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Fight Against Blight is City’s ‘Biggest Challenge’

Mayor: ‘Better days lie ahead’; CD director says, ‘Either fix it or tear it down.’

By Sarah Turnbull
The Tube City Almanac
October 12, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko: “You have to attack this issue from every angle and focus on what will have the greatest impact on the city as a whole.” The blight removal program has received “an overwhelming amount of positive feedback,” he says. (Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)

See also: Vacant Houses Sap Energy from Longtime Residents

When Mike Cherepko was elected mayor of McKeesport in 2011, he knew he wanted to fulfill his campaign motto “Working Together for a Better McKeesport” specifically by cleaning up blight.

Traditionally defined as the decline of an urban area due to neglect or age, blight is one of the key issues facing the Cherepko administration.

“Blight is any structure that becomes an eyesore, or poses a health or fire risk – like rodents, mold or weeds,” Cherepko said. “It’s my biggest challenge as mayor.”

(Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)

A.J. Tedesco is the community development director for the city of McKeesport, and he concurred with the mayor’s statement.

“Blight hinders people from moving into the city, it lowers morale, and it prevents property taxes from being assessed correctly since some of these properties have been empty for years,” Tedesco said.

“We’ve torn down 300 houses in the last two years, and we currently have 800 to 1,000 residential properties on the list for demolition,” Tedesco said.

Before a property is listed for demolition, the code enforcement officer gives the owner one last chance to repair the property. If the building inspector determines that the property poses an imminent danger, it will be listed for demolition. Otherwise, the property will remain standing until the necessary funds are available.

Cost is a major factor in remedying blight, Tedesco said. One demolition can cost up to $16,000. But that cost has risen over the last five years due to new regulations from Allegheny County.

“For the last five years, the county has required every property listed for demolition to be checked for asbestos,” Tedesco said. “It usually costs $1,500 to survey a property, plus we have to pay for oversight of that survey. The city doesn’t normally have funds for commercial demolitions.”

(Vickie Babyak photo for Tube City Almanac)

But there is reason to be optimistic. Tedesco reported that the city received a $300,000 grant from the state to tear down commercial buildings.

Cherepko stated that funds have been secured to tear down abandoned properties on Fifth Avenue. The removal of dilapidated properties has inspired others in the community to clean up their own properties, thereby discouraging further blight.

“You have to attack this issue from every angle and focus on what will have the greatest impact on the city as a whole,” Cherepko said. “We’ve had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback.”

Plans have been announced to add a new Port Authority Transit Center and parking garage to the downtown area. Residents also have the option to participate in the Vacant Property Program and with the Redevelopment Authority to fight blight by rehabilitating vacant lots or properties with at least three years of tax delinquency. More information on the program can be found on the city’s website.

“Our goal is to eliminate all blight,” Tedesco said. “Either fix it or tear it down.”

According to city-data.com, 31.4 percent of McKeesport’s residents lived below the poverty line in 2019. The Cherepko administration believes that raising funds and building relationships with people who understand local politics are key to affecting lasting change.

“Better days lie ahead,” Cherepko said. “We’d been going downhill for 30 years, but now we’re climbing uphill. You have to crawl before you can walk.

“Blight is like cancer – it just keeps spreading. Cleaning up not only boosts morale; but it discourages further blight. There’s a sense of pride among the residents here – once a tiger, always a tiger,” Cherepko said.

To learn more about blight remediation in McKeesport, visit the city’s website or call (412) 675-5020.

Sarah Turnbull is a freelance writer in Irwin. She can be reached at sarahturnbull323@gmail.com.

Originally published October 12, 2021.

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