Musicians take stage at McKees Rocks’ Roxian Theatre
By Sonja Reis | MRCDC
McKees Rocks, PA – The long-awaited promise of a mid-size live music venue in McKees Rocks has finally acheived stage time now that its restoration is complete and the venue was launched to the public with a series of free open house shows May 9 and 10, 2019.
Lawrenceville entrepreneur John Pergal and partners purchased the historic Roxian Theatre from the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (MRCDC) in late 2017.
Pergal is owner of New Amsterdam and the Lawrenceville concert venue Thunderbird Café & Music Hall, which simultaneously underwent extensive upgrades and expansion before relaunching in summer 2019. Pergal and his partners closed on the $9 million Roxian project Dec. 20, 2017.
The project is being funded with approximately $1.4 million in recoverable loans from the MRCDC which obtained the funds from grants provided by the Hillman Foundation, The Heinz Foundation and the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), $5 million in loans from the Reinvestment Fund, Bridgeway Capital and LISC, $600,000 from the sale of federal historic tax credits and private equity of $2 million. A 10-year Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) was provided by the McKees Rocks Borough and the Sto-Rox School District.
Pergal and partners recognize that restoring the 1929 vaudeville-era Roxian Theatre will lead the transformation of the surrounding Chartiers Avenue business corridor, similar to the direct impact the Thunderbird Café and New Amsterdam had on the revitalization of Lawrenceville.
“We wouldn’t be renovating and restoring two live music venues if we didn’t believe Pittsburgh needed two venues like the Thunderbird and the Roxian, venues that are actually designed for live music to provide the best experience for both the performers and the customers,” said Pergal.
Regionally, the Roxian – estimated to have a capacity of more than 1,400 attendees – will fill a void for this size of venue by attracting musical acts that normally bypass the Pittsburgh market. The Roxian will include general admission, mezzanine seating and VIP areas, each with its own bar space offering a wide variety of craft beers.
Both Pergal and Taris Vrcek, executive director of MRCDC, predict the music venue will spark further development, including retail, and restaurants, and attract additional jobs and visitors to the community.
“We wouldn’t be renovating and restoring two live music venues if we didn’t believe Pittsburgh needed two venues like the Thunderbird and the Roxian, venues that are actually designed for live music to provide the best experience for both the performers and the customers.” – John Pergal
“The Roxian is a game changer for the Sto-Rox community. It will result in new business development, residential growth, new recreational opportunities and the creation of jobs for the community’s residents. With the Roxian, McKees Rocks is back on the map!,” said Ray Garofalo, vice president community development at Dollar Bank and MRCDC board member.
Dedicated to providing services that reach low and moderate income areas, Dollar, which is purchasing the historic federal tax credits, is one of several investors in the partnership group.
The aggressive construction schedule put forth by newly formed Roxian Live, LLC partners called for a winter 2018-19 launch. Lyco Construction LLC out of Ruffsdale delivered, wrapping on the McKees Rocks project in May 2019.
In support of the Roxian Theatre project, Pergal, MRCDC, Grey Area Productions and Hollowood Music and Sound worked together to bring the music, food and art festival known as Feastival to McKees Rocks during the summers of 2015-2018. “Feastival serves as a good gauge to the question, ‘Will music bring people to McKees Rocks?’,” said Pergal who notes attendance tops 4,000 each year and draws people from out of state.
“It’s exciting knowing that something new is going into the main business area of the borough. The residents should be proud to see something positive happening on the main drag,” said Ruth Pompey, McKees Rocks borough manager.
The partners plan to offer an apprenticeship program for the entertainment industry that would prepare Sto-Rox residents to secure employment at the Roxian and in other entertainment-related venues in the community and beyond. Community groups will also be encouraged to coordinate with Roxian management for scheduling of local events.
All of this would not have happened without the persistence and support of many especially when it comes to the creation of the complex funding streams both public and private needed to make the project a reality. A dream of Vrcek’s and others since before the 2004 formation of MRCDC, the project has suffered several false starts and other delays over the years with many calling the proposal an unattainable dream.
“It’s hard to believe we’re here. There were a lot of times that it seemed that the cause was lost but we hung on because we knew what it would mean to the community,” said Vrcek reminiscing about the past 13 years. “I am in awe and grateful for all of the incredible support we have had from so many in different areas of leadership. We have many believers that a new future for McKees rocks exists. And this makes that belief real, tangible, something you can touch. Fifty years of decline ends today.”
“Restoring the vacant Roxian Theatre into a vibrant music venue will act as a catalyst to spark economic activity in McKees Rocks and supports Bridgeway’s goal to create a region that thrives for everyone,” said Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Bridgeway Capital.
LISC, one of the nation’s largest organizations supporting projects to revitalize communities and bring greater economic opportunity, provided both a low interest loan and a recoverable grant to support this project. LISC was connected to this project through Neighborhood Allies, their local affiliate in Pittsburgh, a local community development partner that exists to support and maintain healthy neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
“Neighborhood Allies understands the critical importance art and culture plays in uplifting our neighborhoods,” said Presley Gillespie, Neighborhood Allies president. “We are so excited that after many stops and starts, the Roxian will be restored as a celebrated neighborhood destination that will deepen the connection among residents, welcome new visitors, and heighten economic activity along this important corridor. Equally exciting is that this is not a stand-alone project, but an integral part of the broader revitalization of McKees Rocks.”
Utilizing grant funds from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (PA DCED) and Allegheny County Economic Development, the community development group purchased the historic building in 2011 and made improvements to the structure including façade enhancement, reclamation of the building’s original entryway, building stabilization, and flood controls.
Engineering work and architectural design by Perfido, Weiskopf, Wagstaff + Goettel then followed through support from The Heinz Endowments.
Traction was really made in 2014 when members of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and The Heinz Endowments looked at the historic theater site and the surrounding Chartiers Avenue business district and were able to see MRCDC’s vision for a revitalized McKees Rocks. The group helped create a model that would allow for this eventual partnership.
“I am in awe and grateful for all of the incredible support we have had from so many in different areas of leadership. We have many believers that a new future for McKees rocks exists. And this makes that belief real, tangible, something you can touch. Fifty years of decline ends today.” – Taris Vrcek, MRCDC
Always a place for entertainment – The Roxian Theatre
1929 – Opened as a 1,500-seat vaudeville playhouse called “The Roxian.”
1931 – 1979 – Three years after opening, movies were incorporated into the business model and continued through the remainder of the Chartiers Avenue theater’s 80-year history.
1980 – The Roxian reopened as the Emerald Room, a banquet facility boasting a stage, dance floor, two bars, offices and a balcony.
1980 – 2003 – From weddings to professional wrestling and everything in between, the Emerald Room drew people from all over the region.
2003 – Emerald Room closes its doors.
2004 – McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation was formed and one of the first projects the group focused on was the revitalization of the vaudeville-era theater. The goal is to reposition the Roxian as a regional concert and performance venue.
2007-2011 – Funds totaling $600,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and $250,000 from Allegheny County Department of Economic Development was used to among other things improve the façade and reclaim the original layout of the building’s entryway.
2011 – McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation takes ownership, fully expecting The Roxian project to serve as a cornerstone of the group’s downtown McKees Rocks revitalization efforts.
2012 – 2017 – Creation of a public-private partnership that will fill a void in the Pittsburgh market for a mid-size concert venue commences. Building stabilization, as well as, architectural and engineering work occurs.
Fall 2017 – Roxian Live, LLC purchases the Roxian property and begins construction on the $9 million project.
Winter 2018-19 – Construction is expected to be completed with the grand opening of the music venue to be launched with much fanfare.
“The Roxian is a game changer for the Sto-Rox community. It will result in new business development, residential growth, new recreational opportunities and the creation of jobs for the community’s residents. With the Roxian, McKees Rocks is back on the map!” – Ray Garofalo, Dollar Bank