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Debt, cost of services suffocate Duquesne

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Billy Doyle, 22, of McKeesport shows the tattoos he got in homage of his best friend who was shot and killed when they were both 14 years old as he hangs out in Duquesne on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Behind him stands Bobby Nicholson, 25, also of McKeesport.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Billy Doyle, 22, of McKeesport shows the tattoos he got in homage of his best friend who was shot and killed when they were both 14 years old as he hangs out in Duquesne on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Behind him stands Bobby Nicholson, 25, also of McKeesport.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - 'The big thing is sports, to stay out of trouble,' says Shabazz Washington (second from left), 17, of Duquesne. He poses for a portrait with people he was playing a pickup basketball game with at a court in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. From left: Pierce Pitts, 16, Shabazz Washington, 17, Taizjon Brown, 16, Tyrique Thompson, 17, Floyd Brown, 17, Jayme Brown, 16, and Zion Fogle, 15. All are living in Duquesne except for Jayme Brown, who was living in Homewood.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>'The big thing is sports, to stay out of trouble,' says Shabazz Washington (second from left), 17, of Duquesne. He poses for a portrait with people he was playing a pickup basketball game with at a court in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. From left: Pierce Pitts, 16, Shabazz Washington, 17, Taizjon Brown, 16, Tyrique Thompson, 17, Floyd Brown, 17, Jayme Brown, 16, and Zion Fogle, 15. All are living in Duquesne except for Jayme Brown, who was living in Homewood.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Donald Chisholm, 3, of McKeesport peers out from his mother's friend's fence at children playing across the street in Duquesne on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Chisholm's mother Athena Chisholm, 27, grew up in the house and remembers a different Duquesne. 'You knew you had to be in when the street lights went out,' she said. The two now live across the river in McKeesport. 'There were people shooting shotguns outside my house the other day… It's hard growing up like that.'
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Donald Chisholm, 3, of McKeesport peers out from his mother's friend's fence at children playing across the street in Duquesne on Thursday, August 29, 2013. Chisholm's mother Athena Chisholm, 27, grew up in the house and remembers a different Duquesne. 'You knew you had to be in when the street lights went out,' she said. The two now live across the river in McKeesport. 'There were people shooting shotguns outside my house the other day… It's hard growing up like that.'
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Fran Spang, 56, of White Oak is a reflected in a mirror in a garage where he bases his remodeling business in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Sprang grew up in Duquesne.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Fran Spang, 56, of White Oak is a reflected in a mirror in a garage where he bases his remodeling business in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Sprang grew up in Duquesne.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Duquesne volunteer firefighter Donald Murphy, 25, of Duquesne sits inside the station on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Duquesne volunteer firefighter Donald Murphy, 25, of Duquesne sits inside the station on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - LaRiia Sloan, 43, of Duquesne helps three boys decide what snacks they can afford to buy at Squid's Coffee Shop in Duquesne on Thursday, August 29, 2013. 'If my kids had half the opportunities I did as a kid they wouldn't want to leave,' Sloan said about growing up in the city.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>LaRiia Sloan, 43, of Duquesne helps three boys decide what snacks they can afford to buy at Squid's Coffee Shop in Duquesne on Thursday, August 29, 2013. 'If my kids had half the opportunities I did as a kid they wouldn't want to leave,' Sloan said about growing up in the city.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Duquesne volunteer firefighter Lamont Payne, 42, of Swissvale looks out from the station on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Duquesne volunteer firefighter Lamont Payne, 42, of Swissvale looks out from the station on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Gary Schink, 72, of West Mifflin cuts a piece of Plexiglas for a customer who is patching a broken window on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Schink has been a co-owner of the hardware store in Duquesne for 54 years, and has found himself cutting more Plexiglas windows for people in town recently as breaking windows has become a sort of local sport for youth in the city.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Gary Schink, 72, of West Mifflin cuts a piece of Plexiglas for a customer who is patching a broken window on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Schink has been a co-owner of the hardware store in Duquesne for 54 years, and has found himself cutting more Plexiglas windows for people in town recently as breaking windows has become a sort of local sport for youth in the city.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Children look through chain link fences to watch teenagers play basketball in between football drills in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. 'The big thing is sports, to stay out of trouble,' says Shabazz Washington, 17, of Duquesne.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Children look through chain link fences to watch teenagers play basketball in between football drills in Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013. 'The big thing is sports, to stay out of trouble,' says Shabazz Washington, 17, of Duquesne.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Children walk to football practice 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.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Children walk to football practice 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.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Downtown Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Downtown Duquesne on Thursday, August 22, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review - Boarded up and broken windows are a common sight in Duquesne, like this one photographed on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Knocking out windows has become a sort of local sport for youth in the city.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>Boarded up and broken windows are a common sight in Duquesne, like this one photographed on Thursday, August 22, 2013. Knocking out windows has become a sort of local sport for youth in the city.
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.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review</em></div>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.

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By Adam Smeltz
Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
 

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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