Monessen must take lead in its revitalization, artists say
Mark Barone has never set foot in Monessen.
He has not seen its neighborhoods of abandoned, ramshackle buildings, nor has he listened to townspeople sadly recalling better days when the steel mill by the river put fat paychecks in their pockets.
Yet Barone, an artist by trade, does not pause before declaring that city leaders headed down the wrong path by hiring a New York developer as a consultant to find state money to replace the town's crumbling buildings with a thriving art colony.
“That's a joke,” Barone said about using developers as consultants. “Developers are built to make money. That's not what you're trying to do. You're trying to revitalize a part of your town and build a tourism base.”
Barone should know.
In 2000, he helped transform a dying, crime-ridden section of his town — Paducah, Ky., population 23,000 — into the national poster child for developing blighted areas into successful artist communities.
Today crime has decreased in the two dozen square blocks of Paducah that are part of the program. Houses that sold for $1 now are worth $300,000 to $500,000, and the grit and grime of a neighborhood known as LowerTown has been replaced with galleries and shops selling everything from sculptures and paintings to jewelry and textiles.
Barone said Paducah city officials did not wait for state or federal funding.
The city, hobbled by the flight of younger residents to suburbs, provided the funding for the program — about $3 million to date.
That's the type of success Monessen is hoping to achieve with its plan to buy more than 200 tax-delinquent properties from Westmoreland County and resell them at affordable prices to artists looking for low-cost places to live, work and sell their products.
But Barone and others who have spawned similar programs elsewhere say they did it without pricey consultants or state and federal money.
Instead, they used homegrown talent and local government funding, demonstrating to artists that their cities had a serious stake in the outcome, Barone said.
“You're asking me (as an artist) to come to a blighted area and stick my money into something,” he said. “What's going to ensure it's moving in the right direction?”
He said that “the reason the artists came (to Paducah) was there were powerful people” invested in the project.
A different perspective
R. Randy Lee, the Staten Island developer that cash-strapped Monessen hired in October for $3,000 a month, plus expenses, is convinced he's on the right track.
“Public funding is an important part of economic development, particularly in depressed situations like Monessen,” said Lee. “This public ‘funding' can be in the form of grants, loans or even tax breaks, sales or real estate.”
That money might not be available, said Aldona Kartorie of the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
“Up until a couple of years ago, we had many different pots of money that we administered,” Kartorie said. “That funding has shrunk.”
Christopher Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh, said the choice between using city money and soliciting private investment and state grant money might not be Monessen's to make.
“Someplace like Monessen is without a tax base,” he said “They have to go outside for funding.”
Briem said spending a small amount to get grants is a good investment for the city. The important thing, he said, is that the city remains in control of the money at all times.
Monessen's 7,700 residents appear divided about the issue. Emotions boiled over last month when a crowd gathered outside a meeting where Lee and his associate, New York developer George Christo, spoke about the plan they dubbed “Monessen Rising.”
Some backed Lee and Christo. Others shouted “Foreigner!” and “Go back to New York!”
The Oil City project
About 2 1⁄2 hours north of Monessen, in Oil City, Venango County, an artist relocation program started in 2006 with local government funding and no outside consultants.
It is experiencing some success.
“This has been funded on a shoestring,” said ARTS Oil City director Joann Wheeler. “Grant funds for the arts are hard to come by, and funding for operations, salary, rent, et cetera, even more scarce.”
Wheeler's program — springing from need when motor oil giants Pennzoil, Quaker State and Wolf's Head moved their headquarters elsewhere — used city tax dollars to rehabilitate the town's historic National Transit Building, where a gallery and more than 30 artists' studios now are located.
Salaries and other expenses of about $25,000 a year and marketing funds of $4,000 are provided through the city, Wheeler said.
The city used houses on the market to attract artists, offering low-cost financing with no money down for homes up to $150,000 through local banks and real estate agents.
The signs of success are visible — albeit mostly cosmetic — throughout the downtown, Wheeler said.
A tidy downtown with impressive architecture and updated storefronts greets visitors coming over the Center Street Bridge spanning Oil Creek.
Pawtucket, R.I., population 71,000, has its own success story.
The city turned empty textile mills into bustling shops, artist galleries and workspaces.
The story is in the numbers, said Herb Weiss, Pawtucket's Economic and Cultural Affairs officer.
A former mill valued at $1.29 million before the artist relocation program was transformed into loft apartments and is worth $12 million, Weiss said. That accounts for $194,000 a year in tax dollars for the city, he said.
The only outside help Pawtucket officials had was a Northeastern University researcher who was paid $5,000 to develop a plan for the city to follow when relocating artists and rehabilitating mills.
Monessen is hanging its hopes for state money on the proliferation of Marcellus shale natural gas drilling in the region and the flow of money back to communities.
City officials believe Lee's and Christo's New York connections will give them a leg up on similar art programs.
John Harhai, city administrator, who with Mayor Mary Jo Smith is one of the plan's proponents, said city officials hope some funding comes from private investors.
“The guys from New York will have to start telling me how much private money they're going to bring in,” he said.
Christo said Monessen is not ready for private investment.
“At the moment, our investors don't see an opportunity,” said Christo. “But if the state shows interest in the project through grants, investors might be more willing to step in.”
For example, if a building costs $1 million to renovate and the state provides $500,000, a private investor could cover the rest with tax credits through state programs, Christo said.
Local government funding simplifies the process, enabling those running the program to focus on recruiting artists, get property transactions moving and give grants to renovate homes, Barone said.
“It was a very complicated project in how it was put together, but simple in execution,” Barone said. “We gave the houses away for $1. It was just bricks and mortar. What you actually want to build is a community.”
Kate Wilcox is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-6155 or email@example.com.