It wasn’t until he moved from Manhattan to McKees Rocks that it fully struck him. McKees Rocks, Taris Vrcek realized in a sudden moment of clarity, had even more potential than he had thought.
“When I moved back here after living in Manhattan, I really looked around and saw all these possibilities for places and buildings in my hometown,” he says, “and it really lit a fire inside of me.”
He grew up in McKees Rocks, leaving for Manhattan in 1997. When his mom died, Taris wanted to spend more time with his dad. And he wanted to carry on the tradition of his parents, who were active in the community. His dad owned a tavern and his grandparents had owned one, too–as well as a restaurant, barber shop and ice cream shop. The family roots ran deep.
Goodbye, Manhattan. Hello McKees Rocks.
It was a far cry from his former life, operating his own custom software design and development firm while living in Murray Hill, a part of Manhattan he loved. But he left the cosmopolitan lifestyle to return to ‘The Rocks’, a borough in Allegheny County along the south bank of the Ohio River ten minutes from Downtown Pittsburgh.
Once home, he started volunteering in the community and worked his way into a paid position as the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (CDC) Executive Director.
“There were a lot of gut-wrenching years early on where when we had little resources and I wasn’t getting paid on a regular basis,” he says, “but I hung on because I knew we could be this incredible place someday. I actually wrote a conceptual plan outlining some of these ideas and vision and began showing it to the County and State, as well as local stakeholders.”
McKees Rocks is a town filled with ethnic traditions and rich history. The original Robert Wholey Co. opened its doors in 1912 and the first American Eagle Outfitters premiered there.
Since then, many other businesses, including Linders, a legendary fine furniture store, have opened in the town. The neighborhood, with a population of 6100, is known for its mouth-watering pierogies as well as cinnamon bread from 5 Generation Bakers. And it continues to be a manufacturing town with companies making concrete inserts for steel mills.
Now, Vrcek has a vision for his hometown as a destination for the arts and music, one with the same energy as the east end of Pittsburgh.
It’s something that’s lacking on the west side of town, he says. “I think we can kind of take the lead and connect the dots with places like Coraopolis and Bellevue and the West End to kind of bring some of that vitality that’s made the East End exciting,” he says.
The McKees Rocks CDC’s first phase of renovation is underway at the 1928 Roxian Theatre on the main street of Chartiers Ave. Yellow caution tape and chain-link fences line the construction site at the moment, but Vrcek says they are on track to open their doors in 2017 as a performance and events center.
A rendition of the future theatre sports a marquis promoting the Mumford & Sons as an upcoming act. Vrcek says the theatre, with a capacity of 1500, will fill a void in the Pittsburgh region for a live performance venue space.
The first phase, the facade renovation, will recreate the original entrance and lobby.
When they ran out of funding raised in 2010, they reconnected with the League of Historic American Theatres for a new approach and are now on the midst of entering the master planning phase. “We completed a funding feasibility study in the fall which showed that in the philanthropic government, business community there is a potential of $8 million for this project,” Vrcek said. “The remaining project costs are $7 million.”
Now, the McKees Rocks CDC has to prove the project is sustainable. The idea is for a venue that generates private income first by bringing in national and local concerts and in addition, making the space available for rentals.
“If we can establish that with this master plan and really show our due diligence, then we have a funding community that I think sees the value of this project and what it means not only for McKees Rocks, but for the region,” Vrcek says.
The Roxian is only one project in the works for redesigning the town. The town has some great assets, but they are under utilized, Vrcek says. Among them: public transportation access, waterfront space, green space, and noteworthy architecture.