McKees Rocks among community beneficiaries of $2 million renewal program

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No question, McKees Rocks has seen better days.

"Decades of disinvestment have decimated the real estate market, with the average home sale price at $17,000 in 2010, and gutted the community's business district," leaving many vacant storefronts, the McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. recently told a corporate group called the Allegheny Conference.

According to the 2010 census, the CDC added, the median household income in McKees Rocks is $24,767, "less than half of Allegheny County's" average household income.

"This economic environment ... has led to a concentration of poverty that continues to promote disinvestment and destabilization," the CDC said.

But with new financial aid from the conference -- focusing on state tax credits for local companies that provide aid -- things are starting to look up in the small borough along the Ohio River, just 3 miles from Downtown, said state Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, and CDC executive director Taris Vrcek.

The conference, a group of Pittsburgh-area corporations, selected McKees Rocks for financial help -- six years, at $250,000 a year -- through a new program, Strengthening Communities Partnership, Mr. Kotik said. The partnership also includes Stowe; the Sto-Rox area has 13,000 people.

"This partnership is important. It's going to mean a lot," said Mr. Kotik, who is a member of the McKees Rocks development group's board. Local officials have "worked hard to get this help."

Allegheny Conference officials said they are "committed to partnering with community organizations, such as the MRCDC, that are promoting reinvestment to revitalize their neighborhoods and business districts."

The Strengthening Communities Partnership "is a new initiative with the goal of connecting towns in the Pittsburgh area with a state tax-credit program," said Mr. Vrcek.

In all, it's a projected $2 million renewal program that will focus on rebuilding lower Chartiers Avenue and redeveloping four anchor commercial buildings on the avenue -- the Roxian Theatre, the Bank of McKees Rocks, the Weitzman Building and the old Miles Bryan School.

The intent is "to prepare them for marketing to private developers," Mr. Vrcek said. "The theater and the school have already attracted serious private interest."

In addition to the six years of funding through the Allegheny Conference, PennDOT and other private businesses, including Linder's Furniture, will chip in another $500,000.

McKees Rocks officials expect the first year of the renewal work to be underway by spring.

One crucial element will be rebuilding lower Chartiers Avenue. About 20,000 cars a day come into McKees Rocks from Carson Street, he said.

"This is important because it's the heart of our community," Mr. Vrcek said. "We will be opening up the Western suburbs" for development.

Chartiers Avenue will be converted to two-way traffic flow. Some buildings along the avenue will be repaired and stabilized, and streetscape improvements will be done in order to improve the marketability for real estate, the CDC said. There also will be new streetlights and sidewalks.

"These improvements will dramatically change the lower Chartiers Avenue streetscape, creating a downtown that is attractive, marketable and friendly," Mr. Vrcek said.

A key element of the financing is tax credits. The conference is encouraging its corporate members to buy tax credits under a state program called the Neighborhood Partnership Program.

The state allows a company to reduce its tax load by up to 80 percent in exchange for helping distressed communities. A participating corporation must agree to provide at least $50,000 a year for all six years.

The NPP "allocates funds for [building] facade improvements that will provide existing business and property owners flexibility to make other needed business repairs," Mr. Vrcek said. An agreement with the Design Center of Pittsburgh will generate additional resources for improving the Chartiers Avenue streetscape.

Then there are the four major buildings to be improved, in order to sell them to private developers. The Roxian, a former movie theater, is to be turned into a 1,500-seat concert venue for live entertainment.

McKees Rocks is working with a local concert promoter, Drusky Entertainment.

The former bank is "a massive building, with tall columns. The bank was on the first floor and apartments and offices were on upper floors," Mr. Vrcek said. The old Miles Bryan school was once the town's high school but is empty now.

A fundraising event, with a 5K race, live music and food, is planned for Aug. 30.

neigh_west

Tom Barnes: hickeybarnes@yahoo.com or 717-623-1238.


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