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Nonprofit joins McKeesport's efforts to improve

| Tuesday, June 3, 2014, 3:41 a.m.

A new community-based nonprofit is joining McKeesport's effort to improve neighborhoods and community resources.

Tube City Renaissance conducted an introductory meeting on Monday afternoon at McKeesport Presbyterian Church.

“This is the first in a series of community meetings that we will hold on specific topics during the next few months,” chairman Ed Coker said. “The purpose of these meetings will be to gather information on what organizations are providing in specific areas, how well endeavors are working and identifying gaps that need to be filled.”

Monday's topic was housing.

Experts from the city's community development department, McKeesport Housing Authority, McKeesport Housing Corp. and Action Housing talked with community members and individuals who work in the real estate market and financial institutions.

Tube City Renaissance CEO Jim Butler, a McKeesport resident whose career focus has been housing and community development initiatives, said housing issues establish a good foundation for grassroots programming and data collection. He said the nonprofit, which is registered in Pennsylvania as a program of the McKeesport Presbyterian Church and is seeking federal nonprofit status, grew from the Concerned Citizens of the Library District.

“Besides getting to know one another, people started sharing mutual concerns and issues,” Butler said. “We don't want to be too critical, but there's a lot of energy and people who want to be involved.”

In that neighborhood, Mayor Michael Cherepko and community development director A.J. Tedesco highlighted the neighborhood revitalization project that includes demolition of dilapidated and fire-damaged homes near the new Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School.

With the city trying to market that portion of the city's Seventh Ward as the Educational and Cultural Sector of McKeesport, state money was available through the Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund to beautify the area.

Across town, McKeesport is training its public works staff to take on low-risk demolitions and use other community development funds for firms to remove other structures.

“We all talk about tearing down, but who's going to clean up the jungles that grow and replace the buildings that are torn down?” resident Cheryl Sears asked. “Last year was one of the best this city has had (in terms of) getting out to take care of these properties.”

Butler asked if the city has engaged in land banking talks with representatives of Steel Valley and Twin Rivers councils of governments, who have researched the impact of blight and are interested in repurposing Mon Valley properties. Tedesco said the city, like other area municipalities, is still learning what land banking could offer and is comparing it to current benefits of the Vacant Property Recovery Program.

McKeesport Housing Corp. executive director Jim Haughey explained his organization's role in sustaining and further developing the city's housing stock before properties reach the stages of condemnation or demolition. For 29 years, the housing corporation has performed owner-occupied residential rehabilitation, handicapped accessibility improvements and rehab for resale projects.

Tube City Renaissance is not intended to duplicate services within the city, Butler said. The idea is to link existing services and to provide new resources when possible.

“We're excited about the future of improving quality of life in this city,” McKeesport Housing Authority Solicitor Walter Baczkowski said. “We are dealing with families that have great needs.”

Cherepko said any volunteer organization that is willing to research and carry out programs to benefit city residents is a win.

“This is a private community development corporation that wants to be a part of this city and work with us,” Cherepko said. “Maybe they will have access to private funding that government can't get. We're not closing any windows or doors of opportunity.”

More information about Tube City Renaissance and its volunteer opportunities is available by calling 412-672-5311.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.

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