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Tenants Await Answers in Ninth Ave. Blast

Some businesses have relocated, others are in ‘a holding pattern’

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
August 17, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

More than two weeks after a natural gas explosion caused heavy damage to the former YWCA of McKeesport, tenants of the building are wondering when they can resume operations.

On Aug. 2, a blast that emergency officials believe was triggered by construction work shattered windows and broke the walls of the Common Ground Building on Ninth Avenue. Two workers who were excavating in preparation for a wheelchair ramp were seriously injured.

The cause and origin of the explosion remain under investigation by the Allegheny County fire marshal’s office, a spokeswoman said. The building was sold to the city in 2017 for $1 by its previous owner, the Center for Victims.

In addition to the Ninth Street Clinic, a free medical facility for people without health insurance, the building also was home to the Mon Valley LaunchBox, a business incubator operated by Penn State University’s Greater Allegheny campus.

Crowd-funding website set up for start-up businesses

On Wednesday, Penn State University launched a crowd-funding campaign to help five startup businesses that were located in the LaunchBox to recover. The site, available at CommunityFunded.com, had raised more than $800 in its first hours of operation.

Victoria Garwood, a Greater Allegheny spokeswoman, said this week that Megan Nagel, the campus’ interim chancellor and chief academic officer, and Eric Ewell, director of continuing education, are working closely with McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko to identify a permanent space in the city.

“We have identified space on the campus for the businesses to use temporarily,” Garwood said. “To date, three of the five businesses have scheduled or are conducting appointments and events here.”

The businesses that have resumed operations are Paint at Your Own Risk, Care Heart CPR and Just a Little Talk, she said.

Ninth St. Clinic seeing patients at Painter Building

Dr. Bill Markle, co-founder of the Ninth Street Clinic, said the facility has “lost everything” but does plan to come back.

“We will be seeing patients on Thursdays for now at (UPMC) McKeesport hospital in the Painter Building,” Markle said. The temporary clinic is located on the third floor and its hours are 1 to 7 p.m. Thursdays.

“It will be really bare bones until we can get back up to speed, but hopefully we can at least keep patients in the medicine they need and handle basic things,” Markle said. “We will be raising money to eventually replace what we have lost. 

“It looks like it will be a while before we get insurance payments,” he said. “It is still not clear who hired the contractor that was working there but it was definitely not us.”

Information is available for patients by calling (412) 664-4304 and on Facebook, Markle said.

The clinic is also using a crowdfunding website to raise money for replacement equipment.

Blueroof: Unsure it will ever reopen

Another tenant in the Common Ground Building, Blueroof Technologies, is unsure if it can ever reopen, said John Bertoty, executive director.

Until five years ago, Blueroof focused on constructing technologically advanced housing that enabled people with disabilities to live on their own. The non-profit has constructed 15 such cottages in the McKeesport area so far.

Bertoty said Blueroof has since transitioned into providing science, engineering and technology education workshops in local school districts and in the past few years sold its “independence cottage” on Spring Street — which also served as its offices — and relocated into the Common Ground Building.

“No one can go in there, period,” Bertoty said. “What’s in there is lost. That includes at least $3,000 worth of equipment.”

Also heavily damaged in the explosion was the “Blueroof Independence Module,” a mobile home that was equipped with assistive technology for the elderly and disabled. The module, which is outfitted with a variety of high-tech sensors and equipment, has been used as a training classroom for educators, construction workers and others.

“We believe we’ll be able to get in and take things out of it, but we can’t get in and get anythjng out of the office,” Bertoty said.

Although Blueroof had insurance, many of the items used in daily operations were donated by colleges and schools, he said. The documentation for their ownership is locked in a file cabinet in Blueroof’s destroyed office, and unless Blueroof staff can get access to the file cabinet, it will be unable to get reimbursement for the losses.

“If we can’t verify that we’re going to lose everything,” Bertoty said.

City officials have offered Blueroof space to relocate, he said, but staff and Blueroof’s board of directors are deciding whether or not to continue operations. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to continue its STEM education work, Bertoty said.

“We think we still have something to offer, but we’re kind of in a holding pattern for now,” he said.

Originally published August 17, 2022.

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