Blight a major issue facing rural communities
Marianna Borough sits quietly, unobtrusively in southeastern Washington County, a small town dozens of miles from an appreciable population base. But it is one with a burning history. The borough was built on coal, and sustained by coal for eight decades. Construction of Marianna Mine in the early 20th century resulted in a facility hailed as one of the most modern and best equipped in the world.
Brick homes were erected nearby, properties that were the envy of other communities. A number of them endure today, and comprise the Marianna Historic District, so designated by the Washington County History & Landmarks Foundation. Grimy mine or not, this was a nice community.
Now it is a case study in rural blight.
Urban blight is a widely recognized concept, associated mostly with large cities, but afflicting smaller urban areas such as Washington, Monessen, Donora and Charleroi. Yet blight is a profound challenge in rural, sparsely populated areas as well.
Like a number of similar municipalities in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties – known familiarly as “old coal patch towns” – Marianna is dealing with dozens of abandoned and neglected properties, absentee landlords, crime and safety concerns, a diminished tax base and a heap of filth.
Some towns are working diligently to address these issues, working in tandem with their respective county redevelopment authorities. But acquiring sufficient funding to alleviate these problems can be a challenge. Washington County commissioner Larry Maggi said point blank, “Blight is such a problem, and it’s difficult to find funding for it.”
Marianna, however, has gotten money to strike back. The borough recently received $100,000 from the county’s Local Share Account to address blight. The borough is in the process of clearing 21 blighted properties, which includes demolishing dilapidated structures. Thirteen had been cleaned up through Thursday. A.W. McNabb of Burgettstown and McKees Rocks is handling the demolition.
“We want to get these properties on the tax rolls while restoring a lot of beauty to our community,” Councilman Wes Silva said after receiving a ceremonial oversized check from the county commissioners.
“You can get so much more in tax dollars with something other than an empty lot,” said Jeremy Berardinelli, a council colleague of Silva.
Ensuring safety is another integral element of that equation. Silva was one of three council members who recounted a chilling near-tragedy a couple of years ago, when bricks fell from a dilapidated borough structure, nearly striking a young child.
The goal, Silva said, is to find buyers for blighted properties that have been cleared. He pointed out that about a half-dozen homeowners have expressed interest in buying adjacent lots, in essence expanding their properties. One Oklahoma Street resident wants two cleared properties, a neighboring one on each side.
Recent history has not been kind to Marianna. The mine operated until 1988, when a fire on the main conveyor ultimately forced Bethlehem Steel to shut down the colliery. An industry that had largely sustained Marianna for four generations was gone, and there hasn’t been an abundance of career opportunities otherwise. The borough lost nearly one-third of its residents between 1980 and 1990, and another 20 percent between 1990 and 2010.
Its estimated population in 2016 was 475, well below its 1930 peak of 1,762. A drain like this makes a town susceptible to bad things, a plight confronting other communities in the region.
“All of these old coal mining communities are dealing with the same things,” said Maryann Kubacki, East Bethlehem Township secretary. Her municipality has been involved in a number of redevelopment endeavors, the crown jewel being the Fredericktown Gateway project along the Monongahela River.
The intent of the project, part of the Mon River Town Program, is to create an attractive access to the river for local residents and visitors. A long-abandoned service station was demolished and the space will be used to enhance the canoe and kayak launch. An LSA award of $24,200 will address accessibility improvements, including parking and sidewalk. Phase I has not begun.
“Our hope is to do something with the riverfront,” Kubacki said. “We have no industry, no university. We have the river.”
East Beth has demolished nine residential structures over the past four years, and according to Kubacki; a house and two duplexes in the Vestaburg neighborhood and a house in Millsboro will be coming down soon. She said the Washington County Land Bank has purchased a house in the township, but rehabilitation hasn’t started.
Independence and Chartiers townships and McDonald Borough are among other Washington County municipalities tackling blight. Brenda Williamson, community development senior director for the county redevelopment authority, reported in an email that over the past six years, Independence has demolished six residential structures and McDonald, five. Chartiers, she added, has demolished five homes over the past two years.
Greene County is certainly immersed in this quandary. “We are one of the poorest among the 67 counties (in Pennsylvania), and with that comes a number of challenges. Blight represents a lot of them,” said David Calvario, executive director of the Greene County Redevelopment Authority.
“Our coal patch communities have really seen a hit – vacant houses, abandoned houses. People who grew up here in the ‘50s and ‘60s wanted something better and moved away. There was no market for houses, so they let them go.
“We also have a huge problem with absentee landlords. They have done nothing, nothing, nothing about (the properties). That has really set us back.”
There are 26 municipalities in Greene – 20 townships, six boroughs. Calvario said the county has eight to 10 “old coal patch towns,” including Crucible, a village in Cumberland Township. Crucible has 225 to 250 houses “and probably 10 percent are blighted,” Calvario said. “Something has to be done.”
He acknowledged that the county has made progress combating blight, but added, “We have to stop the bleeding.”
That is a notable objective, but one that is not easily or inexpensively achieved.