It was at that meeting that Mark Kaplan, a representative for Wolfson-Verrichia, developer of the project, said that it would take about four months after PennDOT's final approval of a traffic plan for the developer to break ground.
Since last year little or no activity has been noticed at the site, except for the erection of a new sign-up until about two weeks ago. That's when test borings were made of the site to determine the geotechnical nature of the soil.
Steve Wolfson, chairman of Wolfson-Verrichia explained that the borings mark the first visible sign of activity at the site. "The borings were done to determine the content of the soil so that we when start to make cuts and fills we'll know when we'll hit rock or dirt," he said, referring to the initial stages of clearing and preparing the site for construction.
"Results have shown good quality soil for the center."Of major concern to residents in Caernarvon/Berks is the anticipated traffic volume that Morgantown Crossings will generate.
Wolfson-Verrichia has agreed to make $200,000 in traffic improvements along Route 23 including new or revamped traffic signals at Twin Valley Road, Morgan Way and near Heritage Drive. Paul Whiteman, chairman of the Caernarvon/Berks Board of Supervisors has repeatedly stated his concern over the projected increases in traffic volume that Morgantown Crossings will generate. "We've got to take care of the traffic," he said.
In an attempt to address the impact increased traffic would have on the Route 23 corridor between Caernar-von/Lancaster and Elverson Borough, Whiteman had invited neighboring municipalities with concerns about traffic to form a traffic impact committee. While there was a positive reaction to the invitation sent out during the second half of 2001, little has been accomplished to date.
"We still have to get it done," says a somewhat frustrated Whiteman. "But I don't want to use taxpayers money to do it."
Funding for such a study would come from money that developers are required to contribute to the township for infrastructure improvements.
Whiteman said that he has a meeting planned in the next week with Tom Hess, a supervisor from Elverson Borough, to try to revive interest in the committee.
Regarding the current status of Morgantown Crossings, Whiteman said that there were a number of meetings before Christmas during which concerns were raised over the funding for a traffic signal at Valley Road and Route 23, the area where a Sheetz is planned as part of the complex. "We had $50.000 from PennWood (a developer) but were still short of the $250,000 cost," said Whiteman. "The difference was made up by Wolfson-Verrichia and Sheetz. Without that light it would have been difficult to get it (the shopping center)
He said that Caernarvon/Berks has recently heard nothing from PennDOT on the status of the traffic recommendations Wolfson-Verrichia had agreed to include as part of their highway occupancy permit application. Those included recalibration of the traffic light in Morgantown at the intersection of routes 23 and 10, a potential traffic light at the intersection of routes 23 and 401, and traffic lights at the entrances to Morgantown Crossings.
Thus far, PennDOT's regional office in Allentown has not received a formal application from Wolfson-Verrichia for a highway occupancy permit. "This permit is needed for them to build driveways for the center itself," explained Fran Hanney, PennDOT district permit manager. "There is a conceptual understanding of the improvements to be built which includes work on Route 23 from Morgan Way to Twin Valley Road and signal timing at the intersection of routes 23 and 10."
Hanney said that he expects Wolfson-Verrichia to submit an application for a highway occupancy permit sometime in February, adding that this perceived lag time is not unusual for such a project.
He also indicated that PennDOT has not heard any further word on a proposed traffic study of Route 23 that would involve townships along the highway. "There have been some discussions, but it has not yet happened," he said of the study proposed by Caernarvon/Berks supervisors at last year's April 10th meeting when approval was given for Morgantown Crossings.
Hanney added that PennDOT can not mandate such undertakings but encourages regional cooperation in these matters. "The area will not necessarily be at risk if the study is not done," he said. "When developers build on a state highway, we will review the highway for safety and capacity, whether townships get together or not."
In the meantime, Wolfson said that three architectural firms are submitting proposals for the design of Morgantown Crossings, and that a final design would be chosen in about 45 days. "We are very excited about the process," Wolfson continued. "When we build a center like this, we want it to fit in harmoniously with the community."
Wolfson-Verrichia has developed a number of shopping centers in southeastern Pennsylvania that feature Wal-Mart department stores as their anchors. At Morgantown Crossings, the Wal-Mart will be one of the chain's "super stores" offering retail and food, comprising 156,000 square feet.
While Wolfson declined to name the other prospective tenants his firm is lining up for Morgantown Crossings, he did say that a junior department store chain has approved the market and the site for a 20,000-square-foot store and an office supply store
has approved the market for a 22,000-square-foot store. Other prospects as stated in the original plan include soft goods retailers, sit-down restaurants, banks, and a multiplex movie theater.
He did allow that a Sheetz convenience store-gas station will be part of the center. When Morgantown Crossings is built out, Wolfson expects it to have between 30 and 40 stores.
"Tenants from other properties tend to follow us," he explained. In addition to Wal-Mart, tenants at other properties developed by Wolfson-Verrichia include retailers such as Pier I, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Peoples department store, and Barnes & Noble book stores among others. Last summer, Tri County Record had received a call from Peoples department stores inquiring about the demographic make-up of the region.
When asked about the risk of retail saturation he said that research has found that "the western and northern suburbs have both the strongest growth as well as the best schools and the best quality of life." He explained that Wolfson-Verrichia chooses locations for their shopping centers that are approximately 15 miles apart from each other but with strong population bases. Included among the shopping centers anchored by a Wal-Mart his firm has developed are centers in Ephrata and Eddystone. Wolfson-Verrichia currently has shopping centers under construction in West Sadsbury (390,000 square feet of retail space) at the intersection of routes 30 and 10 and in Exton (950,000 square feet of retail space) near the intersection of routes 30 and 100 in the vicinity of the Exton Mall.
Wolfson expects Morgantown Crossings to draw from within a seven-to-eight mile radius of Morgantown. "People are not spending their disposable income in this community," he said. "This area loses 80 percent of its disposable income to areas outside of the community."
Regarding the challenge of getting residents to change their shopping habits, he said, "We are building a first class retail environment to give people an alternative, and to break these habits."
According to Wolfson, a major part of the plan for each center his firm develops is to make it aesthetically pleasing by incorporating a local "flavor" in its design scheme.
"In Parksburg, we are using stone to create a Chesco motif," he said. "In Eddystone, we used iron to reflect the once-industrial nature of that area." Woflson-Verrichia's Eddystone shopping center is located near the former Baldwin Locomotive Works complex south of Philadelphia International Airport.
He suggested that the final design for Morgantown Crossings would take its cues from the agrarian nature of the Tri County region. Groundbreaking for the complex is projected for late autumn or early fall of this year.