Bethel Park’s history contains fascinating facts, but the South Parks shops are one curiosity worth exploring. Yes, that strip mall running along Library Road and featuring 21 retail stores and businesses is located in the municipality, not South Park or South Park Township.
However misleading the name may seem, it makes perfect sense. Molly Finnell says the name really has to do with the park and its proximity to the shops. Even as far back as the 1930s, people recognized the landmark recreation area and it facilitated ease when they inquired as to directions to the community shopping center.
“We are at the entrance of the park. So it was a way people could find us when we first opened,” Finnell explains. “Since we draw from all over, it’s a place that everyone can find.”
In 1956, Bill Murdoch found the location so ideal that he asked his father if he could develop an eight-acre tract the family owned. After clearing away several small buildings and sprucing up a large gravel area and a hillside in the rear, the Murdochs opened a Kroger supermarket (where the Rite-Aid is now located) in 1960. The following year, 37,000 square feet was added for 15 shops extending the center to Baptist Road. McDonald’s arrived in 1962. With the purchase of the adjacent Slater’s Garage property in 1986 and the addition of nine more stores in 1995, the center expanded to 87,000 square feet.
Murdoch grew up on Kings School Road. While attending Harvard Business School, he learned new concepts in business. While he helped run his family’s Chevrolet business in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, he convinced his father that these new strategies were applicable to the Bethel Park property.
“At Harvard, my dad learned about these new strip centers,” Finnell says. “He thought the location would be great because it was at a crossroads.”
Today, Finnell and her three cousins are active partners of the family business, which includes the shops that are located at the confluence of five roads – Baptist, Library, South Park, and Corrigan roads, along with Route 88.
Frank and Adeline had five children – Francis, Bill, Esther, Sally and Jim. All grew up in Bethel Park. Mara is the daughter of Jim. Kurt Hauser is the son of Esther. Paul Schneider is the son of Sally.
In addition to their partnership in the South Park shops, they are involved in another family-related business that is currently constructing an eight-story office building in Oakland, next door to that former Chevrolet dealership. CVS will occupy the first floor and the University of Pittsburgh is leasing the rest of the building, which will be move-in ready by autumn.
Plus, Finnell is working on the Parkside Center, which she says is almost an expansion of the South Park shops. The six parcels that housed Give Mia Cookie, the Elks and the Kushak building will be combined into one project. Additionally, three additional wooded lots beyond the properties that run along Library Road before Buick Drive were purchased.
“We are doing a lot of things,” Finnell says. “We’re excited to be constructing a new building that improves the corner and the neighborhood. We hope to lease to local tenants that will connect and enhance the South Park shops.”
Though she had an intimate start at the age of 2 with the South Park shops – she was photographed in her mother’s arms on the construction site – Finnell did not truly dive into real estate until the 1990s after she had moved back to Princeton, N.J., where she grew up and raised her own family. Molly and Sam Finnell have three children – Maggie, Louise and Sam. Molly worked for IBM. Because the company would not rehire on a part-time basis, she started working with her father.
“I could work as many hours as I wanted,” she says. “With my father as boss, it was a deal.”
The deal now is renovating the South Park shops. This spring, they are receiving a new look. The green roof will be replaced with a grey one and the store fronts will be a dark bronze. There will be new banners and a new bison logo.
“It’s a whole new look for the shopping center. Refreshed, but maintaining the identity of the South Park shops,” Finnell says.
According to Finnell, long-established and successful tenants are the best indicators of the desirability of this location. South Hills Jewelers, Rite Aid, Brentwood Bank and its predecessors, McDonald’s, Eat’n Park and Shear Talent all have been in occupancy more than 40 years. Other tenants include: Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Dollar Tree, Eye Couture, European Wax Center, H&R Block, HearUSA, Massage Envy, Jersey Mike’s Subs, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Panera Bread, Pet Supplies Plus, Quest Diagnostics, TMobile, That Pottery Place, The UPS Store, Wines and Spirits as well as Zoom Dry Cleaning.
“We don’t only lease to big chains. We have a lot of mom and pop stores that make it interesting,” Finnell says. “My dad taught me that caring about the shopping experience and keeping well-maintained and nice places to visit helps everyone – the tenants and the shop-goers. When we have tenants in the shops for as long as we have it speaks well. It says we are doing something right.”
The South Park shops do right by the community. They hold annual events such as the Halloween Spooktacular and December Fridays. Held the Saturday prior to Halloween, the Spooktacular offers children the opportunity to trick-or-treat, participate in a costume contest, enjoy family entertainment and visits from the local police, fire and EMS departments. The December event features horse-drawn carriage rides with Santa and Mrs. Claus, music, entertainment, face-painting, balloon twisting, cookie decorating and Selfies with the Elfies. Donations collected at South Park Shops events benefit the Bethel Park Community Foundation.
“By holding promotions and supporting the Community Foundation, we try to be a good citizen of Bethel Park,” Finnell says.
Being in real estate is good business for Finnell, but it is also an ever-changing industry with challenges to keep up with consumers. The pervasiveness of the internet has vastly impacted the shopping experience. Finnell notes the trend toward service rather than retail is even prevalent among the tenants of the South Park Shops.
“A lot of retail has been bumped out by the internet and big box stores. Why people are buying online more is an interesting trend to follow. There are fewer retailers and the shift has been to service,” Finnell says.
“But the thing I like best about the industry is that real estate is the kind of business you can touch and feel what you are working with. It’s the physical, the tangible. If roof leaks, you go up and see it. I also enjoy working in a family business – working for people I love and care about.”