McKeesport looks to preserve historic hotel

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The McKeesport Preservation Society has taken the first steps to rehabilitate the historic Penn-McKee Hotel, the site of the first debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The society, which holds title to the four-story property on 5th Avenue, has been working for years to save the structure. The Penn-McKee opened in September 1925 with nearly 100 rooms; it closed in the 1980s.

The Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport is listed on the Allegheny County Assessment site as having owned the property since 2011. Prior to that See Bee Inc. was the owner. In the 1970s the hotel was used as offices for the Community College of Allegheny County.

Recently, the preservation society has been researching ways to rehabilitate the property into what it once was — a community gathering spot.

“We knew we wanted to move forward in finding a real estate developer,” said Alan Diede, a member of the preservation society. He said the society looked into crowd funding to raise $5 million for the rehabilitation.

Crowd funding is the funding of a project or business venture by raising money from a large group of people, typically via the Internet.

Through Fundrise — a crowd funding website for real estate investment — the preservation society connected with Nat Zorach. Mr. Zorach is a partner with The Handbuilt City, described on its website as a “think/do-tank working in Lake County, Ind. and St. Louis, Mo. on creative and profitable solutions for urban innovation.”

“We realized that Fundrise is a great opportunity, especially for distressed communities facing economic challenges,” Mr. Diede said. He added that the preservation society reached out to The Handbuilt City because it specializes in dealing with distressed communities.

According to its website, Fundrise allows real estate development companies to form social media networks of stakeholders, prospective investors, colleagues and friends — locally or nationwide — who come together to build support and raise capital for projects.

Mr. Zorach, originally from Lancaster, visited McKeesport to check out the hotel.

In a news release prepared by the preservation society, Mr. Zorach said, “Distressed real estate in so-called ‘up-and-coming’ parts of Brooklyn is  going for hundreds of dollars a foot versus pennies on the dollar in McKeesport, but how can you beat this view?”

Mr. Zorach also said he is excited to work on a project that can call attention the tremendous assets offered by a town like McKeesport.

“He could see the potential of what the hotel could be,” said Mr. Diede. The main goal of the preservation society is to have the building become hotel and gathering place again.

“There’s tremendous history here in McKeesport,” Mr. Diede said. He referred to the very first debate between Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Nixon which happened April 21, 1947, many years before the first televised debate between the two in 1960.

“It was definitely a place for the community to meet,” added Maryann Huk, director of the preservation society. She said local organizations would meet there and the hotel hosted weddings and graduation parties. “Salespeople even met in the lobby,” she said.

According to the preservation society’s website, the way to “change McKeesport for the better is to sign up on Fundrise and network with The Handbuilt City. There is no contribution required and you are under no obligation to participate.”

Mr. Diede said all folks have to do is show interest in the project “that we may be a potential beneficiary.”

If the project is selected by Fundrise, the preservation society would be eligible for up to $5 million in contributions, although Mr. Diede said the balance to rehabilitate the hotel in its entirety is much more than that.

“It’s what happened there that people remember,” Ms. Huk said. “And it can happen again — that’s what is important.”

No timeline has been released as to when the project would start, since funding is just in early stages, Ms. Huk said.


Deana Carpenter, freelance writer: 

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