Developers' vision for Monessen embraced, jeered
Could the answer to a struggling Mon River town's problems rest with the likes of Honey Boo Boo and the Kardashians?
Some Monessen residents think a proposal to film a reality show amid the crumbling buildings and vacant lots of the former steel town is a great idea.
But not so fast, say others, who believe the shot-and-a-beer town, where social clubs offer 50-cent wings and half-off shots when the Penguins score, needs brick-and-mortar development and cold hard cash — not television cameras — to grow and prosper.
In the close-knit Westmoreland County community unified in its devotion to family, God, country and the Steelers, the issue of revitalizing the town of 7,700 has been brutally divisive.
Squarely in the middle are two Staten Island, N.Y. developers — George Christo and attorney R. Randy Lee — who said they'd never heard of Monessen until a few years ago when Christo was scouring the Internet for cheap properties to develop.
“It was fate,” said Lee, 70, who along with Christo, 43, has pushed city council to seek state funding to transform more than 200 deteriorating, tax-delinquent properties into a thriving artists' colony, an approach that has netted mixed results elsewhere in the nation.
“It's a plan to kick-start future success and make Monessen into a vibrant community. The whole plan depends on the goodwill of the people who live here,” said Lee, who has received $3,000 a month since October to consult on the project he and Christo dubbed “Monessen Rising.”
But that goodwill has been in short supply, particularly since Christo and Lee proposed including the town on a reality show as a means of marketing it to would-be residents.
A recent Tribune-Review article detailed the collapse of Lee's New York real estate empire, leaving him more than $43 million in debt and facing a maze of legal entanglements.
At the same time, Monessen officials decided not to renew Lee's contract, although he has vowed to remain as a volunteer.
Longtime resident Johnny Francis Golomb said news of Lee's bankruptcy made him “sick to his stomach.”
“What they are doing now isn't the answer,” he said. “This is the worst this town has ever been, and I've been here all my life.”
But council member William Manus is unwavering in his support for the plan and Lee.
“I feel good about this,” he said. “We want to move Monessen forward. Randy Lee is just a consultant who has personal problems.”
From the start, the plan was viewed with skepticism by some in the town where nearly a quarter of its residents are 65 or older and almost 20 percent live below the poverty line.
“The only artist you'll see in Monessen is a con artist,” said Lou Mavrakis, a Democrat facing first-term Mayor Mary Jo Smith in the May 21 primary. “They're nuts. These people are crazy.”
“It's a waste of money,” Mavrakis said. “Anyone who thinks they can be rehabilitated is foolish.”
Mavrakis said the blighted buildings should be razed, an option Smith has said is too costly.
Smith staunchly supports Lee and Christo.
“Why wouldn't we want to talk about plans to grow Monessen and make it a better place to live?” Smith said.
The divisiveness boiled over into a red-faced, fist-pounding parking lot showdown this week before a meeting where Lee, Christo, city administrator John Harhai and Smith announced they were tossing Monessen's name into the pool of cities vying for a spot on the reality show called “Town 180,” featuring dying towns across the nation.
Taunts and jeers punctuated with profanity were directed at Christo as he walked through the municipal complex lot en route to the meeting.
“Go back to New York!” some yelled.
“Foreigner!” they screamed at Christo, who is Greek and whose brown silk suit and matching shoes contrasted sharply with the cargo shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps worn by many in the crowd.
Christo and Mavrakis were inches apart in a shouting match during which Christo spoke only in Greek to Mavrakis, who is also of Greek descent.
A film crew hired by Christo taped the encounter. Christo said later the tape will be used as part of the town's application to appear on the reality show.
During the meeting, about half the crowd of 100 to 125 cheered, while others booed as Christo and Lee spoke about the show.
The 10-week show, in development by Base Camp Films of Santa Monica, Calif., pits teams of local officials against each other as they try to reinvent their towns, said executive producer Jim Jusko. The teams will compete for a $100,000 grand prize.
Base Camp producers have worked on reality shows ranging from “The Amazing Race” and “Rescue 911” to “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” and have received extensive coverage in mainstream entertainment publications such as Variety.
Jusko said the company hasn't signed a network deal but hopes to air the series by the summer of 2014.
Jusko warns the show will not be a cure-all for communities teetering on the edge of financial ruin.
“This is probably not the show for problems of that scale,” Jusko said.
Dr. Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, agreed that Monessen's problems, years in the making, won't be solved by a 10-week television show.
“Roads and transportation infrastructure in a lot of these communities are not very attractive,” Strauss said. “The retail base is checkered. The poor and elderly make up the community.”
“I think anything that brings the community together and gives them a sense of purpose is a good thing. But compared to what? You can make people feel better. But there's a reality in the fact that the streets are probably in bad shape and there are lots of vacant buildings,” he added.
Strauss said the political rift brewing in Monessen is a textbook example of how attempts to revitalize other distressed towns have played out.
“They're dysfunctional,” Strauss said.
In many cases, the end result is that little, if any, progress is made toward solving the problem, he added.
One city in, another says no
Latrobe City Manager Alex Graziani said cities such as his are an “endangered species” and unless they find ways to generate more tax revenue and cut costs, they will die.
Latrobe has suffered through its share of hard times in recent years as industries pulled out and an aging population declined.
He said Latrobe will submit a video to participate in “Town 180.”
“It would be a benefit to us. We're primed and ready to go.”
But Robert Carter, mayor of cash-strapped Jeannette, said he is suspicious because of the sensational nature of many reality shows.
As a result, his city will not apply.
“I don't know what their intentions are behind it,” Carter said. “It sounds really good, but you don't know what their spin is going to be. Once you're in, you can't turn it off.”
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kate Wilcox is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or email@example.com.