interim executive director of the Progress Alliance, had a hard time at first getting a handle on New Horizons’ scope. But he recalled thinking a few months ago that, “well, it’s worth some morning to drive out and spend a half hour to look.”

And when he got there?

“I was awestruck at how much land out there was relatively level. To see this land mass and drive back on (Ohio and County routes) 43 for almost three miles,” he said, “and to recognize that there’s probably not that much flat land in all of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It’s overwhelming.”

Jeff Criss, chairman of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, sees the miles of open space becoming home to a cottage industry of support facilities, housing and worker needs.

“Whoever it is that formed the New Horizons group has had tremendous insight about what goes on around Wal-Mart and the Jefferson Industrial Park,” he explained. “They had the foresight to say, ‘Hey, we can put retail in there, even housing, to complement that whole sector in Jefferson County.’”

Aside from the sheer magnitude of the space and soil stability issues that might arise, an even higher hurdle might be laying the kind of groundwork that corporations like Wal-Mart have come to expect.

Tractor-trailers can be seen daily rumbling off U.S. Route 22 and towards the corporation’s barbed-wire main gate on Ohio Route 43, a silver-and-blue furl of activity in contrast to the nearly 4,000 acres of surrounding prairie.

The 880,000-square-foot center represents a $65.8 million investment by Wal-Mart, Ohio Department of Development officials said, in return for which the corporation received roughly $1.3 million in tax credits.

Not included was a $600,000 grant Jefferson County received to help improve Ohio Route 43 to accommodate Wal-Mart driveways, plus a $300,000 job training grant.

Like it or not, Mr. Florak said, somebody will again have to step up and supply New Horizons with sewerage, power, water and new arterial roads — the family trust, the developers, the government or all of the above.

“This is not a game for the chicken-hearted when it comes to money,” he said. “That land out there, for you to be competitive you’ve got to have water, sewer, gas, electric and you’ve got to have it to the site and underground for appearance’s sake.”

“A lot of these corporations are on a welfare kick too,” he added. “They come in and it’s ‘What are you going to do for me?’”

Working out such a package won’t be easy, the sisters allowed. Call her old-fashioned, but Ms. Schiappa said the bottom line is what her dad would want to know if she were to lay out the master plan for him today.

“He’d say ‘When’s it gonna be done?’”

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