N.Y. developers have tempers rising
The developers of a project to transform Monessen into an artists' colony revealed another motive behind their efforts — a reality television show.
New York developer R. Randy Lee told a crowd gathered outside the Monessen Municipal Complex on Tuesday night that the reality show will be called “Town 180,” a chronicle about cities in America trying to turn themselves around.
He said Monessen will compete with other cities around the nation who are experiencing similar problems with dying economies.
Lee and developer George Christo, both of Staten island, N.Y., received a hostile reception from residents even before they got into the building for a public meeting with city council about the project called Monessen Rising.
Christo exchanged words with residents as a crowd of about 125 people chanted, “Go back to New York!”
Lee, who was hired on a six-month contract with the city that has not been renewed, did not try to dodge publicity about his bankruptcy as he held a copy of the Tribune-Review in his hands and announced, “I'm the guy who is in the headline of the paper. It's no secret I recently filed for bankruptcy. It's a matter of public record. It's embarrassing... I'm not proud of it, but I'm certainly not cowering in the corner about it.”
Christo said he has developed a similar project in Staten Island, known as St. George, and wants to apply the same concept to Monessen to attract artists and musicians to the blighted city.
“I'm a property owner. I own a building. I see open storefronts here and I'm trying to create an opportunity. It's music. It's having musicians. It's having live bands. It's just not about artists,” he said.
Christo said he would need public money to help finance the project and has been seeking state aid. “We're identifying an opportunity to bring awareness to Harrisburg and let them know things are happening,” he said.
Once the meeting began, the Monessen Rising proposal divided residents. Half of the audience booed Lee. The rest applauded. At some points, the meeting degenerated into screaming and name-calling.
Lifelong resident Alan Henson said he thought the plan was unrealistic. “I want to know about the funding,” he said. “We pay a salary to this guy who is bankrupt and has nothing to show for it.”
Other residents offered support.
Matt Shorraw, 22, a student at California University of Pennsylvania, came to the meeting to learn more about Monessen Rising. “I've lived here all my life,” he said. “I want to see something happen. I think it's better than nothing.”
When Lee was asked by audience members about his expired contract with the city, he replied, “So maybe I'm a volunteer.”
Mayor Mary Jo Smith confirmed that Lee is now working with Monessen on a voluntary basis.
The city signed a six-month deal with Lee without knowing about his personal financial problems that left him more than $43 million in debt. The contract expired at the end of March, according to city administrator John Harhai.
Lee, a 70-year-old lawyer and real estate developer, was hired to advise Monessen about how to transform abandoned buildings and vacant lots in the former steel town into desirable real estate that would attract artists and musicians to relocate and live in the city.
City officials don't blame Lee for his problems. “Those were all investments affected by the economy,” Harhai said. “He got caught in a crossfire with the economy.”
Harhai said the city wants to rebuild its tax base by growing its population from 7,700 residents to 15,000. “That broadens our base and will give us a good tax structure,” he said.
He said 52 percent of all properties up for tax sale in Westmoreland County are in Monessen and the Monessen School District ranks 93rd among the 105 poorest school districts in the state, which has 500 districts.
By converting abandoned buildings into galleries and loft apartments, property will be placed back on the tax roll, generating income. “When the properties are turned over to the developer, they're reassessed and taxes come into play,” Harhai said.
Richard Gazarik and Kate Wilcox are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Gazarik can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Wilcox can be reached at 724-836-6155 or email@example.com.