Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Government officials gather with local stakeholders in front of the former Bank of McKees Rocks site at 602 Chartiers Ave. during an Aug. 20 press conference. Efforts to rehabilitate the dilapidated neo-classical structure received a jumpstart from a $1 million state grant.
By Jamie Wiggan
Representatives of state, county and local government gathered in McKees Rocks Aug. 20 to announce a new chapter of revitalization signaled by recently awarded grants totaling $2.3 million.
Each, in turn, suggested the long-suffering former railroad hub might be finally turning a corner.
“Council and I are working hard to change McKees Rocks into a better place to live, shop and work,” Mayor Jack Muhr told those gathered on Union Way in the main business district.
“We are working to bring in new businesses that will offer many benefits to our round of funding will build on previous community.”
State Sen. Wayne Fontana said the most recent developments like the newly renovated Roxian Theatre and the Father Ryan Arts Center constructed in 2008, which he said have already brought jobs and vitality to the business district.
“This is the place that’s growing, and it’s going to continue to grow,” he said.
Although two of the three grants were already announced earlier in the year, stakeholders said they all play into the same narrative of economic progress for McKees Rocks and could be appropriately acknowledged together.
The grants are earmarked for two landmark projects, which speakers said both have potential to catalyze further waves of regeneration.
To kickstart a novel program aiming to return swaths of vacant housing into affordable homes, McKees Rocks has so far been awarded a total of $1.3 million in funding.
The first $1 million was fronted by the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program in December 2020, while an additional $300,000 was awarded in May through the Commonwealth Financing Authority.
These initial funds will cover costs of buying and stabilizing up to 10 vacant homes. Stakeholders hope to secure renewed funding and eventually restore hundreds of the vacant homes currently strewn throughout the square-mile borough.
“[This] will be the catalyst for a new strategy taking place here to combat blighted housing and create new, affordable homeownership opportunities,” said Dennis Davin, secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development.
A $1 million grant awarded in July signals the first major step forward in efforts led by the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (MRCDC) to remediate the 119-year-old former Bank of McKees Rocks Building at 602 Chartiers Ave. The MRCDC took custody of the building through a conservatorship program in 2016, with the eventual goal of restoring the four-story neoclassical structure for new use.
Before work can be done to stabilize the damaged structure, the building must be cleared of more than 4,000 cathode-ray tube televisions piled up inside along with other waste materials. The funding recently awarded through the Industrial Sites Reuse Program will cover the costs of safely disposing of the total waste accumulations, which are expected to fill 52 semi-trailer loads.
Officials say whether the building is saved or razed, costs will in any case total around $2.3 million.
United States Senator Bob Casey's office has included a $500,000 appropriations request related to the project for consideration by a congressional subcommittee. MRCDC representatives say additional grant applications are also underway.
“The opportunity to turn this blight into... a place to convene, a place to bring economic activity, to generate tax income, to generate downtown… the opportunity here is unbelievable,” Taris Vrcek, MRCDC executive director told those gathered Aug. 20. “Funding like this isn’t released just because it’s a good project.”
Recent efforts to revitalize McKees Rocks have been strained by public disputes involving politicians, developers and community development advocates, but the tone set during the August press conference suggested some may be willing to put that behind them.
“We put a lot of years in, working together, and this is what it produces,” said Fontana, who two years earlier penned a letter admonishing representatives of council, MRCDC and development firm Trinity Commercial Development for failing to cooperate.
For his part, Vrcek thanked the “partners” at the borough and the state for their support and cooperation.
Addressing state officials who helped secure the funding, council president Archie Brinza also signaled the borough will act as a team player moving forward.
“Thanks for passing us the ball, and I assure you we’re going to carry it for a touchdown,” Brinza said.