It’s been nearly three decades since Ernest E. and Marilyn Kostik Liggett of Allegheny County began buying more than 100 properties in Brownsville with plans to turn the town into things it never became – a riverboat gambling hotbed, shopping magnet with an outlet retail mall and family entertainment center and sporting playground for Olympic rowing or cycling.
Under their own names and through several companies, the Liggetts bought property after property throughout the 1990s, often for only $1.
It remains clear Brownsville didn’t get a return on that investment.
The Fayette County Redevelopment Authority in 2009 moved to secure two dozen properties from the Liggetts and remains in possession of the dilapidated buildings still standing downtown on Market Street in Brownsville’s commercial historic district. Caution tape runs past several of the decaying structures on Market Street, warning onlookers to keep their distance.
“(I)t still looks like hell,” said Brownsville resident Pat Purcell.
But more than 90 properties are still in the Liggetts’ name throughout the borough. Eighty of them are vacant residential properties, comprising nearly a quarter of the borough’s properties coded in that category by Fayette County Assessment Office more than two decades after the Liggetts acquired them.
When it comes to blight, time doesn’t heal any wounds. It only deepens them.
“Unfortunately, the health of the properties isn’t getting better,” Fayette County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Andrew French said.
French is focused on the buildings the redevelopment authority possesses. The authority has attempted to market them, but most aren’t structurally sound. Rehabilitating the structures would be a multimillion-dollar project, something French said is economically unfeasible.
“It’s almost impossible to get resources to renovate them with no end reuse in mind,” French said.
The old Union Station building on Market Street still had tenants when the Liggetts bought it. It’s still structurally sound, but has long been vacant and would now cost between $5 million and $7 million to fix up, said longtime borough council member Jack Lawver.
French said the authority found it didn’t have the resources to fully mothball the building, so it has pursued patching up the roof.
“We can’t do a total replacement,” French said.
French noted authority plans to demolish the abandoned Brownsville General Hospital and Horner Memorial Nurses’ Home on Church Street, properties that remain under the Liggetts’ name and are currently on the county repository list.
While properties that have been owned by the Liggetts sit idle, the taxing bodies – Brownsville borough, Brownsville Area School District and Fayette County, lose out. The redevelopment authority doesn’t pay taxes on the properties it seized from the Liggetts, who last paid taxes in 2007 according to Fayette County Tax Claim Bureau Director Sarah Minnick.
Purcell, who owns three properties on Church Street, has been critical of both borough and county officials over their oversight of the Liggett properties, going to borough council and county commissioner meetings to demand they expedite the redevelopment process.
In 2016, Purcell asked why the county couldn’t move to list the old hospital, a nearby nursing home and a third property on the county’s free and clear tax sale. Then-Solicitor John Cupp replied the legal battles involving the many properties owned by the couple and a lengthy bankruptcy resulted in the delay, adding he did not believe staff had sufficient time to list them by the June 30 deadline for the September tax sale.
The properties that weren’t seized by the authority went through a free and clear sale in 2017.
The Fayette County Tax Claim Bureau attempted to sell the properties at a free and clear sale in 2012 after they failed to sell at a tax sale in 2010, but the Liggetts filed suit in Fayette County court to stop the sale. Ernest Liggett’s bankruptcy filing was another obstacle.
“He filed for bankruptcy,” Minnick said. “We can’t sell properties when they’re in bankruptcy.”
Purcell noted the minimum bid prices for the Liggett properties are much higher than what the Liggetts acquired them for in the ‘90s and thinks the bid requirements are making revitalization even less likely by discouraging new buyers.
“He paid $1 and they’re asking $1,500, $2,000,” Purcell said. “That’s crazy.”
The revitalization that other parts of Brownsville have enjoyed in recent years, though, has been priceless.
The Perennial Project, a Brownsville beautification effort, resulted in cleanup and planting days last year as well as art installations in the borough.
A 24-unit senior housing development, Iron Bridge Crossings, was dedicated in 2018 after the redevelopment authority facilitated demolition of several buildings on Market Street.
And 2017 brought the grand opening of the Cast Iron Amphitheater in Brownsville’s Snowden Square, powered by Brownsville Area High School’s Students In Action team with support from the redevelopment authority and other community partners.
“There’s lots of positive things,” French said.
Lawver said in a way, Brownsville is better off now than it was when the Liggetts first began buying borough properties in the early ‘90s because there’s “a little bit more interest in what’s going on.”
“(But) when (they) started buying the properties, they were still usable,” Lawver said.
Purcell grew up in Brownsville and moved back in 1992, just in time to see the Liggetts tout renewal plans for the borough in the ‘90s and 2000s to no avail.
“Now that I am going on 80 years old, it is only getting more sad,” Purcell said.
French said what guides the redevelopment authority’s approach to the properties it controls will be what the community wants.
“We need to know what the community’s vision is of what happens to these properties,” French said.