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Arts center kicks off remodeling of building

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Kimberly Kweder
For the Tribune-Review
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Inside a vast and empty room, the Rev. Regis Ryan walks along the dusty, old, wooden floors with his eyes scanning the white walls, blue ceiling and railings that line a balcony.
Another room adjacent to the right is nothing but a gutted ceiling, a floor full of broken pieces of material.

“This building is beautiful,” said Ryan, director of Focus on Renewal Inc. “Everyone agrees this is fantastic.”

It’s beautiful, he said, because a $3.4 million dollar remodeling project at the bare, three-story furniture store will transform it into art studios, offices, classrooms, a 125-seat theatre and space for a wide variety of social gatherings.

The Sto-Rox Cultural Arts Center at 420 Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks will bring the visual, performing and literary arts together for all ages.

A partnership between the Community Outreach Partnership Center at Point Park University and Focus on Renewal developed two years ago to work toward revitalizing McKees Rocks. They are spreading the word to neighbors, foundations and state and local officials to promote the need for an arts center.

A kickoff event Sept. 13 at the center gave residents of the Sto-Rox School District, Community Outreach Partnership Center participants and public officials an opportunity to view the design plans. Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, McKees Rocks Mayor Jack Muhr and representatives from State Sen. Wayne Fontana’s office also supported the cause.

“I think it opens doors and is certainly a cultural value to the whole region. I understand the arts are growing, and I think it’s a good thing for everyone,” said Fontana, D-Brookline, who toured the facility with Ryan months before any work was done on it.

Work started over the summer.

“Everybody’s excited about this … It’s a valuable addition to the town,” Ryan said.

“We hope it brings life and vibrancy to the neighborhood,” said Sister Sarah Crotty, an Aliquippa resident who works with Focus on Renewal as part of her ministry through the Sisters of St. Joseph, based in Baden.

Focus on Renewal Inc. still needs to obtain a large chunk of funding for the project.

The Allegheny County Department of Economic Development approved a $470,659 grant for interior upgrades last May. However, Ryan said, about $3 million more is needed for the entire project.

For the past two years, a handful of Point Park students and adjunct faculty have volunteered with the Community Outreach Partnership Center. They provide afterschool programs for Sto-Rox School Districts students that teach theatre, dance and music from the students. At the end of every session, students registered in the program perform on stage and show off their skills.

About 100 students have registered for the program this semester, said Pat Moran, Community Outreach Partnership Center director.

“It’s been increasing about 10 to 15 percent every semester,” Moran said.

“It has sparked enthusiasm in the community, and adults have been begging for programs for themselves, too. The community is anxious to get the doors open (of the cultural center).”

Ryan said he is optimistic the center will open next fall.

Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corp. and a third-generation resident of the area, said the arts center will act as a catalyst for other projects to start.

“The arts center is a huge start to the revitalization process. It’s symbolic because it involves the people’s heart, mind and soul and creates a place for residents to come together.”

Arlene Lichy, 55, a Sto-Rox resident, said she’s going to use the center when it opens. Lichy has displayed her artwork at a gallery in Lawrenceville and said the center will provide her another venue. Lichy also said her 10-year-old grandson loves art, and she hopes he and other youngsters will be able to take classes at the center.

“This is a poor community, and we’re looking for something positive to look forward to,” Lichy said. “It just takes a lot of persistence, lots of money, though.”

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