- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

ALIQUIPPA, Pa. (AP) - The seeds of a brighter future have been planted.

Now, it’s up to the people of Aliquippa to make it happen, Mayor Dwan Walker said.

“Truly the future lies with the people. It starts and ends with the people of Aliquippa,” he said.

All 9,438 of them, give or take a few births and deaths. They live on 192 roads and 52 alleys in 4.4 square miles of land along the Ohio River in the hilly heart of the Rust Belt.

Walker rattles off those figures as he would his birthday and Social Security number. They’re important to him because he’s the leader of the place he loves, and that love is evident in any conversation with him.

“I love the city with my whole heart,” Walker said. “I know the possibility is there for it to happen. I know there’s people that want the same thing I want. The possibility that I can make a difference keeps me smiling.”

He’s the face of the city, and most of the time, he’s smiling and exuding enthusiasm like a street preacher.

“If you want something done, we’ll do the best we can with what we have,” Walker said.

Therein lies the rub: “What we have” isn’t enough these days, and it hasn’t been enough for all of Walker’s adult life.

He’s 40 and grew up as the steel mills that built the town were leaving.

The demise of the city’s industrial base also meant it lost its tax revenue and the reason people called Aliquippa home. Since 1987, the city has had the dubious distinction of being a distressed municipality under state Act 47, a law that created a recovery program that’s helped 29 municipalities stay afloat. Of those, only nine have exited the program, something Aliquippa officials hope to do within the next five years.

Looking backward

In the 1960s, Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.’s Aliquippa Works along the Ohio River employed around 14,000 people, and there were other smaller mills that made unemployment essentially nonexistent in the city and much of western Pennsylvania.

But in the 1980s, as the mills left, Aliquippa was particularly hard hit and the city felt the same pain as its residents when J&L;’s successor, LTV Corp., appealed its tax assessment in 1985, reducing it from $19 million to $9.5 million and delivering a major drop in taxes for the city, according to a history of the city’s decline in its recovery plan.

Making matters worse, the 1987 city budgeting process didn’t immediately reflect the change. Instead of getting $338,000 in taxes from the mill, the city got $96,000, leaving city coffers bare and making the need for state help under Act 47 immediate.

In 1988, the city got a $460,000 emergency loan to address unpaid bills and meet part of its operating expenses. The city then also implemented a two-tier taxing system, where it could tax vacant land higher than property with buildings on it.

“It’s been slowly crawling out of a hole that wasn’t its own making,” said resident Robert Steffes, a corporate pilot who lives in and has taken an interest in city operations.

Making progress

Recovery coordinators appointed by the state have repeatedly noted how Aliquippa has made significant strides toward improvement, but the city has never quite been able to clear the bar of solvency needed to exit Act 47.

The city has made a host of improvements with each recovery plan update, from staff and management to financial software and tracking systems.

The city has attracted businesses along the way, such as United States Gypsum creating a facility along the Ohio River in the Aliquippa Industrial Park, located on part of the former J&L; site. The company had a tax break, but that abatement has ended, so more revenue has come back to city coffers.

Some of those new businesses have meant significant changes to Franklin Avenue, including a child-care center with new playground equipment called Today’s Kidz, a faith-based coffee shop called Uncommon Grounds Cafe that people swarm to, and a bookstore called eQuip Books that opened last year near St. Titus Catholic Parish.

Edward “Tim” Thompson, who grew up in an area of the city known as Logstown, sees somewhat of a reawakening for the city.

He works as a maintenance man for the Franklin Center of Beaver County, a nonprofit that provides everything from youth summer programs to homeless assistance, and he hopes the city could regain some of its former glory.

“I’m not expecting everything I had as a kid,” he said, adding that he does see Shell Chemicals’ potential multibillion-dollar petrochemical plant in Potter Township creating spillover effects for Aliquippa, like the addition of a laundromat or grocery store.

He said that, like the J&L; mill, the possible cracker plant is being built from the ground up.

The city’s latest Act 47 recovery plan was adopted in 2014. Revisions to Act 47 itself that passed last year imposed a five-year timeline to exit the program. The timeline can be extended, but it is the state’s effort to winnow the list of Act 47 communities.

Key city staff in Aliquippa admit reservations about when the city could exit Act 47.

City administrator Sam Gill said last month the city cannot leave the program yet. He doesn’t see the city exiting the program in 2016, but he does see it as a possibility in 2019 or before that time.

While the Act 47 plan has scores of recommended changes for the city to complete, Gill has a one-page checklist of priorities, some of which were completed.

Many others are in the process of being completed, like one that says the city plans to work toward an exit for the program beginning in 2016 to be completed in 2018 to 2019.

Other items remaining on the checklist range from specific to broad. One item says the city will create a committee to study the process of moving to a regional fire service. Another items says it will “develop strategies” to control pension and post-retirement healthcare costs.

The strides the city has made are “commendable,” state-appointed recovery coordinator Deborah Glass said in a statement.

“The recovery of a city is largely dependent on the shared vision and coordinated approach of its officials, staff, residents and recovery team,” Glass said.

Financial administrator Cheryl McFarland said major change is needed, such as significant business development for the city to be able to leave the program. Revenues basically only cover personnel costs, she said.

The changes in Act 47 also allow communities to raise the local services tax that applies to people who work within a taxing jurisdiction. The tax, which is currently $52 per person, generated nearly $86,000 for the city in 2014, McFarland said.

Now, Act 47 municipalities can raise the tax to $156, and the city is preparing to increase it to $104. People who make less than $15,600 for the year will be exempt from the tax.

The increase will help the city to generate more revenue — something that’s been limited by its property tax base, Walker said.

It could generate a $300,000 annual “nest egg” that will help fund much-needed improvements in the city, Walker said.

Short-term, the city needs the help afforded it by Act 47, Walker said.

It has allowed the city to upgrade its computer and accounting system and to map its infrastructure — something that was sorely needed — and it will allow it to pursue similar technological upgrades in other departments, Walker said.

But the city needs to shed the Act 47 moniker as soon as it can because it’s become as much a hindrance as it is a help to Aliquippa because of the negative connotations people draw from it.

“I don’t want that distinction,” Walker said. “It’s like a road block.”

Looking for an exit

Exiting the program would be an achievement for Aliquippa, as only one-third of the municipalities that have been helped by Act 47 have been able to leave, something that Stephen Fehr, a researcher for the Pew Charitable Trusts, noted when he testified before the Legislature last year before the changes to the law imposing the timeline for exit were adopted.

“That should create a sense of urgency for cities to resolve their distress,” Fehr said.

But it may not make a difference, University of Pittsburgh professor David Miller said.

Miller teaches in Pitt’s Center for Metropolitan Studies, and he’s familiar with the plight of Act 47 communities — many of which are former mill towns in the Pittsburgh area like Aliquippa.

Although Act 47 does some things that help places like Aliquippa stay afloat, there are other municipalities in the state that are dealing with the same issues without having the distinction of being an Act 47 community.

“Aliquippa’s problem is the same as maybe 200 municipalities in Pennsylvania,” Miller said. “The rug got pulled out from beneath them.”

“Somehow the idea they can come back is folly to me,” Miller said.

The problem isn’t something the state can solve, he said.

Instead, communities facing these problems need to evolve and find ways to make things work by cooperating with neighboring municipalities, something the Center for Metropolitan Studies has spearheaded with its Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) program, which brings leaders from Pittsburgh and the neighboring municipalities that form its urban core to foster cooperation in the new urban landscape, Miller said.

“We’ve had some good success over the last seven years,” Miller said of the program. “The idea is to start conversations.”

Still a ‘work in progress’

They are conversations Aliquippa officials are interested in having, Walker said.

“We’re open to work with everybody to make the city better. We’re reaching out to the county more than we have ever been,” Walker said. “We’re all in the same boat: The tax base has dwindled, it’s going to continue to dwindle.”

Economically, the city needs to foster “slow, steady growth,” and not another boom like the steel industry’s start was.

“You have to make them (people and businesses) want to come here,” he said. “The people of Aliquippa, we’re ready now. We understand what it takes to get us out. We know it’s going to take the masses of Aliquippa to fix Aliquippa.

“We’re still a work in progress,” Walker said. “If we come together … we have that mentality of ‘all hands on deck,’ we can be a force. My hope is that we all come together.”

He and other city officials are trying to lure a Sheetz gas station/store to town, and Walker has talked to Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe about opening a location in the city.

Walker’s also glad that Aldi has decided to reopen the former Bottom Dollar in the city as a grocery store.

“We’re happy they considered Aliquippa,” he said.

There are other “small miracles” the city has won in the last few years, and Walker’s hoping for more in the future.

“These things matter because there’s life here. The people care,” Walker said. “Economic growth can’t start without the people. They have to support what we have.”

He applauds the people who live in the city who say, “I will stay in Aliquippa and I will not leave,” he said.

“I believe our best days are ahead of us,” Walker said. “We’ve got to move the city forward.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1Ob5nqQ

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Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/

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