Northern Lights Shopping Center
|Location||Ohio River Boulevard (PA 65)
|Owner||Zamias Services, Inc.|
|No. of anchor tenants||3 (two vacant)|
|Total retail floor area||450,000 square feet (42,000 m2)|
|No. of floors||1|
Northern Lights Shopping Center is a strip mall located in Economy, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. While it continues to serve as a traditional community-style strip mall for the immediate area, it was a major power center-style strip mall from its opening until the early 2000s. Due to the high vacancy rate at the plaza, it is today largely considered a dead mall. A Walmart that opened next door to Northern Lights in 2014 is expected to help revitalize the plaza as well as help dilapidated southern Beaver County.
The plaza opened in the late 1950s along Pennsylvania Route 65, serving as the major shopping center for the Beaver Valley. For decades, J. C. Penney was the main anchor store for the plaza, having a three-story store at the plaza. Other anchor tenants included Sears, local supermarket chain Giant Eagle, and discount department store chain Hills. The plaza was divided into three buildings: the main eastern portion of the plaza facing the Ohio River housed J. C. Penney and Hills. The northern portion of the plaza housed Giant Eagle, while the southern portion housed Sears; all three buildings also housed many smaller shops. Despite the opening of the Beaver Valley Mall in 1970 in nearby Center Township, Northern Lights continued to attract shoppers, although Sears did move to the Beaver Valley Mall at this time where it remained until its closure in 2016.
However, the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s, combined with the Beaver Valley Mall's easy access off of the Beaver Valley Expressway and the rapid development of Center Township, Cranberry Township, and Robinson Township, eventually saw a gradual decline for Northern Lights. In 1998, J. C. Penney moved to the Beaver Valley Mall to become its new fourth anchor store. Around the same time, Hills was acquired by Ames, however Ames itself experienced its own problems related to the Hills acquisition.
Since Ames liquidated and closed all of its stores in 2002, Giant Eagle has been the plaza's sole anchor tenant. Gradually, many of the smaller stores left, leaving Dollar Tree, Huntington Bank, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a small handful of mom-and-pop businesses and doctor offices as of July 2013. The parking lot and the empty storefronts haven't been maintained in years, leading to a dilapidated state. Even Wendy's closed its location on an out parcel of the property in 2010; the chain is popular in the area and is fourth behind only Subway, McDonald's, and the locally owned Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe in terms of number of locations in Beaver County.
In 2006, the roof at the former J. C. Penney location collapsed. This prompted the then-new owners of the plaza, Zamias Services, Inc., to demolish the former J. C. Penney location for safety reasons, leaving a big hole (literally) in the middle of the plaza and removing over 150,000 square feet (14,000 m2) of leaseable space. Since then, there have been talks of moving the remaining tenants into the two smaller portions of the plaza so that the two larger portions—the two that were on each side of J. C. Penney (including the former Hills/Ames store) can be considered for redevelopment. Zamias later admitted that if Northern Lights wasn't included in a package deal with other properties such as Pittsburgh Mills and instead was standalone, it wouldn't have acquired the property.
Efforts at redevelopment
Shortly after the demolition of the former J. C. Penney location, Walmart representatives visited Northern Lights with interest in opening a location at the plaza itself. Although Zamias was interested in Walmart opening a location at the plaza, both Giant Eagle and the owners of the Giant Eagle franchise at Northern Lights promptly brought up its lease agreement from the plaza's previous owners to both Walmart and Zamias, which shows a clause written into the lease stating that Giant Eagle was to be the exclusive grocer at the plaza.
After Zamias was forced to decline Walmart's interest due to Giant Eagle's lease, Walmart's representatives noticed the 230-acre hillside behind the plaza, which had partially been obscured by the whole plaza but was now visible with the former J. C. Penney location having been demolished. Walmart's interest in the hillside subsequently increased after Walmart abandoned its plans to build a location at the site of the former Dixmont State Hospital in nearby Kilbuck Township in 2007. Walmart contacted the owners of the hillside, the estate of Erwin S. Boal, and was able to strike a deal to purchase the property for development.
With the help of Economy Borough, in 2007 Zamias willingly gave up a portion of its parking lot and the site of the former J. C. Penney location by eminent domain in order to build a road connecting PA 65 with the hillside and the future Walmart location, despite legal claims made by Giant Eagle. Giant Eagle lost the eminent domain case to Economy in Beaver County Common Pleas Court, a ruling which was later upheld by the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in 2009. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to hear the case, clearing the way for the Walmart to eventually be constructed. After receiving the necessary permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in late 2012 for the connecting road, Walmart began construction, and opened May 21, 2014. Once Walmart opens, Zamias is expecting Northern Lights to start filling up with tenants again, since Walmart customers would have to drive through Northern Lights to access Walmart.
The opening of Walmart next door to Northern Lights will give Beaver County its third Walmart location, which will primarily serve residents of Aliquippa, Ambridge, Baden, Conway, and Economy, while Walmart's existing location in Center Township will serve the main Beaver Valley area (Beaver, Bridgewater, Monaca, New Brighton, and Rochester) and its existing location in Chippewa Township serves rural northern Beaver County as well as Beaver Falls and to a lesser extent East Palestine, Ohio in order for Ohio residents to take advantage of Pennsylvania not charging sales tax on clothing.
Since the opening of Walmart, redevelopment efforts have been mixed. Taco Bell announced in August 2016 that it would open a location at the former Wendy's site, while there has been talk of a Sam's Club opening near the Walmart. A local road that will bring more direct access to Cranberry Township is also being constructed. However, Northern Lights itself has yet to see any new development or new stores opening at the plaza. It also remains to be seen if the plaza will experience some residual effects once the Pennsylvania Shell ethylene cracker plant opens near the Beaver Valley Mall.
- Hills (acquired by Ames in 1998, closed as part of Ames' liquidation in 2002, currently vacant)
- J. C. Penney (moved to Beaver Valley Mall in 1998, demolished 2006, site since purchased by Economy Borough via eminent domain for road connecting to Walmart)
- Sears (moved to Beaver Valley Mall in 1970, later Altmeyer's, currently vacant)
- Freedom Road widening between Cranberry, Beaver County to start this summer The Beaver County Times (08/17/2016)
- Freedom Road widening between Cranberry, Beaver County to start this summer Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (02/01/2016)