Monongahela: Reviving a River Town

The city’s downtown has seen $1.2 million in new investment

Washington PA Observer-Reporter - 6 July 2015
By Scott Beveridge

MONONGAHELA – Downtown Monongahela was infested with drugs and had 14 empty storefronts when Bob Kepics assumed the mayor’s office in the small city seven years ago.

It wasn’t uncommon then for business owners to find used heroin syringes on sidewalks before opening their doors in the morning, merchants here said.

 “It was bad back then, with a corrupt police department,” Kepics said Monday as the city’s Main Street experiences an economic revival in an otherwise depressed Mon Valley.

Shortly after taking office, Kepics enlisted then-Washington County district attorney Steve Toprani to aggressively make heroin and other drug arrests in Monongahela, including that of a local police officer who eventually served time in jail as a result of the investigations.

“Our streets are clean,” Kepics said.

More than $1.8 million in public and private money has been invested in the historic downtown since 2011 to remodel a riverfront stage, improve a small park and create new shops, city records indicate.

Much of that money was used to overhaul the Noble J. Dick Aquatorium off Second Street, including the addition of docks that now draw people enjoying the river into downtown, Kepics said.

“It’s a safe town. We need to keep it safe,” said Claudia Williams, who owns the independent C.J’s. Furniture Co. on Main Street.

 “Business promotes business,” Williams said. “You want to invest in a town that has activity. You don’t want in a town with a bunch of empty storefronts.”
There are now only three empty storefronts in town, Kepics said.

Williams also oversees a nonprofit organization that is in its second year of hosting concerts at the stage, events that draw as many as 70 pleasure boats each Saturday.

The June 23 concert resulted in a line of people down a sidewalk wanting a table at Angelo’s II restaurant on Third Street, Williams said.

“When have you ever seen that?” she said.

Kepics said the improvements in the police department are largely credited for the turnaround in Monongahela’s business zone.

Upon taking office, he named a new police chief who created a “wall of shame” in the police department to log the many drug arrests officers were making.

Monongahela has sustained four bank branches while nearby Donora lost all of its banks, Kepics said.

Advance Auto Parts is nearing completion of a new store in the 1200 block of West Main Street, not far from where local developer Jim Pelissero built a small strip mall that attracted seven new businesses, Kepics said. An Allstate Insurance agent relocated into the former Daily-Herald newspaper building in the 400 block of West Main Street. The city also has become known for its seven antique and collectibles stores, he said.

“We’re moving ahead while other towns are ripping down buildings,” Kepics said.

Brian Britza, an owner of the Mod on Main vintage shop, said Monongahela has atmosphere and small business owners who cooperate with each other.

“We love it,” Britza said. “We support each other, and that means a lot to us.”