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July 30, 2007 | Link to this story

Development Opportunity on Beacon Street

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The fate of one of the city's oldest surviving places of worship is in the hands of an Italian "playboy millionaire" best known for squiring actress Anne Hathaway around Hollywood --- and for being sued by Penguins owner Ron Burkle.

The former St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Magyar Church on Beacon Street was purchased in January by a limited-liability corporation controlled by Raffaello Follieri, whose family's close ties with the Vatican have enabled him to purchase hundreds of closed churches across the United States.

St. Stephen's Parish merged with St. Pius V Parish in 1994; the church was permanently closed five years ago this month after the death of longtime pastor Rev. Stephen Kato. (Additional photos are available in Tube City Online's photo gallery.)

St. Stephen's was one of 10 closed churches that companies with ties to Follieri purchased from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2007. Another was St. Nicholas along Route 28 in Pittsburgh, the nation's first Croatian Catholic church. The St. Nicholas acquisition may make it difficult or impossible for former parishioners to preserve the structure for use as a national Croatian-American heritage center.

. . .

Church Sales Nationwide: The Follieri Group is buying properties from dioceses to "renovate them" and "convert them to new uses" including housing or commercial businesses, according to a 2006 article in the National Catholic Reporter. The St. Stephen's property includes the sanctuary, erected in 1899; the neighboring school, built in 1931; a single-family house that served as the rectory; and three smaller out-buildings.

The exact value of the sale isn't clear from county real-estate records available online. The county's website lists only a "multi-parcel sale" to Follieri by the Diocese for $60,000.

It's not evident if Follieri paid $60,000 for each of the six parcels, or in total, but RealSTATs, the Pittsburgh-based company that tracks real-estate sales in Allegheny County, lists only one sale on Beacon Street to Follieri's company.

If Follieri paid only $60,000 for the entire complex, it was a bargain. Tax records assess the property's value at $237,600, including $194,600 for the church. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Church purchases by Follieri have helped some declining inner-city areas. In Atlantic City, N.J., Follieri's purchase of a church and school that were vacant for 20 years have cleared the way for the property to be redeveloped as housing for casino workers, according to NCR. .

. . .

Controversy: But Follieri's redevelopment plans for local churches have also been controversial. In Philadelphia, the former Transfiguration Church was supposed to be renovated for use as an arts and cultural center, while housing was slated for neighboring land.

It hasn't materialized, and according to a June 12, 2006 article in the Philadelphia Daily News (not online) neighbors say the Follieri Group is letting the property fall into disrepair.

Follieri's business methods are also attracting scrutiny. One of his early American backers in the church redevelopment was Burkle, a Los Angeles billionaire who invested $105 million in the venture in 2005, and who also owns the Penguins along with Mario Lemieux.

In April, one of Burkle's companies sued Follieri in Delaware, accusing the Follieri group of "willfully and systemically misappropriating" $1.3 million for his own use, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Gossip columnists have tittered over allegations that Follieri spent the money to finance his own lifestyle, including a penthouse apartment in Manhattan and five-star hotels and restaurants for himself and Hathaway, who had star roles in the movies The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada.

. . .

Influence Peddling?: More than a few critics also question whether the Follieri Group has used undue influence on the Vatican to purchase properties below market value. Andrea Sodano is a vice president of the Follieri Group; according to NCR, he's also the nephew of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State from 1991 to 2006, and dean of the College of Cardinals.

As one commenter noted on a blog maintained by Domenico Bettinelli, editor of Catholic World Report, "If this business endeavor involved Donald Trump and not Princes of the Church, words like influence peddling, arm-twisting and kick-backs would be bandied about." Follieri has denied that, saying that the younger Sodano is a merely an engineer who works on the technical side of the company.

It's not just Follieri's church redevelopment scheme that's raised eyebrows. According to the New York Post, a non-profit foundation controlled by Follieri is marketing a discount prescription plan.

Instead of distributing 5 million cards last year as it promised, it passed out only 300,000. The Follieri Foundation also promised to make grants for Catholic education, senior housing and day care. The Post says the Foundation had not made a single grant in those areas as of June 2007.

And one of Follieri's companies is marketing a special Visa credit card that's supposed to contribute 1 percent of the user's purchases to a Church missionary society. No money has yet been donated, the Post says.

. . .

Buyer Wanted: Where does all of this leave St. Stephen's? Pittsburgh commercial real-estate broker Grubb & Ellis is listing the complex for $225,000. An ad on the company's website says it would be ideally suited for "group living, personal care, institution, school or day care." (PDF)

Though zoned for residential use, the property adjoins a commercial district along Evans Avenue and is only a half-block from the campus of UPMC McKeesport Hospital. Presumably it could be rezoned.

Churches in the City of Pittsburgh have been reused for restaurants and bed-and-breakfast style inns; McKeesport's location along the Youghiogheny River Trail would seem to make a bed-and-breakfast for hikers and bikers feasible, and the nearby hospital would also provide some customers.

Unfortunately, no one has shown any interest in doing something like that in McKeesport.

It also seems that the school could be reused as a personal care facility or day care facility, but the church building is problematic without extensive renovations. Most developers would be happier to tear it down.

In the meantime, according to the signs there's a "development opportunity" on Beacon Street, adjacent to a major hospital, next to public transportation, near the McKees' Point Marina and the Yough River Trail.

Maybe someone will buy it and make the city (and Anne Hathaway's boyfriend) very happy.

. . .

(Tip o' the Tube City hard hat to Alert Reader John M., who first informed me that St. Stephen's had been sold.)

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July 27, 2007 | Link to this story

Valley Hotel Serves Beer, Spirits

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When Chuck Corby takes the stage at the Valley Hotel near Clairton tomorrow night, some people say a few of his listeners won't touch a drop of alcohol.

They're not tee-totalers. They're the ghosts that supposedly haunt the halls of the longtime landmark in Jefferson Hills Borough, along Route 837 at Coal Valley Road. Bartenders swear that small items left behind the counter disappear for hours or days at a time, only to reappear when they're least expected, while Jo Ellen Oggier, one of the hotel's co-owners, says she's heard footsteps and seen glowing lights.

Thankfully, most of the visitors at the Valley Hotel are of the corporeal variety --- they're just looking for a cold beer and some conversation, as they have for at least a century.

. . .

How old is the hotel? Oggier, who purchased the business three years ago with her fiancÚ, William "Duel" Deemer, says she's heard it dates to the 1860s, and the rough-hewn sandstone walls in the basement look like they're from the 19th century.

But it's not listed on a 1900 map of Jefferson and Mifflin townships, even though surrounding buildings appear. Historian and photographer John Barna, who accompanied me on a recent visit, suspects the present bar and hotel were built after 1900 on the foundation of an older roadhouse.

The property has a colorful, if checkered, past. Erected by the Granger family of Scotland, who emigrated to the area in the mid-19th century, the hotel served passengers of the Pittsburgh, Virginia & Charleston Railroad, miners who worked the nearby coal veins, and crews of the riverboats that plied the Monongahela between Brownsville and the Ohio River.

According to Barna, at one time a ferry boat plied the river between Glassport and a nearby boat landing; tethered to a cable from one bank to another, it was pulled along by horses on the shore.

Oggier isn't sure how the Hotel Granger survived Prohibition, but she's been told by older residents that the bar was converted into a grocery store. Frankly, she thinks harder refreshments were sold, too, if you knew who to ask, and there are also rumors that the sleeping rooms upstairs were used for paid entertainment by the "world's oldest profession." (No, not farming.)

New England Road originally passed to the east of the hotel, but a road-improvement project sometime before World War II relocated the highway to the west, and the hotel's entrance shifted from the front to the back.

Improvements to state Route 837 and the opening of U.S. Steel's Irvin Works in 1937 provided the Valley Hotel with a steady stream of thirsty and tired truck-driving customers, but the development of "sleeper cabs" for tractor-trailers limited the traffic, and eventually it developed a reputation as a biker hangout.

Deemer and Oggier have told seedier former customers they're no longer welcome. They're cleaning up the rest of the hotel, too, removing layers of plaster, paneling and lath added by previous owners during at least two remodeling projects, one in the 1960s and another following a fire in the 1970s.

One regret is the loss of the original bar, which was torn out in the 1960s. "They probably cut it up for firewood," Oggier says. "It almost makes me want to cry."

Several of the sleeping rooms were unused for years; Oggier found a neatly-folded blanket on one bed that had sat in the same place so long it had gone yellow with age. Those are being renovated, too, and though truckers, railroad workers and tourists are welcome to stay, many tenants wind up being people who need a room but can't afford three months' rent for an apartment.

. . .

Most of the action these days is on the first floor, where the bar is friendly and comfortable, and the beer is cold. The newest addition is the well-lit stage, elevated behind the bar so that everyone in the small dining room gets an up-close and personal view.

Oggier and Deemer kept construction hidden from regular patrons until the stage was finished, then crews worked all night to demolish a wall and unveil the performance area for the next day.

Fridays are "open mike nights," when area bands are invited to try out; the Valley Hotel is booking professional acts on Saturdays. Deemer, a bassist and guitarist of some notoriety around the Mon Valley, is known to take the stage too, using one of his collection of guitars.

As for the ghosts? Volunteer investigators from the Pittsburgh Paranormal Society spent a night there recently. According to their report, the hotel is "definitely haunted," and they contend that a mirror threw itself onto the floor and shattered during their visit.

Barna and I didn't see any ghosts --- perhaps spirits aren't impressed by freelance journalists/historians and didn't think we were worth their time --- but we did enjoy the visit. And while we didn't get a chance to have any food, the Valley Hotel does have a kitchen with "bar food" --- burgers, fries, wings and other specials.

If you're down around Clairton or Dravosburg, you might want to scare up some friends and visit. Maybe the Valley Hotel will become your regular haunt.

. . .

The Valley Hotel will hold a motorcycle "fun run" to benefit the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Free Care Fund on Sunday, Aug. 26, beginning at 10 a.m. and concluding at Clairton Park, Pavilion No. 2, where there will be concerts by Chuck Corby & Quiet Storm, Three-Hour Tour, and the Warehouse Blues Band. There will be food, beer and prizes. People who don't own motorcycles are welcome to attend the concerts, too. Tickets are $20 per person or $30 for couples. Register at the bar, 1004 New England Road, Jefferson Hills, (412) 233-9800.

To Do This Weekend: Chuck Corby at the Valley Hotel, Saturday night. (See above.)

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