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Jeannette's Monsour mess far from unique

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 11:29 a.m.
Jeannette solicitor Scott Avolio poses for a portrait outside of the former Monsour Medical Center on October 11, 2012 in Jeannette. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Randy Highlands (left), operations manager, and CEO Michael Cafasso, both of Jeannette EMS, Inc., pose for a portrait in the ambulance bay at the former Monsour Hospital in Jeannette on Oct. 11, 2012. (Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review)
Michael Cafasso, CEO of Jeannette EMS, Inc., reads a 'condemned' sign posted at the former Monsour Hospital in Jeannette on Oct. 11, 2012. (Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review)
Brownsville General Hospital, located at Church Street and Fifth Avenue in borough, was closed for decades and a new facility was built in Redstone Township. Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier
Brownsville General Hospital, located at Church Street and Fifth Avenue in the borough, has been abandoned and deteriorated for decades. Photographed on Oct. 10, 2012. Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier

In Scott Avolio's perfect world, a wrecking ball would plow through the decaying Monsour Medical Center, ridding Jeannette of the eyesore once and for all.

But Avolio's world as attorney for the cash-poor city is far from perfect, especially when it comes to the abandoned hospital that no one wants and the city cannot afford to demolish.

So the imposing building — frequented these days by vagrants, arsonists and curiosity seekers — remains in limbo, a fact Avolio fears may prove deadly if someone can't find a way to raze the canister-shaped tower along a congested stretch of Route 30.

“My dream is some guy, or five or six guys, will come forward and say, ‘We'll take our chances developing the property,'” Avolio said.

Chances are that won't happen, he said, unless Jeannette can come up with the cash — between $200,000 and $1 million — to tear down the trash-filled building that has an exterior littered with everything from tree-sized weeds and glass laboratory slides to empty beer cans and a dirty mattress.

A national problem

Jeannette's quandary is far from unique.

Across Pennsylvania there are more than 300,000 abandoned buildings, with 20,000 in Pittsburgh and 40,000 in Philadelphia, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.

“The problem is that larger cities like Pittsburgh and Philly are the squeaky wheels that get the grease, and towns like Jeannette are left to fend for themselves without the financial resources and tools to deal with the problems,” said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Pittsburgh, who co-sponsored legislation to help communities fund demolition of abandoned buildings.

Nationally, cities battered by the recession are struggling with entire neighborhoods of unsafe buildings.

In Detroit, where the auto industry's implosion left the city with about 80,000 abandoned structures, officials say there is barely enough cash to pay remaining police officers and firefighters, and no money remains to tear down buildings.

In Baltimore, officials estimate there are more than 10,000 vacant buildings, including thousands of houses that were abandoned by owners underwater on mortgages.

‘It's disgusting now'

For Kenneth Lee Moore, there's no escaping the wretched decay of the former Monsour Medical Center. It's just across the street from the Route 30 car lot he has run for a decade.

Moore, owner of Pinnacle Auto Sales, can't miss the hospital's broken windows and crumbling walls. Some days, he finds pieces of the building on his property.

“When the wind blows, we'll end up with it in our lot —trash, Fiberglas insulation,” Moore said.

He said the rundown structure, just past a big “Welcome to Jeannette” sign, is a constant reminder that “Jeannette is struggling.”

“It does present a negative image when you come into Jeannette,” Moore said.

For 33 years, Donna Laskey, 62, has lived in the shadow of Monsour, which towers over her tidy Maple Drive neighborhood.

“It's dark and dreary. You can hear people up there at night. It's frightening because you don't know who's in there,” Laskey said.

“It was probably an asset to the neighborhood at one point, but it's disgusting now,” said Laskey's neighbor, Laura Winters, 82.

A legacy of chaos

The saga of Monsour's crumbling edifice is the most recent entry in the decades-long melodrama of the hospital's founding brothers — Drs. Howard Monsour, 91; Robert Monsour, 96; William Monsour, 84; and the late Roy Monsour — and their attempts to keep the facility open.

Family squabbles played out as the hospital, which opened in 1952, limped through four bankruptcies, employee unrest and regulatory problems.

The legal battles pitted brother against brother, and a consultant once told a judge that the hospital could survive only if all vestiges of the Monsours were removed.

In search of solutions

State lawmakers are trying to help by drafting a bill to establish “land banks” to issue bonds funding loans to municipalities and counties for demolition of abandoned structures.

State Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, said towns like Jeannette “have an older and poor population” and need help in sparking interest “in their retail and housing” stock.

Illana Preuss, vice president of Smart Growth America in Washington, said land banks are a “very effective tool” in helping small towns reinvent their economies.

Two Ohio lawmakers have introduced a similar measure in Congress to provide $4 billion via bond issues to states to tear down abandoned buildings.

The bill, which is in committee, was introduced because “the crisis of abandoned buildings is more than communities can handle on their own,” said Belinda Prinz, spokeswoman for Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, one of the bill's sponsors.

State Sen. Kim Ward and state Rep. George Dunbar, both Republicans whose districts include Jeannette, are not waiting for legislative solutions to the Monsour problem.

Ward said the state could possibly help if the city or county acquires the property, which Avolio said could be put up for a public sale in the future because of unpaid taxes. If that happens, the county could purchase the site as it did recently with the abandoned Jeannette Glass Co., then apply for state funding to develop the land.

County Commission Chairman Charles Anderson said officials are “more in a wait-and-see position right now. There's nothing to jump into. We're just going to watch, wait and see.”

John Skiavo, president and CEO of the Economic Growth Connection in Greensburg, a private, nonprofit development corporation, said public financing might be the only way the Monsour site will ever be developed.

“Sooner or later, these projects happen when there's public funding involved. You may not like it, but that's the reality of the situation,” Skiavo said.

In the meantime, Ward and Dunbar are going after former members of the hospital's board of directors.

Ward wants them to tour the building to see the decay. Dunbar wants to cite them for violating building codes.

But no one is sure who last served on Monsour's board.

When the hospital closed in 2006, the board and hospital administrators “just walked away,” failing to follow the state's rules for dismantling a nonprofit organization, said Avolio, who is combing court records to find board members' names.

Officials in Brownsville, Fayette County, have taken a similar route with the original Brownsville Hospital, which “is just barely standing,” code enforcement Officer Ed Nicholson said.

The hospital predates a newer Brownsville Hospital in Redstone Township, which closed and later reopened under new ownership.

Nicholson said he has cited the building's owners, Ernest and Marilyn Liggett of Monroeville, numerous times.

“I've got boxes of files. He's been cited. He's appealed. They got us on hold,” he said.

Richard Gazarik and Amanda Dolasinski are staff writers for Trib Total Media.Gazarik can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.Dolasinski can be reached at 724-836-6220 or adolasinski@tribweb.com.

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