Walkabout: McKees Rocks plans upgrade of streets; theater comes next

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Despite the stipulation that the Wholey's neon fish sign stay in the city of Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks has thrown its hat in the ring of suitors campaigning to get it.

"We're titling our campaign 'Bring the Fish Home,' " said Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corp., or CDC. In 1912, Robert L. Wholey established his company on Chartiers Avenue and spent more than three decades there before his son moved the operation Downtown in the late 1940s. Wholey's has been in the Strip since 1959.

The fish sign will be removed from Wholey's former cold storage warehouse on Penn Avenue before new owners redevelop the building into apartments. A contest to find the best location is underway.

Winning the fish is a small bit of McKees Rocks' larger campaign to be seen and heard from in 2014.

Like many inner-ring boroughs, it has deficient retail and gaps where buildings used to be. But some help came last summer, when the McKees Rocks CDC was among five recipients chosen to receive $250,000 each year for six years from member companies of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

The funding will allow the CDC to begin implementing its recently completed Main Street plan. The plan will be presented to the public at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the borough building.

Some of the funding will pay for sidewalk improvements and new lighting. An additional $90,000 grant from the Design Center will further help McKees Rocks upgrade its streetscape.

The borough also received $117,349 last year from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to convert traffic signals in the lower business district and to return Chartiers Avenue to two-way traffic. The more traditional traffic flow is essential to the way the borough wants to look and feel, Mr. Vrcek said.

"We will have detailed pictures and design guidelines that will demonstrate [that] to potential developers," he said. "We will establish a facade improvement program for existing businesses. And then we have the Roxian feasibility study kicking off in February."

The Roxian Theater has been at the heart of the business district since 1928. It stopped showing movies in 1980 and spent the next 23 years as a concert venue and banquet hall.

The CDC bought it in 2011 for $300,000 and raised $1 million to pay for architectural and engineering plans and to undertake interior demolition and install flood control pumping systems in the once-flooded basement.

Mr. Vrcek said he is encouraged by the interest level among potential funders.

"On a larger scale, it is about the role the Roxian can have in the greater Pittsburgh market," he said. "We're exploring a diverse set of uses. We feel we could be a hub for African-American arts and music as well, as McKees Rocks becomes more balanced demographically."

Last fall, the CDC hired a consultant from Santa Fe, N.M., experienced in reviving theaters like the Roxian. "Our question was, 'Is there the fundraising appetite in the greater Pittsburgh area for this project?' " Mr. Vrcek said.

Interviews of 41 regional leaders in philanthropy, government and business indicated there could be close to $8 million in fundraising opportunity for the Roxian.

The theater's lower facade includes banks of ugly stucco panels that will be removed as the renovation goes forward, one section at a time, starting with a replication of the original entry. Many of the original interior features are intact and will be retained.

Theater seats were removed from the main floor in the 1980s. The open floor plan is actually advantageous for a concert venue and can be adapted easily for dinner theater. It has the capacity to hold 1,500 people. Brian Drusky of Drusky Entertainment is one of the planning partners and is interested in using the venue to book bands that have national appeal.

Completion of the Roxian for reuse is likely to cost $6 million to $7 million.

"If you looked at it all as one big chunk, I guess it can look" like a steep challenge, Mr. Vrcek said. "But we have broken it into logical sequences. We are going to be engaging all good minds to help us work on answers for this master plan. If the answers are what we think they will be, we can move ahead on a capital campaign."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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