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Debt, cost of services suffocate Duquesne

| Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 10:09 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Children do sprints in their football gear at the old Duquesne High School stadium in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Though Duquesne High School shut down in 2007, with students relocated at the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year to nearby high schools, Duquesne still takes pride in its football tradition. Several parents at the field emphasized sports as a way of keeping children busy and out of trouble.

DUQUESNE — Fran Spang has no clue what might fit in the old Pastrick beer distributor here. Its Grant Street neighbors are ghosts — a vacant Moose club, a long-gone pharmacy, a shuttered bar.

That didn't stop Spang from buying the dingy facade, which he's sprucing into usable space.

“I don't know who I'd rent it to, but I'm doing a storefront,” said Spang, 56, of White Oak, a remodeler who's worked in Duquesne for more than three decades. “I'd really like to have a business here that could use all the space. I just don't know what it would be.”

Optimism is often tested in Duquesne, a poster child for old mill towns where hope and memories outshine reality and residents have been moving away for eight decades. The population fell by more than 1,700 to 5,565 since 2000 alone.

Hollowed by the implosion of industry along the Monongahela River, Duquesne has joined other third-class cities to pile up debt and sustain city services even as private-sector jobs and residents fled. City spending dipped 13 percent although a quarter of residents left in the past decade, leaving the rest to support 30 full-time and two part-time workers spread among a street department, police force and water department and other agencies.

Debt payments, largely from pension obligations, consume a fifth of the $4.5 million annual budget. But talk of merging public services with nearby communities to save money has been limited to consolidation of some schools and ambulance companies.

“I feel like some of these guys want to walk around and say, ‘I'm the mayor of Duquesne,' or ‘I'm a councilman in Duquesne.' What does it mean?” said Gary Schink, 73, a co-owner of Schink's Hardware on Grant Avenue. “These towns are dying on the vine.”

Nearly 70 years since his late father founded the store, Schink and other longtime Duquesne advocates said they're open to streamlining local services and governance if it would help the city survive. State lawmakers left open the idea, too, saying it could control expenses, cap taxes and encourage new business should local leaders argue for the cause.

But city officials said they have no evidence consolidation would save money. They laughed off a state proposal to consolidate police forces with Clairton and Braddock in the early 1990s because it was so far-fetched and geographically disjointed, said Mayor Phillip Krivacek.

“There's always a way to survive. We're surviving,” he said. “Just give us a chance to survive, and we'll do it.”

He and city Manager Frank Piccolino pointed to a surge of about 750 jobs at the former Duquesne Steel Works site, where the Regional Industrial Development Corp. helped foster millions of dollars in manufacturing business.

They said the challenge is revitalizing the town's residential areas, where Piccolino estimated just more than half the homes are rental properties. The city depends on federal money to tear down about 15 abandoned structures every year, although 25 will come down in 2013.

Merging services generally — but not always — cuts costs, according to scholars who study local government. State Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, said cities such as Duquesne can make adjustments through regional cooperation without wholesale mergers of communities that hold historic value and distinct identities.

“I believe we can reinvent those communities,” said Brewster, a former McKeesport mayor whose district includes Duquesne. “My vision is that we can sustain these communities, somehow reuse those (industrial) properties. I think you can see the population begin to pick up again. ... I think we should give ourselves every chance we can.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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