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Small-business owners trying to do part in revitalizing Clairton

| Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, 10:18 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Wandra Sparks adds finishing touches to fall decor at the Ribbon Room, a banquet facility she and her husband, Gus, have been working to restore for the past three years. It opened in October.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Hoov's Hot Dog Shop owner Madalen Hoover helps her cousin Greg Nestor butter hot dog buns before placing them on the grill.

For the past three years, Wandra Sparks has been walking in and out of an old Italian club along Waddell Avenue in downtown Clairton.

She watches as her husband Gus Sparks installs new plumbing and electrical systems or paints warm colors on expansive walls and a cathedral ceiling, and what seemed to be piecemeal improvements in a never-ending struggle now are part of a vision that others can see.

The Sparkses transformed a club that sat vacant for at least a decade into the Ribbon Room.

“It's a mixture of old and new furnishings,” Wandra Sparks said. “It's cozy and quaint. There's such a warm feeling that you don't even know you're in a banquet hall.”

For the retired Clairton City Hall business office worker, the facility is more than a new business opportunity. It's an investment in her hometown, a community she loves.

“I'm not leaving this city,” Sparks said. “I've invested my life to fulfill my vision in this town. People want to come to a nice place, and they need to be able to do that locally.”

The Ribbon Room can accommodate large or small parties with its first-floor banquet room, private loft and basement party room. The banquet hall comfortably holds 50-125 guests. The basement holds approximately 80.

With a list of preferred caterers and DJs, the Ribbon Room is open for wedding receptions, anniversary parties, showers, adult birthdays, children's parties, inspirational speakers and other events. Zumba classes are on the schedule in coming months.

City residents have a classy place in their backyard, Sparks said.

“This community is not dead,” she affirmed. “We've got some dead buildings, but the people are alive and well. They're being creative.”

Sparks is not alone in her effort to revitalize a town where the economy, as in other Mon Valley communities, has fizzled along with the once-booming steel industry.

N. State Street, where U.S. Steel still operates a thriving coke plant, is home to a handful of new businesses that have cropped up in recent months.

Madalen Hoover opened Hoov's Hot Dog Shop, a complement to her husband Don Hoover's barber shop by the same name.

“My husband is a barber, and we know how chatty men can be when they get together around a barber's chair,” she said with a laugh. “They started talking about how there's almost nowhere to eat in town.”

Aside from a pizza shop at the mill entrance and the Boston Diner, which closes after lunch, there isn't much along the Route 837 corridor in Clairton.

“We wanted to give people a place to grab a meal they can enjoy,” Hoover said of a take-out menu that includes creatively dressed dogs and other sandwiches. “We wanted to bring some life to Clairton and try to develop it. We want to bring it back.”

Hoover grew up in then-Jefferson borough, but considers Clairton to be her real home.

“Clairton is my home town,” she said. “There was nothing in Jefferson borough. Clairton was our town. We came here for everything.”

Deputy Mayor Kathy Tachoir, who serves as president of the city's chamber of commerce and co-owns Tachoir Auto Body with her husband, Roger Tachoir, has lived in Clairton her whole life. She is a lifelong contributor to Clairton's business community; her family owned Grisnik's Bakery at several locations in town.

She remembers a city with five grocery stores, 16 car dealers, and 17 churches. The population dwindled from a peak 22,000 to just shy of 7,000, and most businesses disappeared with the people.

“When I ran for office my motto was that we will never bring back the Clairton we had, but that we can make today's Clairton the best it can be,” she said. “These businesses are helping. They're bringing life to buildings that would be empty. They're serving our residents.”

Roger Mount, a Harrisburg area native raising his family in Glassport, took over a barber shop along N. State Street, where the former owner retired.

Roger's Classic Cuts caters to everyone with a variety of styles available for any type of hair.

Mount has been in the area for nine years and worked with another barber in North Versailles Township before branching out on his own — a project he said is more difficult than he imagined.

“I'm starting out slow,” he said. “People are reluctant to change. This shop went from a little Italian guy to a big, tattooed biker.”

Mount guaranteed that people who give him a chance will appreciate his work. “I love to cut hair,” he said. “I've tried other jobs, and I don't like doing the same thing day in and day out. This is different. It's not monotonous and you meet so many different people.”

While he is taking a financial step backward initially, Mount said he hopes business picks up soon, especially with other businesses moving in to the blocks around his.

Planet Tattoo, opened by Clairton native Don Nevills, changed hands in August to one of its primary artists, Richie Lattanzi.

If that name sounds familiar, he is the mayor's son. At 24, Lattanzi said he wasn't quite ready to take over his own business, but he couldn't have asked for anything better.

“I have all the tools ready to take over an established business,” he said. “It was time for me and Don to take another step. I'm lucky enough to have him around.”

While Nevills will return to the shop for guest spots, he is dedicating his time to Jolly Roger Tattoo Supply located in an upstairs office. It offers quality supplies to professionals who work in formal tattoo shops.

“There's nothing in the Pittsburgh area,” Nevills said. “The closest supply company is in Harrisburg. I saw this as a need in the region, and I brought it to Clairton.”

Mayor Rich Lattanzi said the influx of new, creative businesses will help the city's sluggish economy. And with young faces in the mix, he wished business owners luck.

“Not only are these businesses needed and appreciated, but we welcome them to our community,” he said. “We wish them much success, especially with a couple of young people taking a big step.”

Up the hill from Route 837 in the city's downtown district, brothers Ephron Prince III and Maurice Prince opened Off ‘Da Block, a pizza shop in a storefront where their grandmother ran a similar business during their youth.

“My mother owned this as Mama G's,” their mom, Cindy Tatalovich, recalled. “We'd always be here, and the boys said that one day they would run it.”

Maurice Prince described the endeavor as a “dream come true,” and his brother said they are working hard to keep that dream alive.

“Nothing worth having comes easy,” Ephron Prince III said. “I'm 25. I want to work hard now and enjoy my life.”

Heading up Miller toward Neil C. Brown Stadium is the Fuel On convenience store and gas station.

Closed for about a year, it re-opened in July under new ownership.

Alex Ansari and Nasier Raees, who have experience in the convenience store and restaurant businesses, said the Clairton community has welcomed them to a fill a void.

“Many of the people who come in here live in the area,” Ansari said. “I know them and they know me. People are on fixed incomes and tight budgets. We are trying our best to have what they need close to home.”

Ansari said Fuel On has received plenty of support from the city.

“I love the connection we have with city council and the police,” he said. “They shop here like everyone else, and they are in here making sure everything is going smoothly.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956.

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