'The future is now': With new Southern Beltway, access to spur growth

Ed Blazina
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Diana Irey Vaughan made her first run for Washington County commissioner, there was talk about building a new highway to link Interstate 79 to Route 22 along the county’s northern border with Allegheny County. That was 1995.

Now, more than 25 years later, the Pennsylvania Turnpike is ready to open a large portion of the 13-mile, $900 million Southern Beltway. The first traffic is expected to use the toll road highway beginning Oct. 15 with the final interchange at I-79 only partially open and scheduled to be finished next spring.

“We have always known the Southern Beltway would be a big economic generator for that part of the county,” Ms. Vaughan said, citing the thousands of acres of land available in the area and the reduced travel time to Pittsburgh International Airport, from 20 minutes to as little as six minutes.

The new highway also is well positioned to provide access for shovel-ready space for spinoff businesses from the multibillion-dollar Shell Chemical Appalachia cracker plant under construction in Potter, less than 10 miles away in Beaver County. That facility could open as early as next year.

Ready to go

Ms. Vaughn and municipal officials throughout the area say they are doing everything they can to prepare for the growth.

At the county level, commissioners are working with Mackin Engineering to update the county’s comprehensive development plan. They also have appointed members to a new Washington County Economic Development Advisory Board.

“We’re going to be looking to this advisory board to put together a road map for that area,” Ms. Vaughan said. “That’s going to be their main charge — leading development in that area.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who also chairs the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission that oversees transportation projects in the region, said the new highway is a continuation of positive economic developments for the region. It will support auxiliary development created by the cracker plant and add to the strong medical and technical growth in the region, he said.

“This is an important milestone. It’s going to add to the momentum,” he said. “[Transportation improvements are] a lot of what we’re benefiting from. It’s all coming together.”

State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-South Fayette, who represents most of the corridor, said he expects growth along the Findlay Connector, the existing section of toll road near the airport, to spread not only to the Southern Beltway area but also toward Burgettstown and Star Point.

“That growth from the Findlay Connector is surging,” he said. “Some of the development proposals I’ve seen include some housing, but primarily it’s warehousing and light industrial.”

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R- Monessen, said the highway has been “desperately needed” since the 1960s and hopes it’s not too late to create the maximum benefit. She also questioned whether state regulations will limit growth.

“We need to be much more business-friendly than we’ve been in a long, long time,” she said.

Municipalities say they are doing what they can to get ready for economic growth.

Cecil, one of the fastest growing areas in Washington County, is in the process of updating its zoning plan, township manager Donald Gennuso said. South Fayette, growing nearly as fast on the Allegheny County side of the corridor, already has rules and regulations in place for “responsible growth,” manager John Barrett said.

The officials said they expect mostly light industrial and commercial growth, which generates the most tax revenue for communities, with some housing mixed in.

Developers prepared

Developers big and small say they are ready to move forward with warehousing, commercial development and even some housing in the corridor based on the improved access the highway will provide. And they are talking big numbers: the potential for millions of square feet of development.

Brian Temple, president of Imperial Land Corp., can’t wait for the highway to open. His company, which already has developed millions of square feet of warehouse space in the Findlay Industrial Park, is ready to begin developing about 850 acres of land known as the Fort Cherry Development District near the Midway interchange on the new highway.

“Our plan is starting in October with phase one,” Mr. Temple said. “That site was prepared so it could be developed in the future. The future is now.”

Mr. Temple said there has been a lot of talk about the area becoming known as “the energy corridor” as a result of the cracker plant, but so far he’s seeing the most interest in additional warehouse distribution facilities. That seems to be a result of the growth in on-line shopping during the pandemic, something he expects will continue to increase.

That type of development shouldn’t put an added strain on community resources because they are mostly environmentally clean operations that don’t draw a lot of new families to the area, he said. That means there shouldn’t be a lot of new children placed in school districts.

“What we build doesn’t put a burden on the school district,” Mr. Temple said. “What it does is create revenue for them, and a lot of it.”

The new highway also is expected to finally spur activity at Cool Valley, a long-dormant project to develop 250 acres of land on the east side of I-79, along Morganza Road across from Southpointe. That project was first proposed in 2010 by T&R Properties Inc. of Dublin, Ohio, but President Ron Sabatino said the site has been “lingering” as the company has spent years creating access roads and acquiring utilities at the site.

Now, with the new toll road ready to open, Mr. Sabatino said he expects to begin construction on the first lot, a medical office building, by the end of next year and grow the project from there.

“We’ll have all the engineering in place, so we can move forward with more lots,” he said. “I think that highway really opens up business opportunities for northern Washington County.”

40-year wait

Growing up in Canonsburg, Michael Sullivan remembers spending time with his grandfather, Frank Chebatoris, on more than 200 acres he owned near the old Campbell Airport straddling the Cecil-South Fayette border.

Mr. Chebatoris, who died in June 2012, and two partners owned the airport in the 1970s and bought hundreds of acres in anticipation of expanding the facility amid early talk of plans for a new highway through the area. The airport wasn’t nearly the success they had hoped, and the men eventually dissolved the partnership and divided the property, with Mr. Chebatoris getting 211 acres along Cecil-Sturgeon Road and Route 50.

As years went by, talk of the highway ebbed and flowed. Mr. Chebatoris and his extended family cleared some of the land and leased a parcel to Urban Assault Paintball, but a large swath of it remained a wooded area.

Then, about six years ago, the Pennsylvania Turnpike got the money to begin final design for what would become the Southern Beltway. The highway would come through the northern corner of the former Chebatoris property and the turnpike bought 80 acres of the site for $827,195, including the property where the agency built a $24 million maintenance facility.

Now, with the highway about to open, Mr. Sullivan is sitting on 131 acres that he hopes developers find attractive. He and his family held an annual party at Urban Assault on Saturday, partially to celebrate the completion of the highway and continue a family tradition that began in the 1960s, when they had a party on Interstate 79 just before it opened.

As luck would have it, the turnpike mostly bought property that had been cleared, leaving Mr. Sullivan with mostly forested land. Until now, there wasn’t any reason to try to do more with the property.

“Nobody could really do anything in that area,” he said. “We basically were in limbo for 30 years, waiting to see what happened.”

Mr. Sullivan, who now lives in Dallas, Texas, and works as an adviser to financially distressed companies, said he’s “excited” for the future of his grandfather’s land.

“We’re expecting some level of interest in it,” he said. “Everything along that corridor will be open for development. It’s so well connected, it’s amazing.

“I’m very curious to see what the traffic is like. Now that it’s here, what’s next? You look at Southpointe and it took a good 20 years for that area to flourish.”

It’s also bittersweet his grandfather won’t be here to see what happens with the land, Mr. Sullivan said.

“There is definitely some emotional significance [to the highway opening],” he said. “It just took this long because of all the fits and starts along the way.”

Mr. Gennuso said he’s eager to see how quickly development In Cecil follows the opening of the highway.

“It’s certainly exciting,” he said. “From my standpoint, opening that highway is an exciting opportunity for the township to continue to grow. Now that we’re almost near completion, we’ll see what the future brings.”