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Property transfer blurs lines of Penn-McKee restoration efforts

| Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, 4:46 a.m.
The Penn-McKee building, shown from the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Strawberry Alley in downtown McKeesport, is the subject of confusion in terms of ownership.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
The Penn-McKee building, shown from the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Strawberry Alley in downtown McKeesport, is the subject of confusion in terms of ownership.
The McKeesport Preservation Society is interested in the Penn McKee building along Fifth Avenue in downtown McKeesport because of its historic significance as the site of the Taft-Hartley Act debate in 1947.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
The McKeesport Preservation Society is interested in the Penn McKee building along Fifth Avenue in downtown McKeesport because of its historic significance as the site of the Taft-Hartley Act debate in 1947.
A sheriff sale of the Penn McKee building was finalized on Aug. 13, and the city received a deed to the property last week.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
A sheriff sale of the Penn McKee building was finalized on Aug. 13, and the city received a deed to the property last week.

A property transfer involving the former Penn-McKee Hotel is blurring the McKeesport Preservation Society's vision of restoring the historic site where John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon once debated labor law issues.

Days following McKeesport Preservation Society's public announcement of plans to raise funds with hope of restoring the Penn-McKee, the city received formal notification that it is the rightful owner of the structure and property at 122 Fifth Ave. A sheriff sale, based on delinquent real estate taxes, was finalized on Aug. 13, and the deed arrived at city hall last week.

McKeesport Preservation Society, however, claims to hold title to the Penn-McKee in a way that would supersede the city's ownership.

“There is a substantial legal difference between a deed and a title,” McKeesport Preservation Society volunteer Alan Diede said on Monday. “Our title status with the Penn-McKee is something that should be dealt with in private conversations, and we would be delighted to have those conversations with the city.”

In legal terms, title gives legal right for an individual or group to access and modify a given piece of property that they fully or partially own, while a deed is a legally binding document that records property ownership.

Diede maintained that any potential project involving the Penn-McKee would require an amicable working relationship between city government and preservation enthusiasts. He said there are a myriad of reasons that the Penn-McKee should top local lists of buildings in consideration to be preserved for historical purposes.

On April 21, 1947, then-freshmen U.S. Reps. Kennedy and Nixon debated the Taft-Hartley Act at the Penn-McKee during an annual gathering of the Junto, a group of city businessmen interested in politics and economics.

As a venue, the Penn-McKee was a landmark when McKeesport was a booming mill town among the largest cities in Pennsylvania.

In the years after McKeesport's economic decline, the building was home to social clubs and small business offices. The interior was damaged significantly in a 1987 blaze.

City officials are not disputing the building's historical significance, but rather the ability to find investors who are willing to bring the condemned structure up to code for modern use.

“It's amazing that we actually had Kennedy and Nixon debating in this city, in that building,” Mayor Michael Cherepko said. “I would love to see someone come up with the resources necessary to preserve it.

“However, realistically, this building has sat vacant for years while deteriorating. It's become an obvious eyesore and is potentially beyond repair ... or beyond economically efficient to repair.”

In recent weeks, McKeesport Preservation Society director Maryann Huk publicized a $5 million capital campaign using online “crowdfunding” techniques that have been successful in bringing classroom resources to economically disadvantaged school districts and a sustainable restaurant to the distressed Braddock borough across the Monongahela River.

“It's not just the Penn-McKee we're talking about here,” Diede theorized. “This technique could be applied to the whole cityscape.”

Diede said any plans undoubtedly would require the cooperation and participation of city government, but Cherepko said the society's plans are nothing more than pipe dreams.

“Sadly, some people in our town seem to be living in a fantasy world,” Cherepko said. “As much as I'd like to see this fantasy be true because it would allow us to preserve such an historic landmark, the reality of the situation is that McKeesport Preservation Society doesn't own the Penn-McKee, and they don't have the potential to raise enough money to preserve it.”

Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport Solicitor George Gobel said the Penn-McKee has been subject to real estate battles in court since 2011, when the authority condemned the property and claimed it via eminent domain.

Prior to that action, the property was owned by See Bee Inc. as the result of a $25,500 purchase in 1985.

“While the objections to that declaration of taking were pending and had not been resolved, the redevelopment authority and See Bee Inc. are now out of the picture,” Gobel explained. “The city of McKeesport owns the building.”

City officials questioned the legality of an organization raising funds for repairs to a building it does not own and has no legal authority to renovate. Diede maintained the McKeesport Preservation Society is moving forward as the Penn-McKee's owner.

“Whoever has contributed funds to them could take legal action,” Gobel said. “They're soliciting donations under false pretenses.”

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

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