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McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko is trying to change the perceptions of his town, whether from outsiders who've never set foot in the city or locals who think it's dying.
The mayor is hoping that investment in long-neglected parts of the city --- including the Downtown area --- will help. In March, the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh presented the city with the results of a marketing study of the Penn-McKee Hotel.
Cherepko believes returning the long-shuttered, iconic hotel to commercial or retail use would “help change the perspective of the city,” he said.
Designed in the Art Deco style by noted architect Benno Janssen, the hotel was the site of the first political debate between freshmen congressmen and future U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
The report by the Young Preservationists “indicates what some of the expectations would be, and how we can make it happen,” said Jennifer Vertullo, assistant to the mayor. “It's not a proposal --- what we are waiting for is a proposal that we could act on.”
But the fact that an outside, reputable organization embraced the reuse of the Penn-McKee “should be proof for people that it's real,” she said.
The Kennedy-Nixon debate is just part of the story of the long-vacant Penn-McKee, Cherepko said. “All of these people, wherever they moved away, remember McKeesport, they have ties here, they danced and went to events down there, so it brings back their memories,” he said.
Finding the right developer and investor will be key, Cherepko said. A low-income housing proposal has already been rejected, he said.
“They were going to spend upward of $12 (million) to $14 million, but it wasn’t what we felt would meet our vision for that area,” Cherepko said. In addition, the city's 2016 comprehensive plan does not have zoning for housing in the Downtown area.
The Penn-McKee is adjacent to the Marina at McKees Point, the Great Allegheny Passage hiking-biking trail and the Palisades Events Center.
The city is hopeful it can find someone to redevelop the Penn-McKee as a smaller hotel that can serve UPMC McKeesport, the RIDC industrial park, PurePenn and Penn State Greater Allegheny, Cherepko said.
McKeesport does not need a 100-room hotel, he said, but a 40- to 50-room facility is feasible.
Cherepko said it would make sense for a developer to come in and develop shopping on the first floor.
The city's goal is have someone come in privately and invest in the Penn-McKee, he said.
“It's just a matter of someone making the investment, someone who can see our vision,” Cherepko said. “We’re not looking to spend our money out of our general operating expenses, and I don't want a tax burden at all.”
Vertullo said a series of fund-raising events are being planned for Friday evenings and may include “live entertainment to generate interest in the project and also raise funds.”
Volunteers are setting up a tax-exempt charity to help raise money and facilitate access to grants, Cherepko said.
”What is nice is, we have other investors that will speak on our behalf, because there is investment all over the city,” he said. “We have development right now in probably five or six parts of the city --- we haven't had that in 50 or 60 years.”
Cherepko points to current projects that include new construction at RIDC and along East Fifth Avenue and Walnut Street between Nnth and 13th avenues.
“We have another person who wants to buy a whole block to build a business,” he said. “We have development at the Christy Park section of town as well --- we have this development happening all over town.”
Cherepko has been promoting an initiative called "McKeesport Rising." Vertullo said the initiative includes infrastructure improvement, reduction of blight through demolition, additional public safety cameras and economic development.
Last year, McKeesport was awarded a $2.9 million state Department of Transportation grant to be used in part to help renovate the 440-space Lysle Boulevard parking garage for use by trail visitors, bus commuters using the McKeesport Transportation Center, and tenants at the former Daily News Building.
City officials also are working to get the Peoples Building sold to a local developer.
The mayor said there are many things the city is trying to do under the umbrella of McKeesport Rising. The Penn-McKee, he said, is just one possible piece.
“I want to be optimistic about the Penn-McKee,” Cherepko said. “If it happens, it will be a part of McKeesport Rising.” If it doesn't, he said, it won't slow down progress.
Cherepko believes the news media is the biggest obstacle to changing the perception of McKeesport.
It's so bad, he said, news outlets will go so far as to include “formerly of McKeesport” when reporting on people who have been arrested.
“It's bizarre, some of the people haven't lived here in 10 years, but they have to mention that,” Cherepko said.
The mayor said he thinks a successful reuse of the Penn-McKee could help change some of those attitudes.
“I think it’s just a matter of finding the right person that is looking to make the investment,” Cherepko said. If the day comes when the Penn-McKee is reopened, he said, “people will say the city must be coming back.”
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published April 08, 2019.