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Monessen intends to eliminate blight by obtaining properties

| Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 1:07 a.m.

Monessen city officials have been performing the legwork for the Downtown Redevelopment Project.

Soon, the physical work will begin.

City Administrator John Harhai spent much of city council's work session Monday listing steps he and Mayor Mary Jo Smith have taken to secure money and government support for the project.

In December, Harhai and Smith – along with developers R. Randy Lee and George Christo and two city consultants – met with three state agencies in Harrisburg.

Their goal: to secure government money – some of it managed by private companies – to aid in the rehabilitation of a number of buildings, including the old municipal building.

“They were very receptive. I think we were surprised at the response we got and some of the suggestions they made,” Smith said. “It wasn't just, ‘Hey can we have money?' Their key (prerequisite) is sustainability, which is ours as well. We want to make Monessen stay alive and grow.”

Harhai said the city officials will “fine tune” everything by February to see where their plans fit into the available programs or grants.

Harhai said he recently submitted a proposal to the Westmoreland County Commissioners involving more than 260 city properties. The end goal is for Monessen to acquire those properties from absentee owners who “flip” them for profit and stick the city with unpaid taxes and either maintenance or demolition costs.

Harhai used an example of a house on Knox Avenue that continued to be “flipped” over the Internet, noting a Maryland man misrepresented himself as the house's owner to a Delaware woman while using an old photo of the structure from the 1970s.

After the woman sent him a check to buy the property, the Maryland man proceeded to purchase the house from the actual owner. Harhai said the house, which had two previous out-of-town owners, was on the demolition list for June.

“When she came here, she stood in front of the house and cried,” Harhai said.

“That is an extreme example, but a lot of properties are more than halfway toward that scenario.”

Smith said the commissioners are having the proposal examined legally. If approved, the city could buy up the properties for as little as $1 per house, Harhai said.

Smith claimed the potential bulk acquisition could be a win-win situation.

“The city takes it off the county's books, and the county waves the administrative fees,” she said. “You'll get a developer to come in and bid on, say, 10 houses and he can rehab five or six and tear the other ones down at his expense. … Right now, all the residents who do take care of their houses are paying these peoples' expenses.”

If things go as planned, residents can expect to see tangible changes begin by spring.

“We've been busy. Getting the foundation takes so much time and you have to talk to so many people to get that base,” Harhai said.

“We're in a good position in securing the monies. We're about a month or two away, and I think you're going to see things really start to break out in May.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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