By Elizabeth Perry
Crime and violence has driven business away from Broadway Avenue in Stowe Township, business owners and residents say.
Establishments that have been there for decades are closing or seeing devastating decreases in customers because of the problem.
“I can’t run a business under those circumstances and it absolutely breaks my heart,” said Dr. Claudia Wendel, who is in the process of closing EyeGotcha.
The optometrist and eyeglass shop was an anchor business in the area, which had been open in one form or another since 1955. Wendel has now moved her practice to Bridgeville.
Wendel, who inherited the eyeglass shop after her father’s death in 1986, revamped the structure with an award-winning, accessible design by architect Arthur Lubetz. Customers came from all over the city because the shop was created with patients who have mobility issues in mind.
“It was a very difficult decision to move, my heart and soul are there. As far as running a business I have to be realistic. I have to pay employees,” Wendel said.
Wendel said the last straw for her was when a new patient came in for an exam and said a man on the street threatened to destroy his car if the patient refused to pay him $5.
“How many patients did that happen to that didn’t tell me?” Wendel asked.
Wendel said gun violence has chased away many people away from the area.
Two high-profile shooting incidents have occurred in the area since January. On Feb. 27, three vehicles belonging to agents of the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General were shot up. On March 2, a man and a woman were shot in an Irwin Street home.
Stowe Police Chief Matthew Preininger said his department responded to 11 calls involving shots fired since Jan. 1. Of those, six involved actual shootings.
McKees Rocks Police Chief Rick Deliman said the police had received 22 calls of shots being fired, but only found evidence of shootings in six criminal incidents. The McKees Rocks police arrested several people in February in connection with an ongoing narcotics investigation.
Wendel said “pretty much every business person,” in the area was facing the same problems. In 2022, she attempted to sell her building to UPMC. Negotiations for the building fell apart because doctors and nurses did not want to work in the area, Wendel said.
“If UPMC can’t staff that place, can anybody?” Wendel asked.
Calls to Brian Rudolph, executive administrator at UPMC, were not returned.
“When Claudia left, you know you got a problem,” said Panfilo DiCenzo, founder and president of the Clean and Sober Humans Association, Inc, more commonly known as C.A.S.H. Club.
DiCenzo said he got clean 29 years ago, and started the association at the location on Broadway 27 years ago. The organization, which provides support for addicts trying to become sober, used to see between 60 to 70 people.
“Now you’re lucky you get 10 people,” DiCenzo said.
DiCenzo noticed a slowdown about three years ago, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At one time there were more than 100 beds for people who utilized A.D.A.’s House, a transitional living facility for men in recovery inside of the C.A.S.H. Club. DiCenzo said they were down to six.
The organization does not offer methadone, which is one reason DiCenzo said they’d seen a reduction in clients. Another was parking. DiCenzo said the body shop across the street often had cars parking on the street, taking up spaces.
Those inside the body shop declined to comment.
“Every time I think we should close, we wind up saving somebody’s life or helping people.
God’s been good to me,” DiCenzo said.
James Csurilla, resident manager at C.A.S.H. Club, had been with the program for 13 years. Though he’s comfortable at their storefront on Broadway, he acknowledges there’s a lot going in the neighborhood that makes people nervous. The Feb. 28 shooting of DA vehicles shook up some of their clients.
“We couldn’t have a meeting because they were scared to come,” Csurilla said.
There were no local doctors nearby, DiCenzo said. Despite the problems, DiCenzo doesn’t plan on leaving.
“It’ll turn, it has to. It can’t get worse,” DiCenzo said.
A business owner who declined to go on record blamed part of the business flight on landlords.
“People don’t maintain the buildings the way they used to when they were owner-occupied.”
Stowe Commissioner Dave Rugh is a rare business owner moving to the street as co-owner of the new Anytime Market with Mo Khan.
“People are leaving because the landlords are not keeping the buildings up to par,” Rugh said.
Rugh said he used to work at the former Blue Eagle Market, and had worked on the street for decades.
“I’ve been there for years. I know what it was, I know what it could be,” Rugh said.
Mark Puzas, owner of Alice Street Investments, LLC, owns five buildings on the street, 711, 713, 715, 717 and 719 Broadway. Puzas disputed the idea that he wasn’t keeping up his buildings.
“All my commercial tenants are still there. Do you think they would be there if I wasn’t keeping up the buildings?” Puzas asked.
Puzas said the violence in the area has been constant since before he took over, and he hadn’t seen an improvement despite a promise last year of increased police activity.
"At this point, I just accept it like the norm. It's been like this for six or seven years. You expect crimes, shootings and drugs. It's sad, but it's my honest opinion," Puzas said.
Wendel said when the Stowe Township Commissioners ended the contract with Town Center Associates in 2018, it sent up a “red flag” that things would not be done to help business owners.
“They basically cut off our arms and our legs,” Wendel said.
For a $10,000 annual fee, Town Center Associates met with business owners to advise on landscaping, street design, and help with filling out beautification grants. Wendel credits their help with the $250,000 grant that paid for the clock and other beautification on Broadway.
“My name is on the grant, without them we could’ve never done that,” Wendel said.
DiCenzo said criminal activity has increased recently.
“The dope selling on the street’s got to stop. They give it away for free at night,” said DiCenzo
Rich Banaszak, 82, has run Rich’s Barbershop on Broadway for 57 years, “working on 58.” For him, business is mainly slow these days despite good and bad days. There are many problems on Broadway, but they haven’t impacted his business, Banaszak said.
“All my customers died,” Banaszak said.
Young people do not come in to replace them, either, Banaszak said, and his children were not interested in taking over the hair-cutting business. However, he has no plans of closing up shop.
Debi Pirro works at Theresa’s Bakery, which has been on Broadway for 23 years.
She’d been an eye patient of Wendel and had been to see Wendel's father when she was a little girl.
Pirro said business was like a “yo-yo,” up and down. Around the holidays they’re a lot busier. Fellow worker Anna Ray said she thought the violence in the area did keep some of the customers from coming.
Both said owner Nick Vassello had no plans to leave. Vassello does much of his business supplying grocers with baked goods, including Pennsylvania Macaroni Company in the Strip District. Pirro said Vassello was “old school.”
“We still have 1960’s prices,” Pirro said.
Pirro, a lifetime resident of McKees Rocks, lamented the area had changed so much since she was growing up; there used to be a shoemaker in the area, Frannie Parillo’s hair salon, and the other local bakeries that used to be on the street. There were a lot of places for kids to play, not like now, Pirro said.
“It was a beautiful town,” Pirro said.