At a City Council hearing Wednesday, downtown barber Bill Herr spoke of his concerns about a proposal to put a sports bar in derelict former Triangle Building across from his shop.
He talked wistfully about hanging on in an area where there used to be 20 barber shops and fearfully about a bar that used to be in the Triangle Building - and which created parking, vandalism, trash and drug problems.
"If you think I'm gun-shy, you're correct," Herr told council members, suggesting that a plan to put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a derelict building in such an unpromising area made no sense when there were other areas in the suburbs that would readily repay such an investment.
Councilman Mark Geis practically gave Herr a haircut with his response in support of the project - proposed by Chicago-area businessman Suresh Mekala, who hopes to renovate the Triangle not only to create the Sun & Moon Sports Bar and restaurant, but eight new apartments upstairs.
"Twenty barber shops [downtown]?" Geis asked rhetorically. "That's over."
The city is in financial distress and needs precisely the kind of investment Mekala wants to make, according to Geis.
He doesn't understand why Mekala would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do what he plans to do, either, Geis confessed.
"But I'm grateful," he said.
Mekala asked council to approve the transfer of a Snyder Township liquor license now in safekeeping, and council did so.
Mekala has a software business and is based in the Chicago area, and he has a news TV channel, software business, travel agencies and restaurants in India, plus business interests in Singapore, where he's involved with a client bank, he said.
But he also has connections with western Pennsylvania, which he's extending with the proposed Triangle project.
The connection began with his interest in the big Hindu Balaji Temple in Pittsburgh.
That led to projects in Johnstown, where he has renovated the former convent in a Catholic school and plans to renovate the school building and create a charter school, he said.
That led to Altoona, and the Triangle.
Restoring historic buildings like the 1920s Triangle appeal to him, because his grandfather did the same in India, in addition to building schools, he said.
Mekala plans for the sports bar to have live music, stand-up comedy, poetry readings, senior nights on Mondays with music from the 1960s and 1970s, flat screen TVs, and streaming video of music shows going both ways between India and Altoona, according to Greg Szallar, his lawyer from Chicago.
It will be a multi-cultural "fusion," Szallar said.
Mekala will move to Altoona and live in one of the apartments upstairs, so he can devote himself to running the business personally, and transition from his software interests, he said.
The business should earn between 15 and 20 percent of its proceeds from alcohol, Szallar said.
The restaurant menu will be multi-cultural as well, Szallar said.
Occupancy could be as high as 200, and there will be no smoking allowed.
Parking will be an issue, but the owner will try to work it out with parking spot leases from private lot owners and the Altoona Parking Authority, as well as use of on-street parking, especially after hours.
Stanley Krish, funeral director and resident of the neighborhood, shared Herr's concerns.
Councilman Dave Butterbaugh was the lone dissenter in the vote for license transfer.
He voted no because he didn't want to approve a license for alcohol, but he's "all for development" and wishes Mekala well, he said.
Despite Herr's concerns, the building is in excellent shape, said Judy Coutts, architect for the project.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.