Tube City Almanac

May 13, 2008

The Shrill Voice of the People

Category: Sarcastic? Moi? || By

Sometimes commenting on local news is like shooting fish in a barrel:

. . .

All Fall Down: The building that collapsed on Sixth Avenue last week was owned by something called "Comfort Air Products Inc.," which according to the Daily News has not returned repeated calls seeking comment.

"Comfort Air Products" is actually the Edward L. Kemp Co. on West Fifth Avenue, which as the Almanac has reported before, owns many derelict or dilapidated buildings in the city, including, according to Allegheny County records, the Penn-McKee Hotel.

Kemp's advertising plays up its long heritage in McKeesport. It brags that the company has been "heating and cooling the Mon Valley since 1888."

But allowing buildings throughout the Downtown area to deteriorate --- and fall down --- doesn't do the city or the Mon Valley any good.

If you're installing or repairing an air conditioner this summer, and you call Kemp, ask them why they own so many buildings in the Mon Valley ... and also ask why you should spend your money with them instead of someone else.

No, McKeesport isn't a great market for real estate development, but it seems unlikely that (for instance) the Penn-McKee site --- one block from the marina and the Palisades, and next to the Jerome Avenue Bridge --- is completely unmarketable.

. . .

Les Taxis de la Médiocrité: A French company has acquired Allegheny County's principal taxi operator:

Veolia Transportation is the North American arm of Veolia Transport, based in Paris. Founded more than 150 years ago, Veolia operates cabs, buses, rail and maritime transportation services in 25 countries and employs more than 72,000. The North American unit does business in 18 U.S. states, including major markets such as Boston, Denver and Baltimore.

Pittsburgh Transportation, based in Manchester, is the county's largest privately held transportation group. It operates 685 cabs, limos and buses; employs more than 300 people; and engages 450 independent contractor/drivers. It also owns Peoples Cab, Express Shuttle, Embassy Coach/Limousine Service, Star Paratransit, PTG Charter Services and Freedom Coach.

There are several things to note here.

First, taxi service in Allegheny County is terrible. It's almost impossible to "hail" a cab in Pittsburgh, even at one of the hotels.

Instead, you have to call and make a reservation (usually with Yellow Cab, which has almost no competition), but they don't always show up, especially if you're not going someplace they want to go.

And forget about getting a cab from the Mon Valley, unless you're going to the airport. They won't come here. That's why illegal jitney services thrive in McKeesport (the big gathering spot is across from the Foodland at Fifth and Coursin) and other communities.

Because Yellow Cab already bites the wax tadpole, it's hard to imagine that their service is going to get any worse.

That's good news, because Veolia doesn't have a great track record around here. As the Almanac noted back in January, Veolia is the operator of the sewage treatment plant in Elizabeth Township, which has been dumping millions of gallons of untreated human waste into the Youghiogheny River.

In fact, officials from the Municipal Authority of the City of McKeesport are now in negotiations to take over sewage treatment in Elizabeth Township.

Maybe MACM should get ready to take over the taxi franchise, too. "Today the toilets, tomorrow the taxis! Viva McKeesport!"

. . .

Whatever Floats Your Train: Meanwhile, sewage isn't the only thing that goes down the drain. So does tax money. Last week, local high school students were given a tour of Maglev Inc.'s labs at the city's industrial park:
"Floating trains ... sounds like science fiction!" South Fayette High School sophomore Eric Wise declared when he and other gifted students visited Maglev Inc. facilities in McKeesport.

"Well, I saw the work with my own eyes," he said after touring the RIDC Park shop that holds the first 22-foot-long sections of guideway ever built in the United States for a magnetically-levitated, high-speed train line.

Sorry, kid, but it's still fiction. Despite millions of dollars of taxpayer money, Maglev Inc. has not produced as much as a kiddieland train at Kennywood. After more than a decade of "work," they don't have a single public demonstration site.

Worse, private money is exiting the magnetic-levitation business. While the kids were goggling at the Maglev dog-and-pony show, two of Germany's biggest manufacturing companies announced they were abandoning their own maglev efforts.

The partnership between ThyssenKrupp AG and Siemens AG has developed only one operational maglev train line, in Shanghai, China ... and those trains run 80 percent empty, according to the Asia Times.

Reports the newspaper: "Travelers often complain that the maglev train doesn't really drop them off anywhere convenient and they still have to take a taxi to their destinations."

When big companies can't make a technology successful and abandon its development, it's usually a sign that technology is not commercially viable.

Yet the U.S. Congress wants to invest another $90 million for "nationwide research and development of maglev technology."

Though McKeesport gets positive press from being affiliated with magnetic-levitation technology, there might be better places to spend $90 million in public money.

. . .

It Should Have Been Orange: Speaking of passengers not going anywhere, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has developed a new logo in response to a directive from Gov. Ed Rendell that all state agencies incorporate a keystone into their symbols.

The Almanac suggested a logo to PennDOT, but our idea (crossed shovels in a cluster of potholes) was completely ignored.

Your Comments are Welcome!

Speaking of logos, why does the Almanac not have one. All of my favorites are listed with logos, except the Almanac.
John - May 13, 2008

OK, check now. You should see a certain fuzzy orange and black animal.
Webmaster - May 13, 2008

John - May 13, 2008


I am not one to typically criticize your investigative journalism skills but I do have a few points to make concerning the Edward L. Kemp Company.

1) I contacted Mike Kemp and Pete Kemp, at the behest of Mayor Brewster, the day of the building’s collapse. Pete, the man behind “Comfort Air Products”, once contacted was quick to take responsibility for the costs of the building demolition. I had not problem reaching he or Mike that day.
There have been similar circumstances in the past. I remember during the Bendel administration, a deserted structure fell and caused damage to Willigs. The city was unable to get any money from that building’s owner and had to pay for demolition out of the General Fund, costing taxpayer dollars.
Mr. Kemp’s quick and honorable action in this situation should be lauded.

2) Mr. Pete Kemp no longer owns the Penn Mckee Hotel. He signed it over to a non-profit religious group that intends or at least intended to put a religious school in the building.
I recently set up a conference call between Mr. Kemp, Mayor Brewster and several of my fellow Councilors who have issues with the Penn Mckee building. He explained the situation and the buildings transfer to us City officials. Mayor Brewster was to contact the gentlemen who now represents the religious group that owns title to the building. That is the last I heard about the situation as of about month or so ago.

Personally, I believe that if someone had the money, that the Penn Mckee could be restored as a quaint set of shops. I expect more traffic not less in that area of town in the future
and would like to see such a historic structure, host of the then Senator Kennedy-Nixon debate preserved and restored.

I understand that there is a consensus in town that Mr. Kemp had let some properties go. I have no first hand knowledge of that personally. I do know that the Kemp’s have invested substantial dollars in rehabbing several structures and have been good landlords to several tenants I know personally.

3) Realize too that the Kemps have operated a business, employed people and paid taxes in McKeesport for over 100 years. We should be thankful that they have made such an investment in Mckeesport.

I personally have never heard a single complaint about their work in roofing or heating and air. I have a Kemp furnace in my basement and anytime I have had a problem, their response and service has been excellent.

Mike Kemp has been a good friend to me for over twenty years. I find him to be a good citizen and business person. Mr. Pete Kemp is one of the brightest individuals I know and has often mentored me in different business, personal and political matters free of charge.

I can remember a situation where CSX was giving money to folks in the 10th Ward area for increased noise and traffic on their line. The Kemp’s did have some older structures and there and were entitled to a substantial sum of cash. Rather than take the cash, they made a deal whereas the City received a portion of their proceeds to tear the structures down and take ownership of the lots. I believe the rest of the money due them went into the pool that was received by 10th Ward residents.

Had the Kemps been the “slumlords” I have heard them accused of being, wouldn’t they have just pocketed the largert sum and let the structures stand? I don’t remember their graciousness being reported in any of the local media at that time.

Few folks ever stop to hear the other side of the story. I hope I have enlightened a few of your readers. I personally am proud to call the Kemps my friends and find them to be very big proponents of McKeesport.

Paul Shelly Jr.
Mckeesport City Council
Paul Shelly Jr. (URL) - May 14, 2008

Councilor, thanks for your post.

A couple of quick thoughts:

. . .

1.) You mention that few folks ever stop to hear the “other side of the story.”

Well, in this case, Ray Pefferman and the Daily News asked for the “other side of the story” several times. That was certainly the time for these folks to tell their side.

. . .

2.) I appreciate the fact that the family’s business keeps many people employed, and pays taxes to the city, county and MASD. We don’t have enough entrepreneurs in the area, and those who survive and thrive deserve praise.

But I’ve also been in the position of trying to get a landlord of a neighboring property in McKeesport to take care of an abandoned building. It makes it impossible to get fire insurance for your own building or attract tenants/customers.

If I lived next to one of these dilapidated buildings, I don’t think I’d feel as charitable as you do.

After all, Wivagg Printing Co. and City Finance are also business that have been around for many, many years. They pay taxes and have employees, too.

And they were both adversely affected by the collapse of the building on Sixth Avenue. I’ll bet they don’t feel the landlord was “gracious.”

. . .

3.) Perhaps the Penn-McKee has been turned over to the religious group, or is in the process, but county records still indicate that ownership hasn’t changed. If the records are out of date, I’m willing to concede that point.

. . .

4.) I remember well the collapse of the Hunter Building, which damaged Frank Striffler’s property and destroyed one of his buildings:

But the landlord of a building is obligated to pay for damages caused by their property. It’s their legal responsibility, not something they do out of charity.

. . .

Again, I have a lot of respect for you, and I appreciate your advocacy for your friends. I also know that the Kemps have a good reputation in the HVAC business; I know plenty of people who are satisfied customers.

But abandoned buildings are a blight on the Mon Valley and a drain on the taxpayers and responsible property owners.

If someone has an abandoned building, or one that they can’t do anything with, then they need to swallow hard and tear ‘em down, or sell ‘em to someone who can do something with them.
Webmaster - May 14, 2008

Regardless, there are entirely too many property owners who allow their buildings to deteriorate in the entire Ohio River watershed. Municipal officials need to do their jobs and step up enforcement of blight ordinances. This area is downright unsightly.
Scott Beveridge (URL) - May 14, 2008


Thanks for posting my response.

I agree that owner’s are responsible for taking care of and taking down, if neccessary, their buildings. We can’t get enough such structures torn down and unfortunately, there is typically no owner to go after or money to get if there is.

I have a condemned building right across the street from me that has been aboandoned for at about 15 years, another two doors up on Patterson that literally has trees growing in it. I can relate.

We as a city need to start thinking out of the box more and cut through all the red tape from getting builings taken care of. I have an idea I’m working on to get more of them rehabbed and less demolished. I don’t have all the details worked out yet but how about attracting folks to Mckeesport by offering them an abandoned home for a dollar that they promise to revamp and owner occupy within 6 to 12 months. We can inrease our tax base, get properties back on the rolls and add to our population that way.

When a city is operating at a deficit, as we are, it is difficult if not nearly impossible to keep up with all the blighted structures in town. They pop up almost every day.

On the Penn Mckee, you are correct. The County still shows the Kemp address on the tax rolls. That is an error. Pete transferred the corporation, SeaBee, which owns the building approximately two years ago. He and Kemps are out of that loop.

In closing, with all due respect to Ray at the Daily News, who I believe is a great addition to their staff, Pete Kemp had no record of him calling. It is possible he did. Pete was indisposed that day until late afternoon and as soon as he was available, he contacted Mayor Brewster and gave him the new he would cover the demo costs.

One final point, he could have hid behind the corporation that owned the building and not dipped into his personal assets to pay for the building demo. That is why folks incorporate.

He didn’t. He paid.

Enough said.

Thanks for expressing my views. I still like you.

Paul "Sluggo" Shellly (URL) - May 14, 2008

I clicked the PennDOT logo story and read the new logo cost $110,000 to design. ONE HUNDRED TEN THOUSAND FREAKING DOLLARS for a little rearranging of the elements of a graphic?!?!?!?
This kind of stuff shouldn’t make me angry, but it does.
Yer Ol' Boss - May 14, 2008

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