Changes are coming to the Park Avenue corridor between Randolph Street and Locust Avenue, and those changes are being realized through cooperation between private investors and the city’s Redevelopment Authority.

The RDA, using funds from a $250,000 redevelopment fund authorized less than a year ago by City Council, is providing assistance in the rehabilitation of two previously unoccupied Park Avenue houses in need of major improvements. Work on these houses joins the RDA’s recently announced Entrepreneur Accelerator Grant Program as the earliest visible results of the redevelopment fund. The grant program will offer up to $10,000 to new business start-ups in the city.

“Sponsored by Redevelopment Authority and the city of Meadville,” read the large white signs in the front yards of 688 and 724 Park Ave., the first beneficiaries of blight remediation efforts through the RDA’s new redevelopment fund. The projects are part of a larger pattern of blight remediation work in the city that has taken off over the past several years, according to Jill Withey, executive director of the RDA.

The progress of recent remediation efforts is satisfying, Withey said, but the real goal is to move beyond remediation.

“‘Remediation’ seems like we’re addressing it after the fact, and we want to arrest it before it actually happens,” she said.

Before blight prevention can occur, however, existing blight has to be addressed — thus, the RDA’s decision to invest in the Park Avenue houses currently being worked on. Withey and others involved in selecting the first targets of the redevelopment fund, including City Council’s liaisons to the RDA, Mayor LeRoy Stearns and Councilwoman Nancy Mangilo Bittner, as well as City Manager Andy Walker, cited a number of criteria that made the houses good candidates for assistance.

Among the key factors were their location in a high-traffic, high-visibility corridor, the fact that the owners were already investing in the properties and were likely to occupy rather than rent them, and the opportunity to make an impact on the neighborhood at large with two simultaneous projects.

“Our real issue is we don’t have a substantial pot of money to deal with slum and blight,” Withey said. “With the redevelopment fund, we at least had an opportunity to deal with some properties that are going to go back on the tax rolls in much better condition than when they came off.”

The RDA is investing a total of $35,000 into the two projects, according to Withey, which includes $25,000 in low-interest loans and $10,000 in grants. The grants were used to address high-priority issues such as heating systems and windows that were needed to make the buildings livable, Withey said.

The houses in question were both purchased in recent years at low prices. Leonard and Adriana Priber of Herndon, Virginia, bought 724 Park Ave. for $18,500 in a Tax Claim Bureau judicial sale earlier this year. The Pribers are listed in county records as the owners, either individually or as a couple, of at least three other properties on the same section of Park Avenue. In fact, according to Mangilo Bittner, the Pribers’ previous efforts at restoring homes in the neighborhood played a role in their selection.

“We were really impressed with his work,” she said in describing the renovation projects as a significant victory for the city. “The city wins in that we get (much of) the money back so we can help others, and we get them back on the tax rolls.” 

Stearns likewise saw no downside to the city’s investment in the properties.

“There are some houses on Park Avenue from Randolph Street up to the college that are in some pretty deplorable condition,” he said. “We’re hoping the neighboring residents will also be pleased with look of the block.”

Two owners of rental properties located near the renovation projects were ready to offer positive reviews on Friday. 

“I’m happy to see the work going on,” said Eli Mast, who has two rental properties nearby on Park Avenue.

Geryll Zehr, a co-owner at ZRR LLC, said his company had purchased a rental property in 2011 across the street from the houses currently being renovated. While he had not benefited from the RDA’s redevelopment fund, he had received support, advice and encouragement from Withey and the RDA. 

“Those things are valuable,” he said. “Sometimes I think situations arise where cities can become antagonistic toward property owners and maybe see them as people that are shirking their responsibility and maybe try to address it through legal means. ... Meadville has done a good job to try to reach out to property owners that need a little bit of an extra boost, so I’m glad to see it.”

Sherry Vardaro, owner of Mayor Lord’s House Bed and Breakfast at 654 Park Ave., is the other recipient of RDA assistance for the house she bought in 2013 at 688 Park Ave. for $10,000. She described the house as “severely in need of a rescue” when she bought it and said saving it is a way of recommitting herself to the street she has lived on for 25 years. She hopes to move into the house when she retires and thus continue her presence on the street for years to come. 

While she purchased the house and began renovating it without the involvement of the RDA, the assistance she has received recently has made an immediate impact.

“My plans were pretty much at a snail’s pace,” she said, “so RDA’s involvement has allowed me to move forward with the exterior renovation much faster than I had planned.” 

Vardaro expressed hopes that exterior work at 688 Park Ave. might be complete by the end of summer, much earlier than she had anticipated, and pinned much of the responsibility on Withey and the RDA.

“I think they do a great job of putting the grant money they have available to good use,” she said. “Jill Withey has been a pleasure to work with and she has a wonderful enthusiasm for the city that we all share.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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