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Private-public partnership will leverage tax credits for blight removal, building rehab
Conflict of Interest Note: The author has a conflict of interest. He is a member of the McKees Point Development Group. See previous coverage of this issue and the note at the end of this story.
Dennis Davin, state secretary of community and economic development (fourth from left, first row) joins city and county officials, state Sen. Jim Brewster (seventh from left, first row), McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko (fifth from left, second row) and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (eighth from left, first row) announcing details of a six-year, $3 million development program. (Photo special to Tube City Almanac)
State officials approved a $3 million package of tax credits that will enable McKeesport to demolish blighted buildings in the Downtown business district and prepare the former Penn-McKee Hotel for possible reuse.
Through Pennsylvania's Neighborhood Assistance Program, or NAP, the six-year plan will be funded through investments by Duquesne Light, First Commonwealth Bank, the gas-drilling company Noble Energy and UPMC Health System.
"We really appreciate this major investment by these corporations that reflects their belief that McKeesport is a great place to do business, and its future is bright," said Dennis Davin, state secretary of community and economic development.
The city is targeting most of a block of Fifth Avenue between Lysle Boulevard, Sinclair Street and Sheridan Alley for demolition, and hoping to environmentally remediate the Penn-McKee to prepare it for redevelopment.
The NAP funding is in addition to more than $300,000 already announced through the state's Special Priorities Program to help low-income residents renovate their homes.
The combined effort is part of a "three-pronged strategy that focuses on housing rehabilitation for seniors and low-income families, removing blight, creating development sites and tapping into (McKeesport's) rich history," Davin said.
The city has "really reached, we think, the tipping point," he said. "You've demonstrated your success through public investment, and by doing so, you've driven private investment here as well."
Joining Davin for the announcement Friday at the Tube City Center for Business and Innovation --- the former McKeesport Daily News Building --- were McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, state Sen. Jim Brewster, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, County Councilman Bob Macey, Allegheny County Economic Development Director Lance Chimka and Don Smith, president of the Regional Industrial Development Corp.
This block between Fifth Avenue and Lysle Boulevard is being targeted for redevelopment under the six-year, $3 million plan announced last week. (Tube City Almanac file photo)
One of the city's top priorities is clearing the block of Fifth Avenue between Sheridan and Sinclair streets, Cherepko said. That block once housed Goodman's Jewelers, Photographics Supply, Helmstadter's Department Store, David Israel men's wear, the G.C. Murphy Co.'s general offices and other businesses.
Most of the buildings there are now abandoned. The G.C. Murphy Co. complex was recently transferred to the city's redevelopment authority by its owners.
The city wants to make the block ready for new development that can capitalize on the Port Authority's bus terminal across the street, as well as the nearby Tube City Center.
According to state Department of Transportation estimates, more than 15,000 vehicles use that section of Lysle Boulevard every day.
"If you would have asked me two years ago what my vision was for the Downtown area, I would have never thought we'd be sitting here, talking about all of the progress we're having," Cherepko said.
Brewster noted that just last year, the state committed $2.9 million in funding to re-route the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail around the RIDC Industrial Park to the edge of the Monongahela River, and to renovate and reopen the Lysle Boulevard parking garage.
Referring to the former Daily News Building, which the city purchased for $1, Brewster noted that all of the development being announced "will surround this building."
"We wanted this to be a gathering place in the city," he said. "You'll be able to walk from the parking garage into this building and also continue onto the trail down to the point (of the Youghiogheny River) ... there are good things happening."
An architect's rendering depicts the former Penn-McKee Hotel as part of a shopping and entertainment district attached to McKeesport's waterfront. (Nina Chase/Merritt Chase Architects via Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh)
The McKees Point Marina area is going to be another focal point of the city's efforts during the six-year NAP, starting with the potential reuse of the Penn-McKee, Cherepko said.
Designed by noted architect Benno Janssen, the hotel was the location for some of McKeesport's most important events and the very first debate between future U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, but fell into disrepute in the 1980s and has been mostly abandoned for more than 30 years.
In 2018, the city engaged the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh and real estate developer Doug Skowron of DJS Ventures to work on a proposal for remediating the environmental hazards in the building and returning it to use.
Their study, released in June, concluded that redeveloping the hotel would be "costly" but would serve as a "launch pad for further planning and redevelopment of the Fifth Avenue commercial corridor."
A recently formed non-profit, McKees Point Development Group Inc., is leading the effort to attract investment to the waterfront area. Michele Matuch, retired executive director of the McKeesport Hospital Foundation, is chairing that board.
A renewed interest in the Downtown area will complement development that is going on in other parts of the city, including Walnut Street, Christy Park and East Fifth Avenue, Cherepko said.
"Too often the negativity is what captures everyone's attention," he said. "But when you're a McKeesporter --- whether you're a resident or a business owner --- when you really get involved in the community, you will see that there's a sense of pride, and for many of us, our claws kind of come out when people start to talk negatively about McKeesport."
The housing rehabilitation program will focus on Grandview and Christy Park, and be overseen by Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, a Homewood-based non-profit that has successfully done similar work in other parts of Allegheny County.
Rebuilding Together's chief executive officer, Steve Hellner-Burris, also attended Friday's announcement.
"This is a very exciting time for all of us who know and have lived in and loved the Mon Valley," Doyle said. "We know this is a part of the county that's been through great times and trying times. But people in the Mon Valley have always been resilient and worked together, and this is an example of what can happen when communities work together in a positive fashion."
Jason Togyer is editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The author is a member of the McKees Point Development Group, mentioned in this story. No one associated with the city or the group reviewed this article prior to publication and neither the city nor any employee has any editorial control over Tube City Almanac. This article was held until after the public release of the report to all media outlets.
Originally published December 16, 2019.