A decent home in McKees Rocks could be had for under $50,000, in some cases $20,000, compared to a home going for about $200,000 to $300,000 in Lawrenceville, he notes.

In conjunction with the County, The Rocks also has a vacant property program to help home buyers acquire a home for even less.

Another plus: The McKees Rocks CDC works with Focus on Renewal, a human services organization based in the Rocks, to strengthen the community in other ways. One way is to break the cycle of poverty through arts. The Father Ryan Arts Center opened its doors in 2008 as a performing and visual arts center serving McKees Rocks and beyond. The center offers all kinds of classes, from dance and music to ceramics as well as a Brightside Academy child care center on one floor.

“In Sto-Rox, poverty level is 30 percent and higher,” Executive Director of Focus on Renewal, Greg Quinlan says. “We’ve got about 500 public housing units. We have a lot of young kids living in poverty. The vision for the Father Ryan Arts Center is to let art be a part of trying to break the cycle of poverty.”

Young singer Terrance Austin, who has been taking classes at the Center since its inception, helped organized a choir and has networked with local jazz artists such as Maggie Johnson through the center’s Jazz Generations program which links jazz artists with young students.

“We are trying hard to recruit especially young students from the Sto-Rox area — that’s our main focus,’ Resident Artist of JAZZSPACE, Maggie Johnson says of the jazz appreciation program. “We have some great jazz programs in the East End, but not in the West. JAZZSPACE could make their niche here on the West because there isn’t anything like it. It’s exciting.”

The Core

According to Vrcek, 17,000 cars drive down Chartiers Avenue daily, a street that is also known as Route 51. But the awkward traffic orientation that makes cars loop through one-way, also prevents the drivers from experiencing the downtown district.

“We want traffic to stay on the front street to enjoy these fantastic buildings, to stop and do business,” Vrcek says.

The McKees Rocks CDC has plans to reconfigure the avenue into two-way traffic, thanks to a multi-million dollar grant by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development through the Strengthening Communities Partnership (SCP). Someday, lower Chartiers Avenue could be pedestrian-friendly and function like a business district.

The SCP addresses disparities still present in many of our region’s communities, by accelerating neighborhood improvement through concentrated private investment in community development corporations.

McKees Rocks was one of five CDCs chosen to receive $500,000 per year in business tax credits under the PA Department of Community and Economic Development’s Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP). A maximum of $3 million per community will be paid over six years.

Funding for the program will come from Pitt Ohio Express ($600,000); Dollar Bank ($450,000); and TriState Capital ($450,000). Duquesne Light Company, First Niagara and UPMC Health Plan are companies that are already participating in the state’s NPP in McKees Rocks.

“The Conference partnership will enable us to bring our Main Street Plan to life,” says Taris. “The $1.5M raised thus far will provide critical seed funding to physically transform our downtown over the next six years.  Beyond that, having access to the incredible talent pool of the Conference membership means our CDC, along with other communities in the Strengthening Communities Partnership, will have business expertise we could never attain on our own.”

It will also help leverage the 120 acres of adjacent industrial development that’s underway, anchored by another boon project, the $50 million CSX intermodal facility.

For Taris, it’s all coming together. “We are really re-creating McKees Rocks for the 21st century and making this really an exciting destination on the Pittsburgh landscape.”

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About The Author

Contributing Writer

Amanda King is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work can be seen on MSNBC.COM and a number of local publications, from the Post-Gazette to the Beaver County Times. A former journalist for the Bucks County Courier Times, she reported on NJ Gov. Chris Christie. She received her BA in Broadcast Journalism from Point Park University and is working on her first short film about 'The Modern Day Nanny', which examines how technology and education affect this traditional career. She loves telling stories with a social & educational impact.

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