After 27 years, Clairton emerges from state 'financially distressed' status
State and Allegheny County officials gathered Tuesday to help Clairton celebrate its emergence from Act 47 status.
“I'm a little bit scared,” Mayor Rich Lattanzi admitted after state Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin declared an end to 27 years of distressed status under a law the late Gov. Robert P. Casey signed in Clairton's council chambers in 1987.
“This is a momentous occasion,” Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Scranton, wrote in a letter read by DCED's Southwestern Pennsylvania regional office director Johnna Pro. Casey wrote that his father “understood the unique problems” of cities such as Clairton.
“The city has come a long way,” Davin said. “We are pleased with the advancement Clairton has made.”
On Jan. 19, 1988, Clairton was the third municipality to accept Act 47 designation, after the cities of Farrell and Aliquippa received it late in 1987.
It is the second city to have that status rescinded, after Nanticoke in Luzerne County, and the fifth municipality in Allegheny County after Act 47 was lifted from Wilkinsburg, East Pittsburgh, North Braddock and Homestead.
Davin shared a table with Lattanzi and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald amid signs touting the city's Live Well Allegheny role, its comprehensive plan and new zoning map, and the Speedway being built along Route 837.
“It wasn't easy,” Fitzgerald said. “There still remains work to be done.”
“Moving forward, I would like to see the city thrive,” Lattanzi said, expressing belief in a city where he's lived for all of his 51 years, during which a steel mill closed and the population fell from 25,000 to 6,800.
“I saw a lot of transformations,” Lattanzi said.
He recalled his uncle John Lattanzi transforming what had been a fire department with 13 paid employees into a volunteer force that started with 10-15 firefighters and today has 40.
The mayor said the elder Lattanzi's efforts formed a volunteer fire department and an ambulance service “that have saved the city thousands of dollars a year.”
There were other decisions that had to be made, such as a reduction in public works employees from 10 to four and secretaries from six to two.
“We had too many employees and we had too many bills,” the mayor said.
Another decision was to secure $110,000 to repair the lining to the Clairton pool.
“Today it is a regional asset,” he said.
Fitzgerald compared the cooperation among various entities in the city to the teamwork of the city's high school football Bears, which take on Jeannette at 11 a.m. Saturday at Heinz Field for the WPIAL Class A championship.
“The (Clairton City) School District came out of distressed status in the 1990s,” Clairton school board president Richard Livingston said. “(The city coming out of Act 47) gives us the viable community type of atmosphere. (City) council and the school board have worked tirelessly to make sure this would happen.”
“It makes you feel a little better about Act 47,” said Tom Maglicco, chief of staff to state Rep. Marc J. Gergely, D-White Oak. “A lot of positives can come out of Act 47.”
Maglicco declined comment as McKeesport's city controller, a role he's had for two months. Davin said he spoke with Mayor Michael E. Cherepko two weeks ago.
“They are working hard to stay out of Act 47, to get their finances in order,” Davin said of McKeesport's efforts.
Duquesne city officials are looking to emerge from Act 47 in 2019. Davin said he had not talked to Duquesne officials since taking his state job, but may have an opportunity at 6 p.m. Dec. 2 when that city has a public hearing regarding an early intervention loan.
Mon Yough Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Maury Burgwin said the end of Act 47 “takes a black mark away from Clairton.” He hailed the effort of local officials such as Deputy Mayor Kathy Tachoir, who heads the Clairton Chamber of Commerce.
“They are a resident community in our chamber,” Burgwin said. “These guys are really proactive; they've shown great leadership.”
Burgwin said the planned Speedway convenience store is a positive for Clairton, adding, “Now all they need is to get a grocery store.”
U.S. Steel remains in the city with North America's largest coke-making operation. Fitzgerald touted the steelmaker's $700 million investment overhauling its coke ovens in recent years.
“There are going to be many more (investments) in the days to come,” he said, pledging that he'll continue to work with city officials.
“It is stability for the city and anything that benefits the city will benefit Koppers,” said Phil Heal, manager of the coal tar plant Koppers operates adjacent to the U.S. Steel coke plant along Route 837.
“Today is the culmination of decades of hard work by Clairton's leaders and citizens who all understood that the road to financial solvency often takes time, teamwork, and the ability to make tough decisions,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement issued by his press office.
“I think it is very exciting, that the city has been able to turn the boat around,” said An Lewis, a co-executive director of Steel Rivers Council of Governments.
Lewis comes into the newly merged council of governments from the Steel Valley council where Clairton is a longtime member.
“We just want to continue a partnership with them in their continued improvement and growth,” said John Palyo, the other Steel Rivers co-director, who was executive director of the former Twin Rivers council in McKeesport.
Another organization working in Clairton is the Jefferson Regional Foundation, whose mission is to improve health and well-being in towns served by Jefferson Hospital.
Foundation executive director Mary Phan-Gruber said the hospital identified “all kinds of services” needed in Clairton, including a bank and a grocery store, noting the city's “food desert” status.
A report of foundation activity over the past three years lists a $25,000 grant to Allegheny Intermediate Unit for a van for Clairton Family Support Center; three annual $50,000 grants to Sisters Place Inc. to assist homeless single parents; grants of $70,000 to YouthPlaces Inc. and $75,000 to Youth Opportunities Development in Clairton and $180,000 over a three-year period to Economic Development South to increase access to community development assistance.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or email@example.com.