By Joyce Gannon 

When mills churned out steel in the Mon Valley, residents of the area’s industrial towns shopped for food, fashion and specialty goods without hopping a bus or streetcar to Downtown Pittsburgh. 

Many headed to the business corridor in downtown McKeesport, which decades ago was filled with department stores, small shops, theaters, banks, restaurants and medical offices. 

The city had its own daily newspaper for more than a century and the five and dime chain store G.C. Murphy was headquartered in McKeesport.

Real estate developer Jonathan Stark sits outside the People’s Bank Building in McKeesport, which he is renovating. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Stark.

“This was the main shopping district for the Mon Valley for 100 years,” says Jonathan Stark, a real estate developer who is working to bring people and commerce back to McKeesport’s now-struggling city center. 

Stark has acquired and is renovating two prominent properties on McKeesport’s Fifth Avenue: the Executive Building and the People’s Bank Building. 

With the recent news that cannabis maker Trulieve plans a major expansion at a site in McKeesport where U.S. Steel formerly manufactured pipe and tube products, the new investments made by Stark and others in the city’s revitalization efforts have a fresh round of optimism.

“We’re ecstatic and very, very excited for what [Trulieve] means to our downtown,” says McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko. 

This fall, Trulieve — a Quincy, Florida-based producer and retail distributor of legal marijuana — announced a $10 million deal to acquire three buildings and 37 acres to develop a cultivation facility at the town’s former U.S. Steel site, which is now an industrial park. 

Trulieve already operates two buildings at the site and the expansion is expected to double its workforce to 800.

City officials hope a byproduct of the deal will be more demand for services in McKeesport’s downtown.

“Those employees will need a place to eat and shop,” says Cherepko. “Some may want to live close to work and be homeowners in McKeesport.”

While he’s excited about Trulieve’s expansion, Cherepko says he’s realistic about the steep challenge of reviving the former steel town where the population has plummeted to about 19,000 from its peak of 55,000 in the 1940s.

After U.S. Steel shuttered its operations in the 1980s, many residents fled McKeesport for opportunities elsewhere. 

About one-third of its residents live below the federal poverty level; many properties in the downtown are vacant or boarded-up.

The Executive Building on Fifth Avenue in McKeesport is being renovated to house new office and retail tenants. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Stark.

Built in the 1970s, the five-story Executive Building sat empty and condemned for several years before Stark bought it for $125,000 last year. 

Stark says he is negotiating with a local government entity to occupy one of its upper floors. 

Meantime, the street-level space is filling up with small enterprises including a financial services firm, barbershop, smoothie shop and hair salon. 

A coffee shop is seeking zoning approval for a spot, and a regional pizza chain is also considering leasing space, says Stark. 

Stark, who grew up in Murrysville, started his business career running a paintball enterprise out of his dorm room at Penn State’s University Park campus. 

For two decades he’s been involved in residential and commercial real estate and owns other properties in McKeesport including the former American Legion building. 

The People’s Bank Building is seen at night with its Discover McKeesport sign. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Stark.

He is investing his own funds in the Executive Building and earlier this year received a $250,000 grant from Allegheny County’s Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund to help restore the People’s Bank Building that he acquired in 2019 for $62,000. 

The eight-story People’s Bank Building dates to 1907 and features original marble, granite brass trim and a vault door, but requires extensive upgrades including air conditioning before it can be leased.

With rents of around $10 per square foot including utilities in both the Executive and People’s Bank buildings, Stark believes he can attract tenants. 

“If we can take an old building and make it clean and bright, there will be no shortage of people willing to lease space and run their businesses there,” he says.

While he acknowledged the city isn’t likely to attract the foot traffic it did during its heyday anytime soon, he’s hopeful. 

“I feel that McKeesport doesn’t have to be what it was, but it can be better than it is today.” 

RIDC Industrial Center of McKeesport. Trulieve acquired the buildings at top left. Photo courtesy of RIDC.

A handful of other revitalization projects aimed at boosting McKeesport’s downtown have also gained traction recently: 

–Port Authority of Allegheny County’s transit center on Lysle Boulevard is undergoing an expansion that includes more parking spaces, bus shelters, wider bus lanes, ticket machines and improved access to the Great Allegheny Passage Trail; 

–The city awarded a contract to demolish seven buildings along Fifth Avenue across from City Hall as part of McKeesport Rising, a public-private partnership that aims to eliminate blight and prepare parcels for redevelopment; 

–The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development awarded $75,000 for a stabilization project at the nearly century-old Penn-McKee Hotel. That effort is also part of McKeesport Rising.

Eric Ewell, director of continuing education at the Penn State Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport, hopes a mix of diverse, small businesses will fill some of the new and renovated properties coming online in the city.

He trains entrepreneurs at the Mon Valley LaunchBox, a coworking space and business incubator funded by Penn State and located in the former McKeesport YWCA.

“My ultimate goal is to get those folks into space here in McKeesport,” says Ewell.

Financial services firm Kabeyia & Kompany, a tenant at the Executive Building, received assistance from the Launchbox.

A new $200,000 endowment has been created to help fund the LaunchBox. Penn State graduates Robert and Cynthia Van Druff, who both attended the Greater Allegheny campus, pledged $100,000 to create the endowment in memory of their parents and the university matched their gift.