If it can restore a 96-year-old landmark, McKeesport will send a powerful signal to skeptics, the city’s mayor said at a public hearing on the fate of the long-abandoned Penn McKee Hotel. 

Mayor Michael Cherepko estimated that “99% of the people that know anything about McKeesport can relate to the Penn McKee.” For that reason, the fate of the old hotel, empty for 30 years, will resonate well beyond the borders of the city of 17,727.

“There’s not too many things that can have a greater impact on the perception of whether McKeesport is dying or whether McKeesport is rising,” Cherepko said. He then asked the board of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, which owns the building, to “leave no stone unturned” and “try to utilize every available resource” to save at least part of the building.

Read more: In McKeesport, a demolition drive pauses at the door of a once-glamorous hotel

The four-story hotel was a glamorous gathering spot during McKeesport’s industrial heyday and even hosted a 1947 debate between future presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, both then members of Congress. It sits near the Great Allegheny Passage trail, the McKeesport Palisades event center and the McKee’s Point Marina, making the site a potential cornerstone of the city’s recovery bid.

At present, though, it’s a liability.

Fixing it would be “complicated and expensive, and the potential outcome is sort of unknowable,” said Dominick Anselmo, senior project manager with KU Resources. That Duquesne-based environmental engineering firm was hired by the authority as part of a federal Environmental Protection Agency grant of $500,000 toward the clean-up of the asbestos-laden site.

Anselmo said a portion of one floor has collapsed. Water is seeping through the roof and damaging masonry, which is bowing in places. The south wing of the building can’t be saved. Remove the south wing, though, and the north wing won’t be stable.

The south wing of the Penn McKee Hotel in McKeesport. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

Contractors might, however, be able to remove the south wing and then retrofit the north wing, removing the asbestos and repairing the roof and steel framing, said Anselmo. He estimated the cost at $2.5 million or more.

The cost of totally demolishing the building would be around $1 million, he added. The cost of doing nothing except roof repair, and then allowing the building to sit, would also be around $1 million, though that would not advance economic revitalization or remove public safety hazards, he noted.

Even after spending millions to save the north wing, the city would only get an empty shell.

“You’re probably looking at $20 million to save the Penn McKee Hotel and bring it into something else,” said Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh.

An artists conception of a potentially redeveloped Penn McKee Hotel provided by the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh.

Craig noted, though, that medical marijuana grower Trulieve plans to bring 800 jobs to the city, and some of those workers might be interested in renting housing in a restored Penn McKee. The promise of rents, plus the EPA grant, state funds, federal tax credits, philanthropic donations and maybe even community crowdfunding could conceivably raise the money, he said.

“If you decided it could work, and that was what you were going to do, you could do it,” Craig told the authority board. “If it’s just too overwhelming, too dangerous, I understand.”

Following the hearing, which was required as part of the EPA grant, the public has 30 days to submit written comments to the authority. They can be emailed to melissa.ernst@mckeesport-pa.gov. The authority board then has to report its decision to the EPA, though it faces no firm deadline to do so.

The process comes as Cherepko gears up for potentially hundreds of building demolitions under his McKeesport Rising initiative, but also as some in the city seek to preserve hints of its glory days as home to mills and 55,000 residents.

“Aww gee, the Penn McKee. I’d hate to see it go,” said Robert Baum, owner of a real estate agency in the city, and one of three members of the public to testify at the hearing. He said McKeesport needs a hotel. “How do you do that? You save the Penn McKee Hotel, if it’s savable.”

Michele Matuch, president of the board of the nonprofit McKees Point Development Group, said she’s “pleading with the authority to proceed with the development of a new Penn McKee Hotel,” either by restoring the existing building or building a new one on the site. 

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko (right) speaks at a Feb. 15, 2022 hearing before the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, while A.J. Tedesco director of community development, listens. (Photo by Rich Lord/PublicSource)

Cherepko said McKeesport’s biggest problem is the perception of decline created by negative TV news coverage. He’d like to counter that.

“The opportunity to restore this building can do so much for the city just from the whole perspective of how people view McKeesport from the outside,” the mayor said. If the Penn McKee can’t ultimately be saved, that reality won’t define the city, he added. But even if demolition can’t be avoided, he told the authority board, “I want to be able to say we tried everything.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...