Westmoreland, other counties in region look to fight blight through real estate fees
Driving down East Main Street, it’s easy to imagine West Newton in its heyday.
Glass storefronts protrude from sturdy brick buildings. Black lampposts adorned with American flags line the sidewalks. Traffic rolls gently downhill, pausing at still-active railroad tracks before feeding onto a steel-truss bridge spanning the Youghiogeny River.
“We’re never going back to the ’70s, but we’ve got a good start,” said Gary Johnson, a lifelong resident who manages seven properties along or just off Main Street.
Today, many East Main storefronts are vacant. Others no longer exist -- at least one destroyed by fire and several that crumbled from disrepair. Some still stand but are far from being inhabitable.
Johnson, 57, operates Gary’s Chuck Wagon Family Restaurant and the Gingerbread House Bakery. He gutted several of his properties, in some cases down to bowing 2-by-4s, in order to ready them for new tenants.
“I’d love to see it thrive,” Johnson said of his hometown’s business district.
Communities like West Newton could get help tackling vacant, dilapidated properties that hold back their economies through a new Westmoreland County blight demolition program. A state law known as Act 152, passed in November 2016, allows counties to charge up to $15 on deed and mortgage transactions to raise money to address blight.
Across Pennsylvania, 17 counties have adopted the program, according to Department of Community and Economic Development records. In Western Pennsylvania, that includes Beaver, Cambria, Erie, Fayette and Somerset counties.
Westmoreland began collecting blight fees in December. Nearly $150,000 had been collected through May, the latest tally available, said Jason Rigone, director of the county department of planning and community development, which administers the demolition fund. County officials estimated at least 22,000 deeds and mortgages would be filed in 2018, raising about $330,000 for the fund.
A county database so far includes about 900 blighted properties in 22 municipalities that are part of its land bank program, but there is no total count of blighted properties in the county’s 65 municipalities.
Guidelines for distributing funds from the new program are under review by the county solicitor’s department, Rigone said. He hopes to start accepting applications by the fall. The money will be allotted based on need and not necessarily go to municipalities where the fees originated, he said.
Cambria County in July razed its first property -- a South Fork Borough commercial building with an attached residential property -- using money from its blight program.
That demo project cost about $28,000, said Renee Daly, executive director of the Cambria County Redevelopment Authority. She estimated the county has more than 2,000 blighted structures. From March 2017 through March 2018, Cambria County collected $107,190 for its blight program, according to figures reported to the state.
Cambria officials choose properties for demolition on a first-come, first-serve basis, Daly said. Property must be owned by a municipality, redevelopment authority, community development corporation or other public nonprofit organizations.
Somerset County, which started its blight fund in January, is on track to collect about $60,000 this year, according to Steve Spochart, executive director of the county redevelopment authority. Officials are compiling a list of blighted properties, but Spochart said demolitions could start by the fall. Municipalities along the Great Allegheny Passage trail are likely to be considered, he said.
Tearing down a residential property could cost as much as $12,000, with a commercial demolition costing closer to $35,000.
“You could burn through a pot of money pretty quick,” Spochart said. “It’s one thing to take care of the problem and remove the structure, but part of the goal is to get it back into productive re-use, even if it’s just a vacant lot.”
Stepping into the Sweetlane Chocolate Shop on Vandergrift’s Grant Avenue is like stepping back in time -- and that’s the point, owner Pete Basile said. The bright, warm shop looks much like it did in the 1950s, with a black-and-white tile floor and wooden countertop, worn where customers have leaned against it for decades.
Nostalgia is marketable, Basile said. His grandparents, Greek immigrants, started the business in 1947. They passed down to his parents. By the time his mother died in 2009, the place was no longer operational. They reopened in 2012, filling local orders and those that come in by phone, shipping chocolate across the country.
Though his business is thriving, Basile said it’s frustrating to see other businesses along Grant Avenue, Vandergrift’s main street, sit vacant.
“We have buildings that have been in disrepair for so long,” said Basile, a retired police officer who also serves on borough council.
One such building was the former site of the G.C. Murphy five-and-dime variety store. It was a large building rumored to be so riddled with mold that many people assumed could never be restored, said Marilee Kessler of the Vandergrift Improvement Program, a volunteer organization that works to support local businesses and community projects.
Looking for a business opportunity, Matt Wolfson, of Murrysville, said he decided to take a chance on it. He’s been working to restore the building’s second floor apartment units for the past year. A carpet store recently moved in to the ground level.
Wolfson, who said he manages 15 residential properties in Apollo, Murrysville, Homestead and Vandergrift, got the property “for a song.” But upgrades have been costly, and navigating code requirements -- for example, how to properly upgrade the section of the building that dates back to 1903 compared to the section that was built in 1929 -- has been confusing.
He’d like to see more support for new business owners who are taking on a rehabilitation project for the first time.
“It seems to build on each other, as you see it going on in the area,” Wolfson said of development projects in communities like Vandergrift.
Vandergrift was founded in 1895 to support the steel production operations of the Apollo Iron and Steel Company. By the early 1900s, the population exceeded 10,000. Today, Vandergrift is home to just over 5,000 residents. About a quarter of residents are older than 62.
That concerns Kessler.
The borough needs to attract younger families if it’s going to survive, she said. That means bringing in businesses that offer the types of services and attractions younger residents want, and ensuring homes owned by elderly residents are maintained and upgraded.
Definitions of blight -- anything that has a negative impact on a neighborhood -- vary among municipalities but can include abandoned buildings, vacant lots or litter, said Patrick Shattuck, real estate and community development director at Mon Valley Initiative, a Homestead-based organization that supports local economic development.
“It just contributes to a sense of neglect and a lack of pride in place,” he said.
Development organizations generally try to preserve buildings before knocking them down, Shattuck said.
“For so many people, no matter what the condition of their community, if they’ve been there and they’ve grown up there, it’s still home,” he said.
But demolition isn’t always avoidable.
“There’s so many buildings that have been walked away from that we now have a number of buildings that aren’t really feasible to rehabilitate,” Shattuck said.
That pattern exists across the state in both rural and urban areas, said Julie Fitzpatrick, assistant director at the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, a nonprofit that works with communities to revitalize business districts.
Many communities that once depended on a mill or a single industry now are shrinking, Fitzpatrick said. As homes and businesses fall into disrepair or abandonment, the amount of time and resources it would take to save them could seem insurmountable.
Some communities face the challenge of absentee landlords or a lack of resources, she added. Others lack the people willing or able to invest in rehabbing properties and start the ripple effect of redevelopment.
That is the story of West Newton, community leaders say. It lost about 15 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010, census figures show, falling to just more than 2,600 residents.
The borough, once a thriving 1800s trading post and later home to U.S. Radiator Corp. until the 1950s, hopes to take advantage of its location along the Great Allegheny Passage, a trail that stretches from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. It has been working with organizations like the Progress Fund to boost economic development and bring in business that will serve hikers and bikers from Pittsburgh and beyond.
“The upcoming generations, they like to ride bikes, they like to walk around, go in little shops, specialty shops,” said Mayor Mary Popovich, a lifelong West Newton resident who has been in office for nine years.
Blight, however, deters potential investors, Popovich said. Tracking down absentee landlords of abandoned properties and dealing with parcels in foreclosure are tough obstacles for a small borough with limited resources, she said.
And replacing blighted properties with new businesses isn’t as simple as knocking down decrepit buildings, she said. Along with help from the countywide blight program, Popovich said she also would like to see assistance for new businesses looking for money to meet modern code requirements for fire safety, handicapped accessibility or flood zones.
“The problem is that these buildings haven’t been upgraded for years,” she said.
Meredith Baldock and her boyfriend, David Baustert, both of Penn Township, considered that when looking at spaces for Crooked Creek Distillery, their soon-to-open business serving moonshine and barbecue named after a creek in Armstrong County.
The couple settled on West Newton and moved into the old Ford dealership on Water Street, overlooking the Youghiogeny River just over the bridge from the trail head.
The building seemed simple at first glance: 14-foot ceilings and lots of open space to work with. They quickly realized that it was going to take a bit of work to get the cavernous warehouse up to code and equipped with the necessary utilities, Baldock said.
“And it probably hadn’t been cleaned in a hundred years,” she said.
Luckily, they found ways to make the necessary renovations. But Baldock said she wonders whether some of the old, small buildings nearby have the space for code requirements like handicapped accessibility.
“It could end up precluding people from wanting to invest,” Baldock said.
That’s a reality for some first-time business owners or prospective tenants who don’t have the funds to rehabilitate a building, said Aaron Nelson, president of Downtown West Newton, which works to support businesses and economic development in the community.
The volunteer group, which has taken on projects like transforming an abandoned brownfield along the Youghiogeny into a park called Simeral Square, named after the area’s first settlers.
East Main Street already has a few holes in its streetscape where active businesses once stood, Nelson said. He said that he hopes they won’t have to create any more.
“Our goal has always been to preserve the historic nature of downtown,” Nelson said.