Homestead beginning to see gamble on Waterfront pay off

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Slowly, the rest of Homestead is beginning to benefit from The Waterfront, the hugely successful shopping and entertainment complex.

The complex, developed on 430 acres where the former Homestead Works of U.S. Steel stood 20 years ago, stretches along the Monongahela River from West Homestead through Homestead and into Munhall. Revenue generated there was the primary reason the state Department of Community and Economic Development announced at a news conference last week that Homestead has been removed from the state's program for financially distressed communities after 13 years.

"I wish there was a Waterfront in every [financially distressed] community," said Joseph Hohman, president of Resource Development and Management, a consultant hired by the state to help Homestead and other distressed communities plan their recovery.

There's almost a nonstop jam of traffic headed to and from The Waterfront, but it has taken time for its success to spread to other shopping and residential areas of the community. Now, some storefronts on dismal East Eighth Avenue, the once-thriving business district littered with empty buildings, are getting new owners.

The Mon Valley Initiative has built more than a half dozen houses in the past year, the first new homes in recent memory. Action-Housing Inc. is building a 35-unit apartment building for senior citizens on West 12th Avenue.

"I'm hopeful we'll be seeing more and more activity," said Mr. Hohman, former director of development for Allegheny County. "A community kind of comes back in sections. I'm anticipating you'll see more and more buildings turn over on Eighth Avenue in the near future."

For example, Walgreens took over the site of the venerable Chiodo's bar and several other parcels at the end of the Homestead Grays Bridge to build a new drug store and parking lot.

But Homestead's driving engine for now remains The Waterfront, which has just under 50 percent of its property in the borough, said borough manager Cindy Dzadovsky. That's true even though much of the revenue from real estate taxes at the complex has been deferred until 2020 to pay off public improvements at the site.

In 2006, when the borough had a budget of $2,720,768, The Waterfront paid $530,796 in property taxes. It also paid the vast majority of the $109,000 the borough collected from a $20 annual fee charged to businesses for each parking space they have. Workers there paid a large portion of the $174,000 generated by the borough's $35 share of the emergency services tax.

The increasing revenue from the development is reflected in the borough's annual budget and delivery of services. The budget has grown from $2.49 million in 2005 to $3.2 million this year, when the property tax rate dropped from 10.5 mills to 10 mills.

During that period, the borough was able to re-establish its full-time police department, which had been reduced to part-time during the financial crisis.

Unlike the situation when his company got involved in Homestead 13 years ago, Mr. Hohman said the borough's future is bright.

"I think the financial projections going forward are very solid," he said.

Dennis Yablonsky, state secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development, praised Homestead and its neighbors for their joint planning effort that led to common zoning along the riverfront.

"They were courageous and took that step, which was really a big chance," he said. "I think there are lessons to be learned here."

Fred Reddig, who oversees distressed communities as head of the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, said the borough's removal from the program is "the end of one journey and the beginning of another." He encouraged local officials to "maintain your focus" and the fiscal discipline established during its recovery as it moves away from the state program.

Perhaps longtime Mayor Betty Esper put it best.

"I just hope we're wise enough to know where we're going and how we're going to get there," she said.


Ed Blazina can be reached at eblazina@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1470.


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