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Money earmarked for Monessen properties

| Friday, Oct. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Revitalization of downtown Monessen is full speed ahead — minus plans to convert the former mill town into an artists' community.

Westmoreland County commissioners on Thursday voted to accept a $400,000 state grant to pay for the purchase of as many as 270 unwanted tax-delinquent properties, demolition, and the construction and financing of low-income housing.

The four-phase, county-sponsored project is expected to replace the expensive high-concept Monessen Rising proposal pushed by city leaders and New York developers to convert the city into an artists' haven.

“This is the project that truly has some legs under it. It has money behind it, and we can now take money and help the county actually grow,” said Commissioner Tyler Courtney.

County Planning Director Jason Rigone said the project is expected to cost $945,000. It will be financed using the state grant approved on Thursday, which comes from Marcellus shale impact fees.

Other funding has been secured through federal housing grants and money collected by the county through the recording of deeds and mortgages.

Monessen will be expected to obtain about $100,000 in state funding, Rigone said.

Demolition could begin before the end of the year, according to Rigone.

Monessen city administrator John Harhai, who supported the artists' community concept, along with several elected officials in the city, said on Thursday the city has undertaken no efforts to garner state grants.

Harhai said, “No comment,” when asked to respond to the county's plan for Monessen.

Monessen Mayor Mary Jo Smith, who supported the Monessen Rising project, was defeated in a Democratic primary last spring. Her opponent, Lou Mavrakis, and Republican nominee Robert Zynosky Jr., have opposed the Monessen Rising concept.

County officials said the revised Monessen project is a more stable effort to rehabilitate the city.

“It's a good investment, and there may even be artists living there,” said Commissioner Ted Kopas.

The plan calls for an initial outlay of about $95,000 to purchase about 270 city properties in the county's repository of unclaimed and mostly unusable parcels confiscated by the county for back taxes.

Rigone said about $150,000 will be used to demolish buildings on some of those sites. Construction of low-income rental units is expected to follow.

The final piece of the project would be to create a fund to help low-income residents make down payments for home purchases.

“This is just a final step that needs to take place to get that city moving in the right direction,” Rigone said.

County officials initially balked at the Monessen Rising project and in March, at the 11th hour, withdrew a proposal to sell Monessen the repository properties for $1 apiece.

At that time, commissioners said they favored a project that had financing lined up before they agreed to turn over the properties.

The $30 million Monessen Rising project would have required an $8.5 million local match from the city, according to details released earlier this year.

The proposal, though, caused a rift among city residents and leaders over the concept as well as its New York City developers, whose own financial issues created a negative buzz around town.

Developers George Christo and Randy Lee of New York did not respond to requests for interviews on Thursday.

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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