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Monessen pushes cultural district

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 12:56 a.m.

In a move designed to advance plans for a downtown cultural district, Monessen City Council approved the purchase of 273 properties from the Westmoreland County Tax Claim Bureau on Wednesday night.

The next step will be a meeting with the Westmoreland County Industrial Development Corp. to discuss applying for funding through the state and federal government for the project, Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith said.

According to Smith, the county – not the city – would have to apply for funding.

Following council's regular monthly meeting Wednesday, Smith said the properties are spread throughout Monessen.

But a portion of them are key to the city's plan to convert part of its downtown area into an artists' community.

The county commissioners recently delayed action on the property acquisition plan, which calls for the county to sell the city the small parcels for $1 apiece.

The affected properties are in a repository of unclaimed land that the county took ownership of for unpaid taxes.

Republican Commissioners Tyler Courtney said last week he wants the city to draft a financing plan to pay for the redevelopment project before he agrees to turn over the properties.

Over the objections of his GOP peers, Democrat Ted Kopas said the properties should be given to the city.

But the commissioners unanimously agreed to delay action on the proposal for at least 30 days.

Kopas said he supported the delay to keep the project “alive.”

Monessen planners say they want to model the downtown after artist communities in Oil City and Lancaster.

City officials view the artist community as one component in an encompassing effort to convert the city into a cultural center.

Smith said by obtaining the properties, the city could subdivide some of them to create larger residential sites, boost the tax base and increase the city's dwindling population base.

At its Wednesday meeting, council also authorized applying for a state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant for a Third Street Plaza, which, according to Smith, could be used for outdoor events when the cultural center is developed.

In other business, council approved:

• Advertising for bids for safety renovation of the building at 500 Donner Ave. City Administrator John Harhai said the city is talking with a possible developer about the former Health Mart site.

• Payment to Westmoreland Engineers in the amount of $11,000 for engineering work for rehabilitation of Ontario Street.

• A $95,517.40 bill from El Grande Industries Inc. for the Ontario Street rehabilitation project.

• An ordinance permitting the city to cite property owners every three days if their property is deemed a public safety hazard and every 30 days if it violates the property maintenance code, but is not deemed a public safety hazard. Fines could range from $100 for first offenses to $10,000, plus 90 days in jail, for unsafe properties.

• A resolution supporting efforts to increase state funding for transportation and encouraging Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly to accomplish long-term improvements to transportation within the state. The same resolution has been approved by Westmoreland County, and the commissioners have asked municipalities to approve it.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or