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From left, Michelle Matuch, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, Matthew Craig of the Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh, and Jason Togyer participated in a panel discussion entitled "The Past, Present and Future of the Penn-McKee Hotel" on Saturday at McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. (Photo courtesy McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center)
The first thing you see driving into Downtown McKeesport from the Jerome Street Bridge or traveling on the river trail is the derelict Penn-McKee Hotel.
And thousands of people ride through McKeesport on the bike trail --- but don’t stop to spend any money, according to Jason Togyer, executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc.
Reversing those two facts --- and filling cash registers --- are the goals of a possible renovation of the hotel, Togyer said.
He was one of several speakers participating in a panel discussion Saturday at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center to examine the "past, present and future" of the Penn-McKee Hotel.
The panel included Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, Michelle Matuch, retired executive director of the McKeesport Hospital Foundation and the president of McKees Point Development Group, and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko.
The Penn-McKee was voted the "number one preservation opportunity" in Western Pennsylvania by the YPA in 2018.
Craig said the reuse of the Penn-McKee has become a “personal quest.”
When he first got involved in the project “it was just some work” for YPA, he said, and the organization wanted to give the mayor and his team the information they needed to make the best decision for the city.
“I was impressed with the passion they have a for their city and everyone in the community, the more I got a chance to talk with people, I was moved by their personal passion and the stories they told.” he said on Saturday.
YPA's economic and architectural feasibility study was presented to city council at its June 4 meeting.
Up to $141 million in tourism dollars is not landing in McKeesport, according to the report, which concludes reusing the long-vacant hotel is "costly" but feasible.
The Penn-McKee was designed in the Art Deco style by noted architect Benno Janssen. Newspaper accounts of the era called the hotel “a community giant ... a peaceful shrine of domesticity combined with the gay and restful recreational delights of a social center.”
The hotel was the site where freshmen congressmen and future U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon debated the Taft-Hartley labor legislation in 1947, thirteen years later, the two men were debating again as they each ran for the presidency.
The history associated with the Nixon-Kennedy debate is a source of pride for McKeesport, and Craig acknowledged his excitement about the building's past, but said he is even more excited about the future.
“What's important is, how many other stories can the building have, who else will visit the Penn-McKee?” he said.
Restoring the Penn-McKee will not be easy, but it is “achievable and will take the best of everyone to try and achieve it,” Craig said.
The study lists a variety of local, state and federal sources for funding that could be leveraged to rehabilitate the Penn-McKee, including the county's Community Investment and Tourism Fund, federal tax credits, the state's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and the newly created Federal Opportunity Zone Program.
Togyer said regardless of whether the building is demolished or restored, money will still need to be spent on asbestos removal and clearing out the debris.
Craig said there is financial assistance available to clean up asbestos and other hazards at the hotel. EPA grants are available that may cover as much as 75 percent of the costs, he said.
A successful renovation of the hotel would require an “anchor tenant, such as a restaurant, that can make the debt service," Craig said. "You can do that on the first floor and do the facades, have the building making money and contributing money back out.”
There is more to the project that the restoration of the hotel.
“We consider the whole block, the project can't be a success in the middle of decaying (buildings)," Craig said. "It really has to be the whole area. I envision the restoration of surrounding buildings ... cleaned up and being part of this new section of McKeesport.”
More than 10 years ago, members of the Heritage Center began to look around for buildings in McKeesport to preserve, according to Togyer. They sought help from the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh and local officials.
“We just kept coming back to the waterfront area, to the Penn-McKee Hotel,” he said.
The McKeesport riverfront is home to McKees Point Marina, the Palisades ballroom and the Great Allegheny Passage hiking-biking trail. YPA's Craig described them as “three strong economic drivers that really can support this whole effort.”
McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko praised the heritage center, YPA and other stakeholders involved in the process of trying to get the Penn-McKee up and running.
He said the city should take advantage of every opportunity to change what he calls a “negative perception” that has troubled civic leaders in the city for years.
The mayor said he has days when he feels beat down, but it's “amazing, when you see people who care and are trying to make things better, I need that every now and then.”
Cherepko sees “a perfect storm” is taking place, not only in the progress of the Penn-McKee project, but an upswing in business activity in the city, particularly the Downtown area.
“We are going to be successful,” he said about the city's on-going struggle to change its “perception problem."
McKees Point Development Group is a volunteer organization formed to study ways to attract new business and investment to the area around the McKees Point Marina and the Great Allegheny Passage hiking-biking trail, starting with the abandoned Penn-McKee Hotel.
Michelle Matuch, president of the group, said she wants to see people who pass through McKeesport stay in McKeesport and not take their business to neighboring communities like West Mifflin or Homestead.
The organization recently qualified for 501(C)(3) non-profit status and is now eligible to seek government and corporate grants. The group has been organizing waterfront concerts to raise funds. The next concert is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday and will feature The Armadillos.
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 email@example.com.
Originally published July 04, 2019.