McKeesport is one of the largest municipalities in Allegheny County after Pittsburgh, but has taken longer to bounce back from de-industrialization.
Once home to 50,000 people, McKeesport now has fewer than 20,000. A recent $3 million investment by private companies and Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is being hailed by local officials as an economic boost and an endorsement of the work they’ve already done to turn the city around.
McKeesport City Hall is a former bank at the corner of 5th Avenue and Sinclair Street. It's surrounded by buildings awaiting demolition, punctuated here and there by those that could still be saved. So many buildings have to be leveled in order to attract new business to downtown, said Mayor Michael Cherepko. But finding the money in the annual budget has been tough; demolition is expensive.
“For that type of money, we may have been able to take five other houses down or ten houses down … which then benefits those neighborhoods,” he said.
One plank of McKeesport Rising, the city’s strategic plan, has focused on eliminating residential blight to help rebuild neighborhoods and, in turn, the tax base. Like a lot of places, McKeesport struggles with rising costs and a shrinking number of people to pay the bills. But the grant from Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development means officials will now have more resources to focus on both McKeesport’s downtown and its neighborhoods.
Through DCED’s Neighborhood Partnership Program, four private companies—First Commonwealth Bank, UPMC Health Plan, Duquesne Light Company and Noble Energy —committed to annually invest $500,000 in McKeesport Rising every year for six years. Companies that commit to an investment receive a tax credit from the state.
The program is a great way for a small community bank to make a large investment, said Evan Zuverink, vice president of community reinvestment for First Commonwealth Bank.
“This is an opportunity to work with existing clients to make a significant impact on a community that has put a lot of imagination and talent into reenvisioning itself,” he said.
“We talk about … working together for a better McKeesport,” said Cherepko. “It's not just a slogan, it's an invitation. And so many people are accepting that invitation,” he said.
The grant money will be split among three major initiatives: stabilize and build residential housing, revitalize downtown, and boost tourism. McKeesport will work with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to help homeowners make needed repairs and stay in their homes. Each year, $350,000 will be used to buy vacant properties downtown and prepare them for small businesses.
As officials work to revitalize downtown as well as people’s perceptions of the city, McKeesport’s success won’t come from just one industry, said Cherepko.
“It's a matter of really just trying to make sure we stay more diverse this time,” he said. “Let's just not have all our eggs in one basket.”
Cherepko cited more available office space, a budding medical marijuana industry, and efforts to bring restaurants back downtown.
In addition, some of the money will be used to stabilize and market the historic Penn-McKee Hotel for redevelopment. A separate grant from the commonwealth will pay to renovate the Great Allegheny Passage, where the cycling and pedestrian trail runs through McKeesport.