Charleroi must leap hurdles to fight blight

August 19, 2013
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
An example of the ornamentation the borough wants to save from the old Columbus Hotel, scheduled for demolition at the corner of Third Street and McKean Avenue Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Final preparations are under way to demolish the old Columbus Hotel in Charleroi’s historic district. Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
This abandoned house at 735 Fallowfield Ave. in Charleroi is among 20 blighted structures that need to be demolished in the borough, which is on the National Register of Historic Districts. Order a Print

CHARLEROI – It’s always a challenge in Charleroi to tap into federal funds to tear down a building, whether it’s a one-room shack or an abandoned historic hotel.

The borough is unique in the region because every square inch of the town is protected under state and federal historic preservation laws, which always trigger a costly study to record a building’s history before moving forward with demolishing blight when the Washington County Redevelopment Authority takes the lead.

“They want to tear down 20 structures. We can’t afford recordations for all of these problems,” said Nathan Voytek, a community development specialist the authority has assigned to Charleroi, where a large swath of property has received protection since 2007 under the National Register of Historic Districts program. The rest of the town has been deemed eligible for the register, meaning the same protection applies. The borough was approved for the register for its architecture representing the late-Victorian period to the Roaring Twenties.

Voytek said the state Historical and Museum Commission, which steps in to mitigate when Charleroi blight is slated for removal, has indicated it understands the borough’s issues with abandoned properties and believes there is some flexibility to the preservation laws that apply to the borough.

The borough is planning to meet with the PHMC, redevelopment authority and local historical society to get a better definition on how to lower the cost of the recordation process while still taking the time to document a building’s history to better serve the community, Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson said.

“We want to have something with a lasting value rather than just create a file to set on a shelf,” Henderson said. “They realize we’re burdened.”

“We don’t want to be an obstruction,” added PHMC spokesman Howard Pollman.

The redevelopment authority announced its decision to step back from paying a consultant in the future to create a historic documentation in Charleroi before demolition after spending nearly $8,000 to clear that hurdle at the PHMC to tear down the historic, three-story Columbus Hotel at Third Street and McKean Avenue. A company has been awarded a $50,000 contract to tear down the hotel in two months.

The building has a rich history, but it was purchased three times on the Internet by corporations that are difficult to locate, Henderson said. It fell victim to arson and other deterioration to the point it has become a hazard.

It was built in the early 1900s following a land-grab sale by David Gelb, a liquor wholesaler from Pittsburgh, who also sold to Charleroi the land where its borough building sits today, said Nikki Sheppick, chairwoman of the Charleroi Area Historical Society.

“It goes back to the beginning of Charleroi,” she said.

She said she is willing to meet with the authority and Henderson about a plan for future architectural record-keeping and hopes the end result doesn’t involve politics.

“People want to feel good about where they live,” she said.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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