Full transparency, please, in the URA/Salem’s deal

Full transparency, please, in the URA/Salem’s deal

It was in October that Diamonte Walker, executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), preached the gospel of “transparency” in bringing a new, full-service grocery store to Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

So, why now is the URA painting a semi- transparent information stream?

The URA announced last week that it had come to lease terms with Salem’s Market and Grill to take over the space of the heavily publicly subsidized, failed and departed Shop ‘n Save at the Centre Heldman Plaza on Center Avenue.

There were all kinds of glowing prose in the official URA news release announcing the deal. But there were no financial details. We asked for a copy of the lease.

Pressed by the Allegheny Institute and the Post-Gazette, the URA then offered limited information, per a URA spokeswoman:

“The lease is 20 years; however, there are two 5-year options,” she noted in an email.

“Terms:  $7/sf [per square foot] plus Common Area Maintenance. CAM is the tenant’s proportionate share of Centre Heldman general expenses (parking lot maintenance, paying for the sign, etc).”

And the leased space “is the whole former SnS [Shop ‘n Save] store plus the former Subway restaurant.”

OK. But the lease rate raises some question, as in it strikes us as low.

Perhaps a review of the full lease could enlighten us (and the public). Is the URA – which bought the property in an attempt to command its use – subsidizing Salem’s Market in the form of discounted lease rate or an outright cash subsidy?

Inquiring minds want to know. And do recall URA chief Walker’s transparency pledge from several months ago:

The URA purchased the plaza “to ensure there is a transparent conversation about which grocery store would best fit the needs of the Hill District community.”

So, shouldn’t that transparency carry over to the full financial deal Salem received from a public authority that used public money to buy the plaza in which the new Salem’s will take up tenancy?

Again, to that end, we requested the full lease. And we quickly were met with the standard delay/rejection tactic of those doing the public’s work on the public dime:

“Our legal team will need to process this information request through our Right-to-Know process,” the spokeswoman responded on Friday. And bright and early Monday morning, a member of the legal team said it would respond to the request “within five business days.”

Frankly, we’ll be surprised if the URA provides a full and unredacted copy of the lease. We can only imagine that it will cite “proprietary information” for the redactions or even an outright denial.

But, again, the URA is a public authority. It expended public money buying the plaza in which Salem’s soon will reside. And, given the failed Shop ‘n’ Save deal, we suspect there’s some form of public money in this deal, whether it be cloaked in a reduced lease rate or some kind of outright subsidy.

Our bottom line remains that grocery stores – or any private business – should not be publicly subsidized. Such subsidies pervert the marketplace and inefficiently redirect the use of scarce public resources better applied elsewhere — to bona fide public projects.

Whether the URA comes clean or not will be known in a few days; we’ll keep you apprised. But being semi-transparent when full transparency should be an automatic only thumbs its nose at sound public policy.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).