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Westmoreland commissioners stall ambitious Monessen plan for art community

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The city of Monessen's plan to convert its downtown area to an artist's community will have to wait for the time being.

Westmoreland County commissioners on Thursday delayed action on a proposal to sell the city 271 unclaimed properties that would be the heart of an ambitious proposal to recast the former mill town.

Commissioners squabbled over a plan in which the county would sell the city the small parcels for $1 apiece. The properties are in a repository of unclaimed land that the county took ownership of for unpaid taxes.

Republican Commissioners Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney halted the deal Thursday, saying they want more time to explore other funding options, including the possibility of securing state grants to help offset development and acquisition costs.

Both said they want to see if the county can get more money for the properties by using state grant funds.

“We're all for revitalizing Monessen, but a new opportunity has come up to look at,” Anderson said.

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

Democrat Ted Kopas said the properties should be given to the city.

“These are properties now that can never be made money off of,” Kopas said. “We shouldn't micromanage the county.”

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 officials want to use the properties as part of its city redevelopment effort, which includes plans to convert the downtown area to an artist community.

City Manager John Harhai said planners 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.

Harhai said city leaders want the town of 7,700 residents to double in size over the next eight years.

Monessen officials want title to the 271 properties, many of which are dilapidated houses or unusable lots, to rehabilitate existing structures or to build new homes.

“We will advertise all over the United States for artists to move to an artist community,” Harhai said.

Funding still must be found to pay for the construction work, Harhai said, and time is of the essence.

“We don't want other people to come in, buy and flip them,” he said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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