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When Mayor Michael Cherepko introduced the McKeesport Rising Project, it renewed enthusiasm for neighborhood improvements and economic development. Now, over the course of a six-year grant period McKeesport will receive $2.7 million for these efforts.
When McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko introduced the McKeesport Rising Project with the city’s 2018 budget, it was presented with visions of a resilient phoenix rising from the blight of a tired Rust Belt town to reveal a renewed enthusiasm for neighborhood improvements and economic development, along with a continued commitment to public safety.
“This image continues to serve as a striking metaphor for any spiritual, societal, or economic rebirth, and it is perfect for describing the type of renaissance many McKeesporters believe is necessary to rebuild our community,” Cherepko wrote at that time. “Municipalities across the Monongahela River Valley are experiencing much of what we have here in McKeesport. In each case, local officials are trying to rebuild whole communities that lost their viability when the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s. This event devastated our valley because it was the only industry here to support our communities.”
In early 2018, Cherepko set out to gain the upper hand in McKeesport’s battle with blight by demolishing more than 150 structures in the first phase of McKeesport Rising. That number quickly grew to the placement of 300 blighted structures on demolition contracts by the end of that year. Then in 2019, an additional 150 were condemned.
McKeesport Rising continues to be promoted as a robust plan to reduce blight, improve roads, reinforce safety, and boost the local economy. It is no secret that blight can have a detrimental impact on the quality of life in any community. Blight not only disheartens residents and brings down the community’s collective morale, but it actually breeds crime.
As the McKeesport Rising Project continues and the Cherepko administration works to find new development initiatives for business, residential, and recreation projects, new partnerships were formed in an award through the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
SECURING NPP FUNDS
Since the grand opening of Tube City Center in February 2019, Mayor Cherepko worked closely with the Secretary of Community and Economic Development Dennis Davin to provide the state with an accurate depiction of what’s happening in McKeesport. Through tours, meetings, and presentations, Cherepko shared the vision and progress of McKeesport Rising Project and found funding partners to support the state-facilitated Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP).
In November, the McKees Point Development Group – a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization formed in 2018 to stabilize the Penn McKee and encourage development in downtown McKeesport – was awarded NPP funding through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development from UPMC Health Plan, Duquesne Light, First Commonwealth Bank and Noble Environmental.
Over the course of a six-year grant period, the McKees Point Development Group will receive $2.7 million – annually receiving $100,000 from UPMC Health Plan, $100,000 from Duquesne Light, $100,000 from First Commonwealth Bank, and $150,000 from Noble Environmental. Throughout this timeframe, the McKees Point Development Group will serve as the fiscal sponsor for a downtown economic development plan, neighborhood rehabilitation to improve the city’s housing stock, and investments in stabilizing the former Penn McKee Hotel – all part of Mayor Michael Cherepko’s McKeesport Rising Project.
To date, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport has identified parcels in the 500 block of Fifth Avenue on the Lysle Boulevard side that are targeted for acquisition, demolition, future development. This portion of the project is on track, if not ahead of schedule, as RACM already has acquired the former Coney Island, American Legion, Don Farr Moving Company, and PhotoGraphix buildings. Next steps include the acquisition of four remaining parcels.
The NPP commitment also includes funds to aid in stabilizing the Penn McKee and make improvements to owner-occupied homes throughout McKeesport’s neighborhoods.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
With all of this downtown development taking place through McKeesport Rising and the NPP, it’s the perfect time for the McKeesport Recreation Board and other committees to invest in downtown.
Members of the McKeesport Community Garden partnership have worked with city officials to clear weeds and dead plants from downtown planters – improving conditions for surviving plants and new flowers and ornamental grasses to flourish.
“The planters were in such a poor condition that the Mayor and I discussed removing them or making them take shape and do what they were intended to do,” City Administrator Tom Maglicco said. “We contacted volunteers, got together, and brought the planters back to life. The feedback has been great from our downtown business owners and community members.”
Through both the NPP and Gaming Economic Development Funds, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh is taking on projects in McKeesport’s Christy Park and Grandview neighborhoods and then across the City’s 12 Wards.
Across the nation, Rebuilding Together works with corporate and community partners to repair homes, revitalize communities, and rebuild lives. We hope that the success realized by this program in other communities will take place in McKeesport, and this vision aligns perfectly with what the McKeesport Rising Project is doing for city neighborhoods. While Cherepko continues to contract the demolition of long-abandoned houses, Rebuilding Together will work to repair occupied homes and rehab recently abandoned homes before they succumb to blight.
“As we continue to encourage homeownership, we are happy to have Rebuilding Together expand their focus to include the City of McKeesport,” Cherepko said. “This is another aspect of our McKeesport Rising Project. We are doing our part to remove blight throughout McKeesport’s neighborhoods, and Rebuilding Together is working to preserve our housing stock.”
Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh CEO Steve Hellner-Burris said the project will consist of exterior improvements such as roofs, gutters, windows, concrete, and porches.
“Rebuilding Together has done great work in the City of Pittsburgh, and we are excited to partner with them to bring their services to McKeesport,” Community Development Director A.J. Tedesco said.
Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh has observed positive change in communities the organizations has served, Hellner-Burris explained.
“Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh has seen, where we do concentrated blocks of owner-occupied renovations, that markets become more stable and begin to improve as we also work on complete renovations in those blocks,” he said. “As we now move outside of the city into McKeesport, we look for those same results to occur.”
State Rep. Austin Davis described the funding announcement as “an example of the Commonwealth making direct investments in our local communities.” State Sen. James R. Brewster said GEDF monies “help local communities advance and accelerate work on key economic development projects,” and Hellner-Burris said this announcement is the first of several to impact the City of McKeesport.