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A look back at the past year's news

Photo by Mike Longo Jr.

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart took the title at the WPIAL 2A Championship on Feb. 28. They were set to move on to the playoffs, however, the introduction of COVID-19 would force the game to be canceled.

By Jamie Wiggan

-Year In Review-

Thanks for sticking with us through another year.

It’s been a tough one. But — like the communities we serve — our little newsroom has proven resilient, and we’ve closed out 2020 stronger than ever after briefly scaling back during the spring.

Join us as we look back on the highs and lows from a year that’s sure to mark the pages of history and haunt living memories for years to come.


New management

During its first public meeting of the year Jan. 6, Crafton Council voted out former manager R.J. Susko and ushered in Russ McKibbon as her temporary replacement.

When pressed by a resident among the audience, council declined to comment on the reasons for the switch.

The borough later confirmed McKibbon as its permanent manager and hired Doug Sample to fill a newly-created assistant manager position.

Inaugural award

Readers rallied behind McKees Rocks Councilwoman Sarah Harvey as they made their nominations for Gazette 2.0’s inaugural Person of the Year award.

“I would like to thank each and every person who nominated me and supported my nomination,” Harvey said in a written response. “...This accomplishment could not be possible without the continuous support, guidance and encouragement from my loved ones, mentors and fellow serving leaders.”

A Sto-Rox graduate, Harvey studied education at Slippery Rock University and returned to her hometown upon graduation. She was first elected to council in 2017.

Gas station

Real estate representatives from Giant Eagle, inc. met with McKees Rocks officials for the first of several public meetings to authorize the development of a GetGo gas station at the sight of the former Pat Catan’s craft store on Chartiers Avenue.

Introducing a challenge that became a sticking point in subsequent meetings, Councilwoman Liz Delgado voiced her concern for traffic exiting a back entrance that would be directed through brick-lined residential streets by the one-way system in place there.

Athletic center

After being dropped from council’s November 2019 meeting without being given a clear reason, Sean Gibson met with McKees Rocks community members Jan. 15 to rally support around his athletics center plans ahead of February’s council meeting.

About 30 residents and community leaders convened at the Zellous Hope headquarters on Chartiers Avenue to hear Gibson discuss the same proposal he was set to present at council two months prior. Many expressed support for the project and outrage over reports of the “backdoor meeting” where councilmembers apparently chose to remove Gibson from the agenda.

Gibson is the great-grandson of the Homestead Grays famed negro baseball league player Josh Gibson and executive director at the Josh Gibson Foundation.

Miracle Field

During the township’s Jan. 29 workshop meeting, Miracles in Moon President Mike Magulick told Moon officials plans to unveil an ADA-accessible baseball field in the township would be pushed back to June due to construction delays.

Construction on the field did conclude by late summer, however the organization suspended its inaugural season in light of coronavirus concerns.

Teachers’ grievance

Sto-Rox directors formally denied a grievance issued during the 2019 fall term by the teachers’ union, which claimed educators were on the receiving end of increasing student violence.

Board members did not comment on their decision to deny the grievance during the Jan. 30 school board meeting, however responding to the initial filing in November, President Samantha Levitzki-Wright said it was “premature” and “misguided.”

Union president Ben Englehardt declined to comment on the verdict.

Montour lawsuit

The Montour School District filed a lawsuit Jan. 9 against a parent group that previously took charge of the high school’s annual musical performances.

The civil complaint requested Montour Friends of the Performing Arts (MFPA) turn over $27,000, which the district claimed as its own after the group did not immediately agree to turn over its account balance when the school board replaced the group with a new parent-led organization several months previously.

In response, MFPA members said most of their account balance was the result of independent fundraising efforts, and so the members should be free to donate it to a school-related cause of their choosing.

Following several rounds of back-and-forth filings, the case remains unresolved.


Vacancy filled

Crafton council appointed Borough Fire Chief Michael J. Crown to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of former councilman Roy Niemann, who was accused of public drunkenness.

The Feb. 10 meeting drew criticism from a dissenting councilmember, who questioned the transparency of the move and argued more candidates should have been reviewed.

Council approved Crown’s appointment by a 5 – 1 vote margin.

Crime statistics

After a blog entry flagging McKees Rocks as the most dangerous town in the commonwealth made its rounds through the community, police and municipal officials cautioned against putting too much stock in raw data.

Using FBI data from 2018, the article calculated each municipality’s apparent level of danger by comparing the number of violent crimes reported with the total population.

In the case of McKees Rocks, Police Chief Rick Deliman suggested the math used to calculate proportional crime could be skewed upward by high numbers of residents suspected to live in rental units without official registration.

WPIAL champions

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart defended its WPIAL 2A Champions title in a 81-72 victory over Sto-Rox, despite graduating eight seniors from the squad in the year between.

Sto-Rox took an early lead during the final on Feb. 28, but OLSH pulled back in the second quarter and stayed on top for the remainder of the game.

Both teams progressed to the playoffs, which were eventually canceled because of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shenango site

A group of stakeholders who hoped to ensure the former Shenango Coke Works on Neville Island landed in good hands after it was sold off, held a meeting to draw community input for the 49-acre brownfield on Feb. 19.

A report commissioned by the stakeholders – assembled as the Shenango Reimagined Advisory Council – suggested several uses for the site that would encourage economic growth without taxing the environment.

Former owners DTE Energy, were however under no obligation to take the contents of the report under advisement, and the Detroit-based power company later sold the property to regionally-based Lindy Paving without consulting the group.

Bullying issues

Rising concerns over bullying issues came to a head during a Feb. 20 school board meeting, where parents crowded into Sto-Rox’s high school cafeteria to press directors for solutions.

In response, directors pointed out that parents just as quickly approach the district with claims their children have been excessively punished for bullying behavior, and educators, therefore, have to walk a fine line between the pressure from both sides.

School officials also pointed out district-wide efforts to approach behavioral issues through a trauma-informed approach, with support from Communities in Schools and other partnering community organizations.

Primarily constructive in tone, the meeting concluded in an altercation between local activist Lorenzo Ruli and former Sto-Rox Coach Bill Palermo that prompted a call to Stowe’s police department.


Walk Works

Allegheny County’s chapter of the American Heart Association brought together McKees Rocks residents to map out an urban trail through the town during a series of public meetings in February and March.

Residents discussed ways to bring together some of the town’s highlights – its ethnic church buildings in the Bottoms neighborhood, a scattering of public parks and historical landmarks like former Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll’s one-time residence – in a single path that would accommodate walkers of all abilities.

The process of selecting and marking out a trail is still ongoing.

Bridge rehabilitation

Work to rehabilitate the Neville Island bridge got underway March 26, costing the state $60 million and disrupting I-79 traffic for more than two years.

Since work began, the bridge has stayed open during weekdays with lane restrictions in place, but has closed to all traffic during weekends.

The bridge is scheduled to reopen in Fall 2022.

Rangers Field

The McKees Rocks council knocked down all remaining hopes for developing an athletics complex and community center at Rangers Field by declaring the site a sanctioned green space during its March 10 business meeting.

Plans by the Josh Gibson Foundation to build a community complex with wheelchair-compliant baseball fields were first foiled when executive director Sean Gibson was informed days before a November council meeting he had been dropped from the agenda.

Learning of the incident, however, residents and community leaders rallied behind the project and poured into February’s council meeting to let their feelings known.

Several voiced outrage at council’s March 10 decision to protect the site from development, including local priest and former non-profit executive Rev. Regis Ryan.

Policy changes

Sto-Rox teachers recommended a slate of changes to district policies during a March 5 education committee meeting that fell on the heels of parent pushback to bullying and disciplinary issues.

Responding to flawed systems, educators pointed out ways to update the attendance, bullying and discipline policies so as to incentivize positive change among students.

School directors at the meeting approved of the suggestions and later, with the rest of the board, passed new policies in each of these areas.

Sanitizer production

Beginning March 23, Coraopolis distillery Bella Bambini Cello put a halt to Italian lemon liqueur production and began instead churning out batches of hand sanitizer to help meet new demand stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an additional gesture of solidarity, owners Brittany Breen and Michael Quinlan donated their first batch to local emergency service providers.

Churches digitize

In response to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 21 shutdown advisory, area churches took their own efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Although Pittsburgh’s Catholic Diocese issued orders temporarily halting regular mass celebrations, the newly-formed Archangel Gabriel Parish found ways to keep congregants connected by live-streaming services and installing an outdoor chapel of adoration.

Area Protestant congregations also ramped up their online presence, with Kennedy-based Kenmawr United Presbyterian Church uploading bible classes on its Youtube channel.

School closures

Local school districts likewise scaled back late March in an effort to curb community virus spread.

The quick transition highlighted disparities between districts, with Montour Superintendent Christopher Stone calling his district well prepared for virtual learning due to existing technology infrastructure while neighboring Sto-Rox sent children home with paper packets to work from.

Sto-Rox administrators later hailed the virus as a “blessing in disguise” that prompted the district to quickly catch up with its technology-based learning.


Records withheld

Taking effect in Gazette 2.0’s April 2 edition, the McKees Rocks Police Department withheld police blotters from the newspaper at the direction of borough officials.

A published report of an incident involving Councilmember Leslie Walker in Gazette 2.0’s March 2 edition was reportedly the reason for the policy change.

For several issues, the department shared heavily redacted reports, but later began withholding all blotter content.

Business frustration

One month into the shutdown, business owners had started feeling the pinch of state-imposed operating restrictions, and many voiced frustration with their situation by April.

Businesses that rely on tactile customer interaction, like Paixao Jewellers in Kennedy and EyeGotcha optometrist in Stowe, were hit particularly hard by initial shutdown measures according to their owners.

A plan unveiled by the Wolf administration in late April set out phased steps for reopening that brought about some relief to business owners, although this plan was later scrapped.

Graduation ceremonies

Looking ahead to a graduation day under coronavirus precautions, area districts threw out a slate of creative options for ensuring high school seniors got a chance to celebrate their right of passage.

Although most schools ended up hosting scaled-down outdoor ceremonies, drive-in, drive-around-a-track and virtual ceremonies were all in contention in the build-up to summer.


Rising violence

After the communities of Stowe and McKees Rocks were rattled by gunfire and violence across late April and early May, McKees Rocks’s mayor blamed the incidents in part on the town’s high population of transitional housing residents.

A particularly galling incident within that time frame involved a dead body found by residents of a transitional housing facility in an unplugged freezer stationed in a communal hallway.

“It’s a sad thing,” said Mayor Jack Muhr. “Most of [those involved] don’t even live in this town.”

CSX lease

Less than three years after arriving in Stowe, CSX Transportation announced in early April the much-lauded intermodal terminal would cease operations under a new lease agreement with Royal Dutch Shell.

When the terminal opened in Sept. 2017, local and county officials hailed the site as the turning point for the flagging industrial communities of Stowe and McKees Rocks, with hopes for large tracts of nearby brownfield property resting on its success as an anchor industry.

Shell did not comment on how it intends to operate the facility under the lease but indicated it would be incorporated into its ethane cracker facility under development in Beaver County.

Care-home outbreak

A coronavirus outbreak tore through Caring Heights Community Care and Rehabilitation Center in the spring, accounting for more than 90% of reported cases within the 15108 zip code, home to Coraopolis, Moon and portions of Kennedy.

By May 19, the care home registered 65 resident cases and 22 staff cases with a total of 28 deaths.

Despite the grim numbers, officials from care home operators Saber Healthcare group maintained they were implementing appropriate social distancing safeguards.

Theatre halted

The Roxian Theatre was forced to close less than a year after its long-hailed reopening in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Part of an industry reliant on mass participation, Roxian Live Partners told Gazette 2.0 in May they expected their doors to stay closed until deep into 2021, and were seeking out borrowing options in the meantime.

The partners were also exploring hosting smaller-scale events such as private wedding ceremonies.

Development cleared

A hot-button proposal to build a gas station at the former Pat Catan’s craft store on Chartiers Avenue, cleared McKees Rocks’s zoning appeals board during a teleconference hearing May 28.

Several nearby residents objected to the plans on the grounds it would divert additional traffic into a nearby residential neighborhood and would ultimately contribute little to the town.

Nick Radoycis, appeals board chair, said despite the objections there was no legal reason to deny the application.


Peaceful protests

An organized protest in Coraopolis drew a crowd of several hundred June 6, as community members came together to voice solidarity and frustration in the face of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and other instances of police brutality.

Protest organizers Deja Selena and Mason Foster, both Coraopolis residents, said their goal was not to shame local law enforcement but to inspire positive change in the community.

U.S. Congressman Connor Lamb (PA-17) marched alongside the protestors and voiced his own call for change.

Merchant uncertainty

Area business owners remained uncertain as Allegheny County’s movement into the “green phase” of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus reopening plan offered a measure of relief.

The plan, later scrapped by the state’s health department, allowed businesses to operate at 50% indoor capacity as long as other conditions were met.

Those in the hospitality industry, which often only hit profit margins during high capacity, were particularly aware of their fragility despite the small note of relief.

Police reform

Local police officials interviewed by Gazette 2.0 said they were generally in favor of reforms encouraged by President Donald Trump’s June 16 executive order such as increasing body camera usage and promoting de-escalation training.

Many area departments already had bans on choke-holds, and others said they were re-evaluating their policies for ways to improve.

Several municipalities have subsequently outfitted departments with body cameras, which, they say also provide a layer of protection to officers.

Cyber option

Sto-Rox administrators decided to cash in on their Covid-instigated technology makeover by developing an in-house cyber option for the district.

By launching the new online track, school officials said they hoped to compete with cyber competitors that have drawn students away from the struggling district in recent years.

Faced with the pandemic, Sto-Rox quickly transitioned into a tech-friendly district, with every student ensured access to a personal device by the start of the fall term.

Heated protest

Protestors marching through portions of McKees Rocks and Stowe June 30 accused police departments, governing bodies and local business owners of complicity in systemic racism.

Between their starting point near the McKees Rocks municipal building and their conclusion outside the Sto-Rox High School, the marchers berated a coffee shop owner for hosting police events and flipped over a tray of hot dogs outside a church.


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