WEIRTON - Business partners Mike Chek and Mike Heilman are making believers out of skeptics who didn't think a "lifestyle development" would work in the city.
Their pet project, the Village at Colliers Way, now includes a 6,200-square-foot strip plaza, only recently completed but already at 50 percent occupancy.
A gas station/convenience store, the first piece of the Village's development puzzle, opened in 2010 and is thriving. A duplex - two single-family patio homes, each with three bedrooms, two baths and 9-foot ceilings - is already under construction and Chek and Heilman hope to see the residential side take off fully in the near future.
DEVELOPMENT CONTINUES — Mike Heilman and Mike Chek, owners of Altair Development, show off a recently completed strip plaza at the Village at Colliers Way. The plaza and the adjacent Kwik King gas station and convenience store represent the commercial side of a lifestyle center they have planned for the roughly 40-acre property. — Linda Harris
The men, one-time employees at Weirton Steel who grew disenchanted with the ups and downs of the steel business, teamed up 13 years ago to develop properties in Western Pennsylvania. They started negotiating for the Colliers Way parcel several years later, sealing the deal and going public with their plans in 2008. Two years later their first commercial tenant, Kwik King, celebrated its grand opening.
"It was about five years ago when we started this, but there was a long, dry spell along the way with all the economic uncertainty," Chek said. "We feel the economy is a lot better now. That's why we're going ahead with our investment."
A "long, dry spell" is an understatement: When Chek and Heilman unveiled their plans in 2008, world financial markets were tipping like dominos. Here in the U.S., free-wheeling lenders had given too much money to homebuyers who couldn't afford their high-risk, high-interest mortgage payments. Foreclosures spiked, investors lost confidence and banks balked at extending more credit. The government used billions in taxpayer dollars to shore up the banking industry, save the auto industry and stimulate the domestic economy.
But even if they wanted to, the two men couldn't have pulled the plug.
"At that point we'd already bought it, we were already into it," Heilman said. "We had to ride the storm out."
Heilman, though, said the economic firestorm forced them to be smart about the decisions they made.
"It changed a little from what we originally planned, but it's coming together really well," he said.
The Village is situated opposite Weirton Medical Center, just off U.S. Route 22 and very near the state line.
Heilman likes to say that puts the Village at Colliers Way "just one stop sign from downtown Pittsburgh."
"There are no red lights or anything once you get on (Route) 22," Heilman said. "There's easy access to the airport. You can jump right on 22 (and go)."
They started out with a full 41 acres to fill but sold 3 to an individual who has been doing dirt work in preparation for a project of his own. He said they have a couple other lots that they've earmarked for commercial activities, leaving plenty of room for residential development.
"We have about 29 acres left," he said, explaining their land "goes back about a half-mile, about halfway to Three Springs Drive."
"There's still a lot of property, a lot of room" for residential activities, Chek said. "And on the commercial side, we still have about 2 acres left."
So far, they said response to the new commercial space has been strong. A new salon, Awe-sum Hair, is already operating out of a corner storefront. Minor Insurance Agency's staff will be moving into another storefront, and the Department of Highways will be filling another while a bridge replacement project on Route 22 at Colliers Way is in progress.
That leaves a couple of storefronts open. Chek said they've had inquiries from doctors and other professionals as well as new eateries who'd like to locate in the plaza.
"We have about four people looking at those two spaces, and we have to decide what we feel is going to be better for the development," he said.
"We're super-excited, believe me," he added. "We had a vision of how we wanted it to look, the quality of the building. We hired a local artist, Rebecca Fuscardo, to pull it together with all the colors and brickwork. It came out exactly how she envisioned it, and it's just what we were looking for."
They also have room for a couple more commercial projects.
"All the infrastructure is in place for the commercial side, it's totally done," he said. "We're going to continue developing the commercial side because the infrastructure is in. Phase 2, the residential side, is going to require an infrastructure investment."
Heilman, in fact, said they're open to partnering with another developer on Phases 2 and 3, the residential side, "while we concentrate on the commercial end."
But even without a residential partner, they plan to push forward.
"We're always talking to people about it, we're talking to people right now," Heilman said.
Chek, meanwhile, said he appreciates seeing their plans come to fruition.
"I really feel like it's the right time and absolutely the right spot," he said. "We're close to the highway, yet not on the highway. The traffic count is strong. Retailers look at that, but they also want a huge amount of retail square footage already in place. It can be a struggle ... until the structure is in and it has curb appeal, and we have that. Now we have people calling and saying it's where they want to be."