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In McKeesport, Marina’s Success Boosts Other Businesses, City’s Hopes

Thursday, September 09, 2010
By Candy Woodall, freelance
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The McKees Point Marina is located on Water Street in McKeesport. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Summer may be winding down but Ray Dougherty already is preparing for next season at McKees Point Marina along the Youghiogheny River.

The 200 docks are full to capacity, and the waiting list is growing, a stark difference from the 60 spots that were filled when Mr. Dougherty started as manager of the marina in McKeesport four years ago.

In addition to the solar, steel building he plans to have constructed along Water Street to house boats during the off-season using a $150,000 Growing Greener grant, growth at the marina also has led to a new boat dealer opening in McKeesport and increased revenues at McKees Cafe.

He attributes the surge at the marina to reducing rates and adding entertainment.

The marina hosts free, live entertainment every weekend.

Rates were $1,080 annually for either a 30- or 20-foot dock in 2006. Now, they are $900 per year for a 30-foot dock and $580 per year for a 20-foot dock.

Mr. Dougherty said he puts the docks in the water for the boating season to begin April 15 and takes the docks out when the season ends Oct. 15. The marina also docks 18 jet skis and keeps 11 spots open for transient boaters who can anchor at the space for $20 to $25 per day.

“We keep those prices low to encourage people to come visit McKeesport,” he said.

The marina is now self-sustaining — purchased with a $1.8 million Housing and Urban Development Authority loan in 1998 — and costs about $100,000 a year to operate, he said.

By the beginning of next season, he wants to use marina revenues to build a small park for children near the marina for the families who dock there.

He attributes the surge in family boaters to a slow economy and the other offerings of McKeesport’s waterfront — not the least of which is its use as a trail head to the Great Allegheny Passage, Steel Valley Trail and Youghiogheny River Trail.

The combination of water traffic, foot traffic and boat traffic has boosted sales by 50 percent at McKees Cafe along Water Street, which Mr. Dougherty also manages.

His cafe, which makes its own homemade bread and sells $5 lunches, has a nautical theme, including a large mural of sea life on the walls. Another wall is signed by boaters, bikers and hikers who have visited the trails from seven countries and all but five states.

“We see a lot of bikers in the morning and boaters in the evening,” he said.

Boaters who buy a yearly lease at the marina also have a membership to the McKees Cafe Clubhouse, where they can host birthday parties, graduation parties or other events for free.

Mr. Dougherty said most members are from the Mon Valley or Westmoreland County, including the communities of McKeesport, North Huntingdon and Greensburg.

The boating activity is why Pittsburgh Boat Sales opened on Water Street this summer and celebrated a grand opening a few weeks ago.

“The McKees Point Marina has a central location to Pittsburgh, and we wanted to jump into the Pittsburgh market,” said Dino Ellena, service manager.

“We noticed a growth in boating. Families seem to be forgoing a $7,000 vacation in favor of buying a boat and having many summers of vacation.

“It’s another way to help the economy here instead of going somewhere else and spending money. More people are keeping the money local.”

And that’s great news, said Dennis Pittman, McKeesport city administrator.

He hopes the city’s natural resources — as a confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers — will create other economic opportunities for the city.

He’s making plans to build a fishing pier, establish a rowing club, partner with Penn State Greater Allegheny to construct a fish hatchery and develop the waterfront with small businesses.

Seeking Hope VI grant money, he hopes to use those public funds to build a $100,000 fishing pier at 13th Street along the Youghiogheny River next year.

“I may be dreaming a little because we’re rich in ideas and poor in dollars,” Mr. Pittman said. “But there’s no doubt we need to take advantage of what we have.”

When the Army Corps of Engineers is finished with its work on the Braddock Dam and eliminates the Elizabeth Dam, McKeesport will have a 20-mile pool of free-flowing water to use, doubling the 10-mile pool it has now.

Those changes also will cause the Youghiogheny to rise about 5 feet, according to Mr. Pittman, making boating on that river a more pleasurable experience.

Mr. Pittman also wants to see some rowing boats in the water within the next three years.

He said the city has the space and desire for a rowing club that could host high schools, colleges and junior programs.

He’s partnering with executives at Three Rivers Rowing to establish a program — possibly as a third site for the rowing club, which already operates facilities at Washington’s Landing and in Millvale.

Mr. Pittman would like to see an indoor facility with a glass front built along the water in an old pipe yard. It could include a gym, boat storage and restaurant. He’s seeking public funds, philanthropic support and partnerships with the private sector. He declined to give specific figures while costs are being analyzed and collaborations are forming.

He hopes a partnership with Penn State Greater Allegheny will lead to the creation of a fish hatchery at an old Westmoreland County water plant near 15th Street through the school’s agriculture program.

“We’ve talked to school officials there about raising the fish and stocking our local streams,” he said. “It’s a teaching and vocational opportunity.”

Mr. Pittman said he is talking to John Hohman, plant manager, to work out a ground lease. It also may be donated to Penn State Greater Allegheny or the city, he said.

“The elements are in place, but there’s still some work to be done,” he said.

The economic impact of developing a waterfront and using rivers can be huge, according to Rick Brown, executive director of Three Rivers Rowing.

It takes some work and money, but not necessarily much money, he said. Facilities range in costs, and sometimes boathouses start out with simple materials such as chain-link fencing, he said.

Eight high schools, three colleges and a junior team representing 20 local high schools compete through Three Rivers Rowing. It has 400 adult members, 100 youth members and about 3,000 total participants a year.

Mr. Brown is pleased that another local municipality wants to start a rowing program.

“I think more rowing in the area would help all of us. We’ll be an area better served,” he said.

And McKeesport would have more to offer, Mr. Pittman said.

“We want people to see us as a destination point,” he said. “We just have a lot more potential than what’s been tapped.”

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