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Downtown Businesses Ask for Help, City Officials Say It's On The Way

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
September 09, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Owners of several landmark businesses in the 900 and 1000 blocks of Fifth Avenue in McKeesport are asking for the city's help to address what they called deteriorating conditions on the street. (Tube City Almanac photo)

McKeesport officials are working on a plan that would provide $450,000 per year for six years to remove blight and stabilize the Downtown business district.

But owners of several longtime Fifth Avenue businesses --- including the landmark Minerva Bakery --- said their patience is wearing thin.

"It's wonderful that we're able to create new businesses, but we need to take care of the oldest businesses," said Denise Letterman, whose father, Murray Siegel, 95, owns Tube City Novelty Co.

At Wednesday's city council meeting, Mayor Michael Cherepko said the city has applied to the state Department of Community & Economic Development to create a neighborhood partnership program, or NPP, to address a high rate of vacant and abandoned buildings along Lysle Boulevard and Fifth Avenue.

NPPs are long-term collaborations between private businesses, municipalities and community organizations. Investors receive tax credits for up to 80 percent of the money they put into the programs.

A.J. Tedesco, McKeesport community development director, said UPMC, First Commonwealth Bank and two energy companies have agreed to partner with the city on the NPP. McKeesport officials are still waiting to hear if their proposal is accepted by the state DCED, he said.

"A lot of our focus is going to be in the Downtown area trying to revitalize the Downtown business corridor," Cherepko said. "We're looking to demolish some buildings and revitalize some others, all the way up (from the marina) to the hospital."

High on the city's list of blighted buildings to be addressed is the entire block of Fifth Avenue between Sinclair Street and Sheridan Street --- a stretch which includes the former Goodman's Jewelers, Helmstadter's Department Store and the G.C. Murphy Co. home office, all of which are empty and largely abandoned.

Port Authority of Allegheny County is working on the second phase of improvements to the McKeesport Transportation Center, located on the opposite side of Lysle Boulevard from that blighted block, and the city wants to capitalize on that project, Cherepko said.

The city is also hoping to repave Fifth Avenue between Coursin Street and Evans Avenue in 2020, Cherepko said.

But the business owners who came to city council Wednesday said they want to see progress in their block of Fifth Avenue, and they want to see it more quickly --- beginning with a concerted effort to crack down on crime, especially drug use and prostitution.

"I applaud the efforts for all of the new entrepreneurs to come in, but we had an overdose right behind my building last week," said Kathi Harvey, whose family owns Minerva Bakery. "Two weeks ago, I found a woman ready to shoot up right behind my dumpster."

A man who lives in a nearby apartment building sometimes comes out into the street to scream obscenities, she said.

"It's a real mess and it's been detrimental for a while" to her business, Harvey said. "I have never seen Fifth Avenue look this bad ... I'm tired of it and I don't think we should have to live like this."

Letterman read from a letter by Jon Prince of McKeesport Candy Co. calling the deterioration of the block "unlike anything I could have imagined," adding that the "environment ... is dangerous, dirty and not conducive to business."

Stan Lichtenstein said his family's Lich Paper Co., which sells commercial cleaning supplies and equipment, has been in McKeesport for 30 years.

The block outside his store "is filthy," he said. "Why aren't they sweeping up there?"

Business owners say abandoned buildings like these in the 900 block of Fifth Avenue are attracting drug users and prostitutes. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Cherepko defended his administration's efforts to get a handle on absentee landlords and abandoned buildings.

Code enforcement is a constant battle, he said.

"There's a process you have to follow," he said. "We can issue citations, but what do you do when everyone just walks away from these buildings? If you have a building that needs to be torn down, where do you get $100,000 to tear it down?"

At least one of the empty buildings between Lich Paper and McKeesport Candy --- a vacant apartment building at 1017 Fifth Ave. --- is scheduled for demolition under the city's McKeesport Rising initiative, according to public records.

The cost will be borne by city taxpayers, Cherepko said.

"When we talk about tearing down a building or replacing the sidewalk, that's literally what the private property owners are supposed to be doing," he said. "When we do it, very little of (the cost), if any, gets recovered."

As for allegations of crime and open drug use, Cherepko said, McKeesport is struggling with the same effects of widespread opioid addiction as other communities.

McKeesport police frequently arrest suspects for drug offenses and take them to jail, only to find them back at the same spot the next day, he said.

The same thing happens when people with addictions or serious behaviorial issues are taken by police to mental health facilities, Cherepko said.

The mayor asked business owners to call his office with complaints and concerns, and said he has met with them in the past to address problems.

Letterman said the businesses aren't looking for an investment of anything but attention at this point.

"It doesn't take tons and tons of money," she said. "It takes time and effort."

Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published September 09, 2019.

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