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A growing discount department store chain known for its quirky advertising and its deep selection of books is coming to McKeesport.
Work has begun on an Ollie's Bargain Outlet store in the former Jim Shorkey Ford dealership at Olympia Shopping Center on Walnut Street.
The store represents the first step into Allegheny County by the Harrisburg-based retail chain.
Jerry Altland, vice president of real estate for Harrisburg, Pa., based Ollie's, said the 32,000-square-foot McKeesport store is projected to open in March 2017. Remodeling has already begun.
Estimated at 80,700-square-feet in size, according to a recent real estate listing, the building, formerly owned by the parent company of Tri-Star Ford, was sold Aug. 1 to a limited partnership called Byzantine of Pennsylvania for $1.9 million, county tax records indicate.
Although the state corporation bureau's public database does not have a list of officers for Byzantine of Pennsylvania, property records indicate that Byzantine's tax bills are sent to Spiro Pappan, son of the former Beaver County restaurant owner Lou Pappan.
Altland said the new owners are doing the remodeling.
Ollie's will share the building with a senior citizen care center operated by Community LIFE, an existing Auto Plus auto parts store that faces Walnut Street, and another new retail store to be located on the side of the building closest to an existing Save-a-Lot grocery store.
McKeesport community development director A.J. Tedesco said city officials are working with the new property owner to identify potential tenants that might compliment Ollie's.
The Ollie's store represents a return of discount retailing to the building, which was constructed in the early 1960s for a Zayre Discount Department Store. That chain was taken over by the former Ames Department Stores in 1988, which then closed in 2002 after filing for its second bankruptcy in 12 years.
The store became Tri-Star Ford in 2006 and Jim Shorkey Ford in 2015. Shorkey Ford has since relocated to the former McKeesport Chrysler-Plymouth building on Route 48.
Ollie's was founded in 1982 and now has more than 200 locations, stretching from Michigan to Florida. Privately held until 2015, the company's stock is now traded on the NASDAQ exchange. The stores are named for Harrisburg real estate agent Oliver Rosenberg, who founded the company along with the late Morton Bernstein. Rosenberg died in 1996.
Altland, who has been with Ollie's for 31 years, said the company has been growing at a rate of "15 to 18 percent" per year. According to its website, Ollie's will open five new stores this month in Kentucky, Indiana and Florida.
Unlike some discount retailers, such as T.J. Maxx, that focus mainly on clothing, Ollie's stores highlight housewares, domestic items, hardware, rugs and floor coverings, a selection of non-perishable foods, and books, Altland said.
Along with Ollie's colorful, cheerful image, depicting co-founder Rosenberg as a smiling cartoon character, selling books also has helped the chain stand out from the crowd.
"Other chains don't do that, because it's not easy," Altland said. Books "come in massive tubs, and it's a fair amount of work to sort them and get them on the shelves," he said.
The company's retail philosophy remains very simple, he said. "We buy brand name merchandise cheap and we sell it cheap," Altland said. According to Ollie's website, the store gets many of the items it stocks via closeouts, one-time special buys and liquidations from other retailers.
Customer surveys show that Ollie's customers are willing to drive 20 to 30 minutes to get to one of the stores, Altland said, though he noted many locations are in rural areas.
Right now, the closest Ollie's locations to McKeesport are near Greensburg and Belle Vernon.
Altland said Ollie's has been eyeing metropolitan Pittsburgh for a while, and he's spent "a fair amount of time" in the city.
"You've got a particular kind of topography there, and we understand that," he said, joking that he knows that Pittsburghers don't like to go over bridges and through tunnels to get to a store.
Ollie's doesn't yet know when, or how many, employees will be hired in McKeesport, Altland said, but the company will run advertising as it gets closer to the prospective opening day in the spring.
Originally published September 14, 2016.