Community in action
Business View Magazine interviews Michael Cherepko, Mayor of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities
Try as you might, you can’t keep good people down. The City of McKeesport, Pennsylvania is proof positive that a community with grit and heart at its core can not only rebound but set a shining example for others. McKeesport grew up as a thriving steel town, in its heyday home to 55,000 souls – many of them contributing sweat equity as foundry workers. In the late 1970s, that population started to decrease slightly but with the collapse of the steel industry back in 1982, it plummeted and has remained steady at just below 20,000.
Michael Cherepko, Mayor of McKeesport, recalls, “It’s a town that was hit hard by the loss of the steel industry, a town that was going down for a few decades. About eight to ten years ago we hit our bottom point. And we’re on the way uphill now. It took 30 plus years to get out of the slump, knowing we weren’t going to rebuild right away. You have to crawl before you walk before you run. But it’s exciting to see that, now, it’s almost at a jog. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, it would be a very fast jog – almost a run. We’re very grateful to be where we’re at because the pandemic has hit everyone so hard, yet we’re still at the point where things are moving along.”
Indeed, development is happening all over town. Most notably at the RIDC (Regional Industrial Development Corp.) industrial park with the arrival of American Textiles, and River Materials Inc. who bought 17 acres. Cannabis manufacturer, Pure Penn LLC, just completed a huge expansion – growing from about 20,000 sq. feet of production area to well over 100,000 sq. feet. And they are looking to expand to a much larger footprint, eventually having more than half a million sq. feet and employing upwards of 1,000 people. Currently, they have close to 150 on staff and they are hiring. Cherepko notes, “We’re anticipating them to be a major employer in the city – providing sustainable jobs to raise and support families here in McKeesport.”
Other diverse businesses are being welcomed into the park, as well, such as Y & Q Home Plus, a cabinet manufacturer, and CybX, a data security company. “Our RIDC park is really starting to move ahead and we’re very excited about what that brings,” says Cherepko. “Having that many new jobs in our city could be a big revenue boost to our community. Another plus to that – someone comes here and finds a job and discovers you can become a homeowner of a property that would cost so much more in other areas. A four-bedroom house is very affordable, with a mortgage payment that would be much less than if you rented. So that attracts people, as well.”
A significant development planned for the East Fifth Avenue corridor was put on hold due to the pandemic but is still in the works. GetGo, a convenience store chain owned and operated by Giant Eagle, will be one of the anchors of the development. In phase one, they cleared the land of some blighted houses, so now when you come into that end of town, it looks much more appealing. In addition, they’ll be creating another lane turning into their property to reduce some of the ongoing traffic congestion.
In phase two, the city is applying for funding to open that up to four lanes of traffic. According to Cherepko, “Once you do that, it will spur other opportunities. People travel a distance to come to a GetGo, it is that popular. So to have one in town will not only bring visitors, but also help other development like bringing in a fast food chain. Aesthetically, it’s good in that part of town because you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. So now when you come into McKeesport on East Fifth Avenue, you have a lot of buildings that are renovated. Dunkin’ Donuts came in a couple years ago and is doing extremely well. Pennzoil has expanded yet again, they’re a major company here, so there’s a lot of good things going on in that corridor.”
In the Christie Park corridor, a new traffic signal was installed at the intersection of Walnut St. and Route 48. “There’s a strip mall type of development that has been in the works for years at the end of that,” says Cherepko, “and now that we have this traffic signal in there it will really open it up for the retail/commercial spaces. We already have it open three ways and the fourth way into the property development we hope will be completed in the next two months. That area is in close proximity to Olympia Shopping Center which is in both McKeesport and our neighboring community of Versailles and brings a lot of people to town. They can now come right down to our Christie Park corridor, so that should really spur more development.
Three years ago, the downtown core would have been considered as one of the last areas to come back. But amazing progress is happening now. The former Daily News Building, renamed the Tube City Center to reflect the city’s industrial history of producing steel tubes and hoses, has several tenants including Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation, Tube City Community Media, local newspaper the Mon Valley Independent, as well as a regional office of the Allegheny County District Attorney, and Flashover Fire Apparatus and Equipment Company. Bids are going out to tender for rehabilitation of the adjacent parking garage – construction is slated for completion this year.
Also downtown, the Port of Allegheny County is investing millions to overhaul their transportation center. Across the street from the Tube City Center, the city-owned People’s Building is now in the hands of a developer for rehab, with potential tenants lined up. And 75 yards from there, the vacant, run-down Executive Building is with a developer, as well. He has five storefronts that are going to be occupied soon. One has officially opened and the other four will be by May. He also has a tenant lined up to use the entire upper floor of one of those buildings as an office space for 135 employees.
And the good news continues… As Cherepko reports, “We also have the First Commonwealth Building; the bank donated the building to our Redevelopment Authority and we’re confident about getting a good tenant in there, as well. Across the street from our City Hall is an entire block of blighted buildings. We were successful in obtaining Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP) funding through the State of Pennsylvania and we have funding partners who are committed to $450,000 a year of revenue coming to us over the next six years. It’s basically a $3 million grant that will allow us to tear down all the blighted buildings and get the site shovel-ready for development. And that just happens to be directly across the street from the new Port Authority Transportation Center that’s being built. So we’re very excited about our downtown. We’re still in the beginning stages but things are really coming together. We’re at a jog and it will soon become a sprint.”
To further address the blight problem, the City of McKeesport is working in partnership with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to rehab owner/occupied houses and also rehab some for resale. The city also has a great relationship with Penn State Greater Allegheny that has a campus in McKeesport. “I can’t speak highly enough of their Chancellor, Dr. Edmonson, and the collaborative effort that we have,” says Cherepko. “As a Penn State grad myself, who went to the local campus for two years, I’m so proud of that partnership. In one of our city-owned buildings, they have a Launch Box for start-up businesses – giving them knowledge over six months or a year, so they have a good business foundation, and then helping them get out on their own. It’s been extremely beneficial to those who have taken advantage of it. Our slogan is “Working together for a better McKeesport” and without question Penn State Greater Allegheny, under Dr. Edmonson’s leadership, truly exemplifies what that means.”
Looking to the future, Cherepko emphasizes, “Obviously, our main goal is to continue bringing business in. Part of our ‘McKeesport Rising’ initiative is to continue demolition of blighted structures – residential and commercial – and to do any other infrastructure improvements that are needed, such as paving roads. And also keep the taxes as stable as possible. In order to attract new businesses, and new residents, and keep your existing ones here, those are all important issues that need to be addressed. As we continue to make these improvements, people are seeing the results and all the good things that are going on, and the hands-on administration, and it really increases the enthusiasm for the City of McKeesport and the morale overall. And I think that’s what’s most important in the community.”
AT A GLANCE
What: Business-friendly, former steel town; population 19,700
Where: Pittsburgh Metro Area, Pennsylvania