When I first learned that The Mills Corp. was building its 1.1-million-square-foot Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills adjacent to the old steel town of Tarentum, Pa., where my mother was born and where my grandmother just passed away, I was shocked. Tarentum, located about 16 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, is bereft of wealth.

Mills spokeswoman Rebecca Sullivan, acknowledges that the median household income in Tarentum is $26,895, well below the national average of $41,000. It was always a working-class town, even during its 1950s' heyday. But ever since the steel factories shut down and moved overseas, the area has been suffering a slow economic death.

So why did Mills move to Frazier Township, so close to a dying town? Because, while Tarentum and other industrial towns along the Allegheny River have been losing population, nearby counties to the north are growing fast. Butler County's population expanded 3.4 percent in three years to about 180,000. My cousin lives in one of Butler Country's new subdivision in Buffalo Township, which has a median family income of $51,886.

And just seven miles west are some of Pittsburgh's ritziest suburbs. Fox Chapel, for instance, boasts per capita income of about $80,000, according to U.S. Census figures.

Another reason for building on the site, says Mills, is that the area is under-retailed. The hilly terrain prohibits most large-scale retail expansions, resulting in little competition. Now my cousin, his wife and two children won't have to drive 40 minutes to CBL & Associates Properties' Monroeville Mall in Monroeville. They can be at the 200-acre Galleria in 10 minutes.

The location also provides easy access to the area's only expressway. In fact, Frazier, a small community of 1,286, was so excited to have the mall that it approved a 20-year, $35 million Tax Increment Financing package. Mills used the money to build a new interchange.

“Pittsburgh Mills was desperately needed,” says Lori Ziencik, chairwoman for the township's Board of Supervisors. It's going to draw shoppers to other Frazier businesses and encourage nearby development, she says.

Already, the mall has created 3,500 jobs. A car dealership may soon be built nearby, says Ziencik. As for Tarentum, the borough will receive an extra $350,000 a year to provide police for the mall and Frazier Township, which was formerly patrolled by state police. The money comes from the TIF.

On a recent trip to Tarentum, I found that the Galleria offered a refreshing change from the area's normal drabness. Mills' emphasis on anchors (including Sears Grand and Kaufmann's) makes sure there is something for everyone, even for fashion-challenged people like my older brother and myself.

My sister checked out Hot Topic, while my brother and I toured the Lucky Strike Lanes bowling alley and cocktail lounge and a glow-in-the-dark miniature golf course. We then saw Batman Begins on the area's only IMAX screen.

The Galleria is the first Mills to include anchors and both an enclosed regional mall, the Galleria, and a planned open-air center, the Village. The Village won't open until late 2005 or early 2006. Its big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Sam's Club should prove popular.

I will return to the official opening this month, and maybe even hit the trendy stores.

Vitals

Owner: The Mills Corp.

Location: Frazier Township, Pa.

Size: 1.1 million square feet

Opened: July

Some stores: JCPenney, Border Books and Music, Dick's Sporting Goods, Forever 2, Johnny Rockets and H&M.