Looking back at the year that was

-YEAR IN REVIEW PART I-


As we close out the year, we invite you to look back on a few highlights from 2021.


From the pandemic’s effect on small businesses to high school sports triumphs and government resignations, at every step we have worked to capture the news that’s essential to you.


Topping our personal highlights for the year, are the arrival of new Owner and Publisher Sonja Reis and several investigative partnerships with regional news sources. We continue to fulfill our mission of serving the West-Pittsburgh region with quality news and commentary.


Looking ahead to 2022, we are excited to continue expanding our coverage of your communities. While across the country newsrooms continue to fold and printing presses grind to a final halt, with your help we’ve been able to buck the alarming trend of vanishing print media.


Thank you for partnering with us on this exciting journey – We’ll see you again in 2022!

JANUARY

Illegal billboards?

National advertising firm Lamar took Robinson to court over claims officials shortcutted zoning regulations to help a competitor install billboards within the township.


Two Robinson residents joined the civil suit against the township, while several residents separately voiced concerns over the placement of the signs, saying they present a safety risk.


Billed as “welcome signs,” about six digital signs which include a combination of township information and private advertising were installed in late 2020.


Unresolved, the case is still inching through the courts.


Internet access

Gazette 2.0 joined with other media outlets to examine student internet and technology access during the first nine months of virtual schooling.


Working alongside the Mon Valley Independent of Monessen and Pittsburgh-based online publication, The Incline, our reporting uncovered a range of disparities affecting students across the Pittsburgh region. We also highlighted some effective solutions put forward by schools and nonprofits to quickly meet those needs.

Admin issues

Closing out a rocky year, Crafton’s council fired its manager within 12 months of releasing his predecessor.

Two dissenting members said the move took place behind closed doors, leaving them and the public in the dark. The majority who approved the termination motion denied this, saying it took place after appropriate council discussion.


Person of the year

Area residents selected Gazette 2.0’s own Lynne Deliman for the newspaper’s second annual person of the year award.


Nearly 40 people nominated Deliman for the award, with most pointing to her relentless work to serve the McKees Rocks community she grew up in. Now a Kennedy resident, Deliman is the manager at Rite Aid in McKees Rocks, where her husband serves as police chief.


Among her many community contributions, Deliman maintains a photo page in Gazette 2.0 highlighting positive local happenings.

Restaurant relief

Local restaurateurs let out sighs of relief when state mandates limiting operating capacity at 50% lapsed during the early days of 2021.


Several local business owners described desperate months relying on take-out sales and a trickle of dine-in customers expressed hope the worst of the pandemic was behind them. “I believe there is a lot of pent-up demand for simply sitting down for a nice meal out,” said Bob Crossland, owner of Mickey’s Place in Kennedy.

With American case rates near an all-time high, but with vaccines appearing on the horizon, the outlook on the COVID-19 pandemic was at that time mixed.

Saga continues

Frustrated by the recent dismissal of longtime fire chief Nick Radoycis, former council president Paul Krisby sent a letter to Allegheny County’s emergency service department stating Mike Stepek of neighboring Presston volunteer company would handle all fire business for McKees Rocks.


Irate members of the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department said they were “blindsided” by the move and accused Krisby of putting personal loyalties before public safety.


Krisby resigned from council Jan. 8 citing health concerns, and his successor Archie Brinza ultimately reinstated the McKees Rocks company as the borough’s official department.

Billing issues

Frustration over billing issues reached a peak right after the holiday period for some residents of McKees Rocks and Stowe.


Affected customers complained of irregular billing practices that meant they would frequently go months without and then be expected to pay for two or more cycles.


Officials at Stowe and McKees Rocks said the problems were caused by Burkheimer, which both contract to collect sewage bills on their behalf.


Some discussed exploring other service providers but lamented that few are available on the market.

FEBRUARY

Council resignations

Anthony Saba, a relative newcomer to Crafton’s council, announced his resignation from public office late January.


Elected in 2019, Saba said he was ending his term early on account of personal reasons after losing several family members during 2020. Saba’s husband, formerly council’s vice president, stepped down the following month.


Vaccine delays

Locals seeking COVID-19 jabs for themselves or loved ones expressed frustration with the county’s slow rollout nearly two months after the first vaccinations were approved by federal agencies.


Frustrations stemmed from complicated online booking systems, long waiting periods and a lack of coherent guidance from the health department.


“I feel like we’re not protecting our elderly population,” said Lisa Smarra of Kennedy.

About 4% of Allegheny County residents had received a single dose of vaccine as of early February.


Rock pile complaints

A group of Robinson residents addressed commissioners early February with concerns about swelling rock piles amassed at the intersection of a residential cul-de-sac and a busy highway.


They said the series of mounds scattered among a building site on Steubenville Pike block the view for drivers turning onto the highway from Waterford Drive, and they also complained about its impact on the neighborhood’s aesthetic value.


In response, commissioners said progress on the construction had been held up by a series of lawsuits involving the township, the property owner and a neighboring business owner.

Residents revisited this issue several more times in the ensuing months.

Club Erotica

Following a deadly shootout in the parking lot of a McKees Rocks adult night club, several residents began asking whether the venue poses a broader threat to the community.


The Jan. 29 shootout left two dead and one wounded, and prompted an investigation from the District Attorney’s office that did not result in charges against the club or its owner. Two men were charged with homicide for the killings.


Several called on the borough to take further action against the club, such as repealing its occupancy permit, and one even considered running a mayoral campaign to push the issue.

Chief joins council

After retiring from the volunteer fire department at the end of 2020, former fire chief Nick Radoycis began a new chapter of public service by accepting an appointment to an empty council seat Feb. 8.


Radoycis left the department amid a period of turbulence and restructuring. Following nearly 30 years as chief, fellow volunteers appointed a new leader during an annual reorganization meeting late December. Former council president Paul Krisby took umbrage at this and threatened to have council install a new chief of their own picking.


Soon after, Krisby resigned from council on account of health issues, opening up the seat to Radoycis. John Malesnick was appointed to fill another vacancy created by former Vice President Kathy Evitch’s departure during the same meeting.


Evitch, a longtime cancer sufferer, died shortly after.

MARCH

St. Philip School

Parents and community members launched an impassioned series of appeals after learning of the Catholic diocese’s plans to merge St. Philip School in Crafton with St. Margaret in Green Tree.


An online petition garnered more than 2,500 signatures just days after the Feb. 12 announcement.


A group formed to protest the merger launched a series of appeals, first to the Pittsburgh diocese and later to the Vatican in the ensuing months. None have so far prevailed.

The school was founded in 1915 and ultimately closed its doors at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Jani steps down

Gazette 2.0’s founder and former CEO stepped down from his post in March 2021 after guiding the newspaper through its first three years.

Jani grew up reading the former Suburban Gazette with his father and said he felt a responsibility to keep the community informed of local happenings following its unexpected shuttering in October 2017.


A 1985 Sto-Rox graduate, Jani successfully sued the NFL as a representative of former Steeler Mike Webster’s estate and also runs a number of local businesses. He said after getting the paper off the ground he was leaving to pursue other business ventures.


Crafton shuffle

The back-to-back departures of two Crafton council members prompted a quick reshuffle as their colleagues scrambled to fill the seats.


After Anthony Saba announced his departure in January, his husband Edward Alo tendered his resignation during a meeting where council approved a replacement.


Saba and Alo both pointed to family health concerns and other personal matters as reasons for their departures.


Their colleagues appointed Colton Chandler and John Oliverio as replacements.


GOP relaunch

After a couple of years’ inactivity, party members held a lively event to drum up support for Republican leadership in Robinson.


The March 10 event held at All Star Sports Bar & Grill drew some big names like former congressional and senate candidate Sean Parnell as well as local residents seeking entry into municipal and school board offices.


About 70 people attended.


Broadway petition

Citing rising crime in the West Park area, Stowe residents and business owners signed their names to a petition calling for stronger police presence in the township.


Leading the petition, Frank Jones, owner of Kennedy Notary Services on Broadway Avenue said an uptick in criminal activity was beginning to turn away customers.


In response, commissioners promised to push for more police presence and they also pointed to new ordinances that would allow the township to take firmer action against panhandling and soliciting.


Reis arrives

Following founder Sonny Jani’s departure, veteran community journalist Sonja Reis stepped in as the new owner and publisher of Gazette 2.0.


Reis, who has been involved with the paper since soon after its 2017 relaunch, said taking over was a natural culmination of her twin career trajectories in journalism and community development.


Reis said after guiding the newsroom through the ownership transition, she planned to expand its features and sports sections, while also growing its online presence

APRIL

ALCOSAN lawsuit

Hoping to halt plans to turn a prime portion of real estate into a pit, McKees Rocks filed a lawsuit against the county sanitary authority late March.


During a press conference convened on the day of filing, borough representatives said the plans outlined by ALCOSAN would adversely affect the local economy and quality of life for nearby residents.


ALCOSAN is required by a federal consent decree to bring its sewage systems up to contemporary environmental standards countywide, and laid out sweeping plans for how it intends to do so in late 2020.


Around the same time, it acquired a former car dealership in McKees Rocks for approximately $2 million.

Restrictions eased

Three months after statewide COVID-19 restrictions were first loosened on restaurants and bars, local business owners celebrated a further scaling back of safety guidelines in early April.


The updated policies permitted all establishments to serve customers at 50% capacity, while allowing self-certifying businesses to operate at 75%.


Local business owners interviewed about the changes consistently said they could not survive forever on take-out sales and limited in-person service, and so welcomed the news as a glimmer of light at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Community cats

As local cat populations threaten to multiply beyond control, a small but dedicated band of volunteers are working to ensure that doesn’t happen under their watch.


One, Alexa Parrish, spends her evenings patrolling the streets of McKees Rocks and Stowe in search of cats that need “fixing” or other types of care. Whenever she comes across a new litter of kittens, she’ll tap into her network of cat carers to try and find them a new home.


Another group, led by Michelle DeFade of Sheraden, holds mass trapping events multiple times a year, where she and other volunteers trap and neuter as many as 70 cats in a single session. She also works with other cat enthusiasts to find them home or medical care, as needed.


State champions

After claiming the WPIAL championship two weeks prior, the OLSH chargers took their season success to the next level by winning the state championship during a 62-49 victory over the Constitution Generals of Philadelphia.


Standout players Jake DiMichele and Dante Spadafora together added 22 points to the score tally. Frequent WPIAL winners, the charger’s victory over the Generals secured them their first-ever state championship.

Best town

Readers named Coraopolis their favorite community in Gazette 2.0’s inaugural “Best Town” contest. Those who voted, pointed to a growing local business scene that has carried Coraopolis forward in recent years without eradicating its friendly, small-town charm.


“Over the past 13 years [since I’ve lived here], it’s really been growing and flourishing,” said resident Richelle DeVito. “It’s becoming what it used to be - or even better.”


Following behind Coraopolis, the small Borough of Ingram garnered the next most votes, earning an honorable mention.

Strip club saga

Angered by surging crime and violence stemming from two closely situated adult nightclubs, residents of McKees Rocks and Stowe asked leaders to take action.


In a two-month span during late 2020 and early 2021 three people died in shooting incidents that broke out at Club Erotica in McKees Rocks and True Diamonds in Stowe. A few months later, a man was shot and critically wounded outside True Diamonds.


Both venues were investigated by the district attorney’s office, with charges sticking against True Diamonds management, while Club Erotica was cleared of wrongdoing.


“I’m just tired of turning on the TV and seeing something about True Diamonds,” Stowe resident Jeffrey Paul told commissioners April 12.

Mayor departs

Longtime Crafton Mayor Jim Bloom announced in April he would not be seeking reelection at the end of his third term, opening up his seat to new contestants.


Bloom’s departure followed resignations from two council members and a string of other personnel changes during the prior 12 months at Crafton.


Prior to his 12 years as mayor, Bloom served two terms on council and before that he served as a police officer for 30 years. During his final address, he vowed: “to continue to be the watchdog for the borough and a guard against wasteful spending.”

MAY

Keaton partnership

Michael Keaton, star of Batman, Spotlight and a host of other Hollywood blockbusters, announced plans to team up with local developer Craig Rippole on a green development concept.


Rippole, a McKees Rocks native and commercial real estate developer, said he reached out to Keaton after being persuaded of the value and economic potential of sustainable construction models. Keaton grew up in neighboring Robinson and frequently touts his passions for Pittsburgh and environmental causes.


Rippole said undeveloped property he owns in McKees Rocks was one of several sites under consideration for the project.

GOP run

Following years of Democratic dominance, Kennedy resident Diane Schmitt tested the political waters in her bedroom community by announcing a run for a commissioner’s seat on the Republican ticket.


Schmitt said she had a proven record of “grassroots activism” which she wanted to put to work serving the township. Schmitt said she wanted to stem rampant development efforts and focus on community relations.


Democratic Chair Mel Weinstein, also treasurer, tax collector and manager, said Kennedy’s low millage and desirable amenities are a product of Democratic leadership, and questioned the need for change.

JUNE

Merger proposed

Sto-Rox school directors unanimously backed a resolution calling for talks with Montour officials about a merger proposal.


“[The proposal is] based 100% on the unfair funding of the Sto-Rox district,” then-Superintendent Frank Dalmas said of the move immediately after the May 27 meeting.


In addition to financial considerations, Dalmas also said Montour could benefit from sharing in his district’s diverse student body.

A curt statement issued in response by Superintendent Christopher Stone of Montour quickly stamped out the chances of the proposal gaining traction absent external pressure from the state.

Air quality

Six weeks after an industrial fire shrouded Neville Island in a thick blanket of smog, the Gazette 2.0 teamed up with Pittsburgh newsroom PublicSource to take an in-depth look at ongoing air quality concerns raised by local residents.


Throughout a two-part exploration, we brought to light complaints of many who say they’re impacted with air quality concerns on a day-to-day basis. We also uncovered the gaps in available air monitoring that prevent regulatory bodies like the county health department from taking further action.


Amusement taxes

McKees Rocks’ Mayor Jack Muhr delivered a speech during a public meeting, where he urged that the Roxian Theatre should be shut down until it caught up with back taxes owed.


Muhr’s feisty address followed two years of rocky relationships between the theatre and the borough since the former vaudeville hall reopened as a live music venue.


Owners Roxian Live say they were lured in on promises that amusement taxes were not enforced in the borough only to later be blindsided. Borough officials, led by Muhr, meanwhile painted Roxian Live as predatory investors seeking to profit at the borough’s expense.


The two parties finally reached a settlement on back taxes owed in October and agreed to put past grievances to rest.

Political powerplay?

Stowe commissioner Cheryl McDermott said she was the victim of political maneuvering on the part of president Robin Parrilla, when he called her to tell her he was removing her from her committee positions ahead of a scheduled meeting.


Parrilla meanwhile insisted it was an appropriate response to inappropriate conduct committed by McDermott that he was unwilling to discuss on the record. He denied her charges that it was retribution for not supporting his re-election campaign.


Editor’s note: We’ll be looking back at the second half of 2020 in our Jan. 6 edition. Check back then.


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