McKeesport officials implement blight fight
By Jennifer R. Vertullo
Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:26 a.m.
Bolstered by funds from the public and private sector, McKeesport is removing blight to make room for growth.
And to help expedite revitalization goals, the city is pursuing a loan for equipment to take deteriorating conditions into its own hands.
“It's depressing,” Mayor Michael Cherepko said, standing in the 1800 block of Federal Street during a Friday tour of blighted neighborhoods. “You look down the street and you see where people are living, and they maintain their properties pretty well. They are living yards away from an entire block that needs taken down.”
Demolition of vacant homes that have become eyesores — public nuisances to some — will let McKeesporters know their future is hopeful.
“Through demolition, you eliminate blight and replace it with hope,” Cherepko said. “When people see buildings coming down, they can see that something is being done. The community morale is lifted.”
Earlier this month, city council approved a $488,587.37 loan through First Commonwealth Bank for additions to the public works fleet, including an approximate $150,000 excavator intended to demolish dilapidated structures.
Assistant public works director Steve Kondrosky said purchasing the excavator will boost morale among city staff, because workers are getting involved in the revitalization of their hometown.
“We're excited to be a part of this,” Kondrosky said. “We need to make sure we are doing it the right way and the safe way, so we'll need a little guidance in the beginning.”
With three individuals set to be trained in demolition procedures, the city hopes to start tearing down homes on its own before summer.
In the meantime, McKeesport will pursue contracted work funded by a $39,000 federal Community Development Block Grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development along with a $50,000 private grant through the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Foundation, chaired by Richard M. Scaife, publisher of Trib Total Media/The Daily News.
This is the fourth contribution the Allegheny Foundation has made to supplement CDBG monies allotted for city projects since 2008.
“It's extremely important to utilize all of our resources,” Cherepko said. “Blight is such a large obstacle that we face, and we greatly appreciate the consideration McKeesport is given by the federal government and the generosity of organizations such as the Allegheny Foundation.”
Cherepko's concept of pooling resources — a notion that supports his “working together for a better McKeesport” platform — is an expansion upon former mayor and now state Sen. James R. Brewster's Renaissance 2005, which removed hundreds of vacant, blighted structures across the city's 12 wards.
“We owe it to the taxpayers who have stuck it out in this city to make sure they aren't living next door to blight,” Brewster said, praising Cherepko for understanding the importance of demolition in beautification and revitalization projects.
Approximately $200,000 in state Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund grants, revenue generated through the gaming industry, will be put into the neighborhood surrounding a new John McKee Primary/Intermediate School.
With McKeesport Area School District constructing its newest elementary-level building on the former Cornell school grounds, Cherepko said the city should do its part to create the best possible environment around the state-of-the-art building.
During a summer meeting of the Concerned Citizens of the Library District, the mayor introduced plans to renew the neighborhood spanning Cornell Street and Union Avenue through Jenny Lind Street and Versailles Avenue.
“Wouldn't it be nice to have a $35 million educational facility across the street from three new homes or an educational park where dilapidated homes have been removed?” Cherepko asked.
The mayor said nearly 400 homes in McKeesport could be demolished across town if funds were available, but he was hopeful that a CITF grant would take care of at least 30 in the Cultural and Educational Sector.
Later in 2012, the state approved a targeted demolition list of 36 structures: seven along Union Avenue, three along Versailles Avenue, three along Manor Avenue, three along Grant Street, one along Jenny Lind Street, three along Bouquet Street, one along Cornell Street, two along Coursin Street, seven along Centennial Street, two along Beaver Street and four along Bailie Avenue.
“We're going to start in close proximity to the school,” Cherepko said during Friday's tour. “When the school opens, all of the blighted structures surrounding (it) will be gone. We will work from there toward some of the outlying houses in case our contract continues longer than one year.”
McKeesport's community development director Bethany Bauer said it would have been counterproductive to build a beautiful school as the centerpiece of a visibly rundown neighborhood.
“When you have the wonderful resource of a brand new school, you want an inviting neighborhood around it,” she said. “Eliminating blight changes the feel of a neighborhood, and it has a positive impact on property values.”
Cherepko said the way property owners maintain their homes and yards is, in a way, dependent on the properties around them.
“It almost becomes contagious,” the mayor said. “When people see things being let go, they tend to do the same. When they see improvement — when they see that their neighbors care and that their city wants to make a difference — they try harder to be a part of the positive things happening in McKeesport.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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