Water, Sewer Lines Key to Pittsburgh Int'l Airport Area Development

Aug. 14--Jerry Bunda has flat land, thousands of acres of it. By next fall, he will have the Findlay Connector, a six-mile toll road that will touch down right at his doorstep.

But even together, the land and the highway won't propel the kind of development Bunda's Imperial Land Corp. has been envisioning near Pittsburgh International Airport for more than a decade.

In one important respect, the site still comes up short, 2 1/2 and three miles short, the distances it will take to run water and sewer lines to the proposed development.

"Without water and sewer, we're nowhere," said Bunda, president of Imperial Land Corp.

But that could be changing as early as this fall. Allegheny County and Findlay officials hope to finalize $6.9 million in state financing next month to build the water and sewer lines. That would enable final engineering to start, with construction planned for next summer.

The project is one of the first fruits of a concerted effort by the county, the Allegheny County Airport Authority, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and others to produce development-ready sites in the airport corridor for light manufacturing; warehouse, distribution and industrial space; and offices.

The area has long been viewed as a potential economic engine for the region. The airport terminal, built 13 years ago, was expected to be a catalyst for that development. Yet that has not occurred, in no small part because of a lack of focus and a lack of shovel-ready land around the airport.

Regional leaders now are trying to make amends, and the Findlay project is one of the starting points.

"This is a big one for us," county Economic Development Director Dennis Davin said. "The idea for us is to open up as much acreage in terms of construction-ready sites as we can."

The water and sewer lines not only will feed the private Imperial Land Corp. site in Findlay but also will help to boost the water pressure, particularly for fire protection, at two Airport Authority sites, the Clinton and Route 30 industrial parks near the airport.

"This project that is getting funded, hopefully it serves the region," Bunda said. "It allows several of us the ability to develop and take advantage of the road. The last thing you want to have is a road that goes nowhere."

The Imperial Land Corp. site became a priority for water and sewer service because it is one of the few in the airport corridor that is close to being development ready. The land is relatively flat. Reclamation and remediation has occurred.

When the Findlay Connector opens late next summer, the Bald Knob Road interchange will touch down at the site, placing it a mere minutes from the airport, the Airport Expressway and Route 60. The connector, the first part of a 30-mile Southern Beltway being built along the Allegheny-Washington county line, will run from the Route 60 entrance to the airport to Route 22 in Robinson, Washington County. The Imperial site can quickly host users who need 100 to 200 acres at a time, Davin said.

"It's different from the sites around the airport in that the mines have already been remediated," he said. "Mine reclamation is the difficult and expensive part. That's already been done by the company."

Even when the Findlay Connector opens, the Imperial Land site is probably a year away from having water and sewer lines.

With engineering taking six to nine months, construction probably won't start until midsummer next year and will take a year to 18 months to finish, said Howard Theis, manager of the Findlay Township Municipal Authority.

The waterline will have to be run about 2 1/2 miles and the sewer line about three miles. A 1 million-gallon storage tank also will be built as part of the project. The lines will run up to Imperial Land Corp. property. The company will be responsible for tap-in fees and running its own lines into buildings.

Until the lines are finished, Imperial Land will spend its time marketing the property and running its own connections. Bunda said the company had talked to potential tenants.

"Hopefully, we're able to entice businesses to build, as long as they know it's coming and under construction," he said.

The Imperial Land project is just one of the signs that the corridor could be on the verge of living up to its long-made promise.

Two weeks ago, developers broke ground on a $30 million expansion of the Imperial Business Park in North Fayette that will add 450,000 square feet of light manufacturing and warehouse distribution space on 55 acres near Route 22/30. The first building should be ready by spring.

One reason developers chose to expand at the site was the proximity of a Findlay Connector interchange minutes away.

The Airport Authority also hopes to begin grading and infrastructure work on the 100-acre Clinton Industrial Park site in two to three months. The Buncher Co. has signed a letter of intent to build a 400,000-square-foot warehouse at the site, which is off Route 60 near Clinton Road; but the deal has not been completed.

Authority officials also hope to bid for road work and grading at the 160-acre Cherrington Extension site adjacent to the existing Cherrington office park early next year. About 60 acres are considered developable.

The authority also hopes to start grading and infrastructure improvements at the 120-acre Route 30 industrial park next year.

It hopes to do a mix of warehousing, light manufacturing, office space and hotels at the various airport sites.

The corridor appears to be blossoming at just the right time.

Lou Oliva, senior vice president of industrial properties for Grubb & Ellis Co., said the vacancy rate for all industrial space was about 8 percent in the Pittsburgh market for the first quarter. For Class A industrial space, it was less than 6 percent.

"With Class A under six, you're talking full capacity," he said.

Oliva said the region's inventory of industrial space had plummeted since the 1980s, when the manufacturing and steel industries pushed total square footage to more than 300 million. Now there's about 110 million available, and nearly all of that is taken.

He said that if Sony wanted to build a television plant near the airport the size of its Westmoreland County facility, it would be unable to do so because the land is not available.

As a result, he does not believe the various industrial park sites expected to come on line over the next few years will create a glut in the market. He said the demand should be there, and that each probably would find its own market niche.

"I'm not too concerned about overcapacity," he said.

The airport corridor always has been considered a desirable location, given its proximity to interstates and jet cargo and the availability of large tracts of land. What it has always lacked, he said, is water and sewer service.

With the Findlay Connector opening, the water and sewer lines being installed and the activity on airport property, "There's no reason to believe future development should not occur," he said.