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A couple's vision turns to decay in Brownsville

Once seen as town's saviors, they bought 75 percent of downtown, most now vacant

Sunday, March 11, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

BROWNSVILLE -- Clark Sealy scaled ladders to peer through decaying roofs, sidestepped heaps of pigeon and rodent dung in dank basements and stepped over rotting floorboards that he feared would collapse under his weight.

Robert Hess, a retired restaurant owner and antique dealer, is one of the many Brownsville residents who are demanding that Ernest Liggett clean up and repair crumbling buildings. "He's ruined the town," said Hess, shown in front of Union Station on Market Street. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Then he sat down and wrote a letter.

In it, Sealy notified Brownsville's council late last year that he and the firefighters under his command no longer would risk death or serious injury to enter a string of dilapidated vacant buildings that line the borough's business district.

"Many of these buildings are unsafe and ready to collapse," said Sealy, chief of the Brownsville Volunteer Fire Department, one of two fire companies in this Fayette County community of about 3,000 people.

"If we believed a person was trapped inside, there's no way I could hold my firefighters back from trying to go in and save that person," Sealy said. "But otherwise, I cannot take a chance of losing a firefighter over these buildings."

Sealy's action was just one of several recent events that signal a decidedly frosty turn in the once-warm relationship between the people of Brownsville and the owners of more than 100 buildings and lots there, Ernest and Marilyn Liggett of Churchill.

"He is holding our town hostage," said Robert Hess, a retired restaurant owner and antique dealer who is among the critics. "What he's done is so wrong. He's ruined the town."

A decade ago, few residents had anything but praise for the Liggetts when they came to town with a proposal to turn it into a tourist mecca. But today it's not hard to find others in Brownsville and Fayette County who share Hess' opinion.

The Fayette County Redevelopment Authority is preparing to go to court to regain the title and deed to a building after seizing it last year from the Liggetts, authority Solicitor Herbert Margolis said. The county also required the Liggetts to pay overdue local, school and county real-estate taxes in October to avoid losing some of their properties at sheriff's sale and to pay back taxes owed on others.

In Brownsville, more than 300 people have signed petitions demanding that the Liggetts clean up and repair crumbling buildings and trash-strewn lots. Building Inspector Edward Nicholson also has cited the Liggetts for failing to eliminate unsafe conditions in two buildings and said he has ordered the couple to make repairs at seven others.

The Liggetts did not return calls for comment. Their attorney, Peter J. Daley of California, said he could not comment on their plans for their properties but said they have agreed to hire a structural engineer to determine if they are structurally sound.

A hearing on the citations had been scheduled for Thursday, but was postponed after Brownsville District Justice Herbert Mitchell recused himself due to a conflict of interest. The case was reassigned to District Justice Michael Defino of Republic, although a new date has not been set.

But the postponement of the hearing didn't stop a handful of sign-waving Brownsville residents from picketing outside Mitchell's courtroom that morning. Their protest was aimed at supporting borough and county officials who maintain that their efforts to redevelop Brownsville have been hampered by the presence of the Liggett-owned eyesores.

Vision was hard to resist

Once home to more than 20,000 people, Brownsville had fallen on hard times, as the demise of Big Steel and King Coal put an end to much of the railroad and Monongahela River traffic that put the town on the map. Then the Liggetts arrived and eventually spent about $2 million to buy an estimated 75 percent of Brownsville's Downtown as well as property elsewhere in Fayette County.

The Liggetts, operating personally or through companies they run, bought the vacant Plaza theater, the Towne House Hotel, the former Brownsville Hospital and its adjacent nursing school, the landmark Union Station and dozens of houses and storefronts. Some they bought at tax sales; others they mortgaged or bought outright.

Brownsville and county officials said the Liggetts told them of plans to develop restaurants, bars, boutiques and outlet stores. The Liggetts never demonstrated previous experience in redeveloping properties and were vague about potential investors and financing of the proposed project.

In 1993, Ernest Liggett told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had been self-employed in marketing and finance and that his wife had worked in corporate, commercial and residential real estate for 25 years.

While Brownsville officials were skeptical at first, they concede that it was hard to resist the Liggetts' vision of a prosperous town packed once again with visitors and businesses.

"I admit it, I was one of the first people on the bandwagon," said Norma Ryan, president of the Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., known as BARC. I looked at those beautiful drawings and it was what I wanted to believe for the future of Brownsville."

Jack Lawyer, council president: "We've got to clean up the town if we're going to have a better chance of turning the town around." (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

In meetings and advertisements, the Liggetts talked of creating "Williamsburg on the Mon," a rural theme park that would highlight Brownsville's history as an early hub for riverboat and steamboat construction and its location along the National Road.

By the mid-1990s, they also were talking about opening a floating casino, wharf and marina along the banks of the Monongahela River. But the state Legislature repeatedly failed to pass measures that would have permitted riverboat gambling in Pennsylvania, putting the kibosh on what many people in Brownsville believed was the true linchpin of the Liggetts' planned development.

Brownsville officials said the Liggetts did little to maintain their buildings while waiting for the Legislature to move on gambling. Over the years, many of the already rundown buildings deteriorated until they became uninhabitable or unsuitable for businesses.

One by one, tenants moved out of offices in the five-story Union Station building. Among them was a physician who left offices on an upper floor because the elevator seldom worked and he found it impractical to treat frail or elderly patients in the lobby.

The last of the building's major tenants, Local 286 of the Laborers' International Union of North America, moved out in November after Ernest Liggett presented union workers with space heaters, saying he no longer could afford to heat the building, business manager Lew Hosler said.

At the Plaza theater a couple of blocks away, the Liggetts were ordered by council to erect a high wooden fence and a screen of protective netting around the ornately carved entrance after pieces of the crumbling concrete facade began crashing four stories down to the street. An inspection by borough engineers has shown that more than 50 percent of the theater's roof has caved in or rotted away, creating holes through which at least three trees have sprouted.

Dominated by block after block of empty, sagging and graffiti-smeared Liggett-owned buildings, much of Brownsville's Downtown now resembles a ghost town, with just a handful of businesses open in the historic "Neck" section of Market Street. Dozens of windows in those buildings have been boarded over to replace glass that fell out of rotting frames.

Partially shattered windows allow rodents, pigeons and, occasionally, people to enter. Ivy, weeds and fungus grow inside windows that haven't been broken, while gutters rust and list at crazy angles and paint peels from splintered walls.

Chains and metal gates placed by the Liggetts over storefront entrances and between buildings suggest a high-crime area -- a perception that is untrue but has scared off other potential tenants, council President Jack Lawver said.

Members of council, Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp. and other local agencies have had some success in luring businesses to town that are flourishing in extensively renovated buildings, Lawver said. He pointed to the Thompson House, a refurbished mansion that houses a restaurant and shops, the Flatiron Building that was restored and turned into an art museum by BARC, and Elmo's, a funky cybercafe and coffee shop in a former synagogue.

"We've tried hard to bring other people in here," Lawver said. "But they look around and tell us, 'Too many vacant buildings.' We've got to clean up the town if we're going to have a better chance of turning the town around."

Borough and county redevelopment officials said they've tried to talk with the Liggetts about other potential tenants or uses for the couple's buildings but have been rebuffed without explanation. Although the Liggetts previously had an office in town and came to local meetings, officials said the couple have more and more become absentee landlords. Little is known about the background of the couple, who have lived in Churchill at least since 1987, or where they got the money they invested in Brownsville.

A newly posted 'for sale' is affixed to the shutters of the Sisti House on Church Street and Fifth Avenue in Brownsville. Bricks are falling away from the exterior walls, leaving plaster exposed. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

"The real stumbling block to [developing] the rest of Downtown are those buildings and those who own them," said Ray Polaski, executive director of the county Redevelopment Authority. "Most of the properties are owned by one controlling interest that is not interested in working with us."

The Redevelopment Authority, too, had faith initially in the Liggetts' plans for Brownsville. In 1992, the authority transferred to the couple its ownership of an old Autenreith's store on Market Street after the Liggetts agreed to refurbish and turn the building into part of their planned restaurant and wharf.

But year after year, the building sat empty while the Liggetts sought annual extensions to their agreement. Finally last year, the authority refused to grant more extensions, voided the agreement and changed the building's locks, Polaski said.

The authority planned to sell the building for $1 to BARC, which planned to convert it into a museum showcasing Brownsville's history as a steamboat-building center. But the Liggetts have ignored requests that they return the title and deed to the building, so the authority intends to go to court to obtain them, Polaski said.

"It's frustrating," he said. "I could offer all kinds of grants and help to these people. Usually in my job, you're getting the doors beaten down by people who desire that kind of help. But [the Liggetts] are not willing clients with a bona fide agenda."

Around the same time the authority was wrangling to reclaim the Autenreith building last year, Brownsville's municipal leaders were noticing a sharp increase in complaints about the condition of many of the Liggetts' buildings. Those complaints had gone beyond the aesthetic and now were alleging that the buildings were downright hazardous to passersby and neighboring properties, Lawver said.

"We were hearing it every day," he said. "People were disappointed that nothing had happened. They were disillusioned and they wanted the town cleaned up."

Lawver, who also is a firefighter, and Nicholson, who is chief of Brownsville's other fire company, said they shared Sealy's concerns about the risks firefighters would face if fires broke out or were set in those buildings. They also worried about someone being hurt or property being damaged by falling debris from a Liggett-owned building.

After updating the borough's buildings codes, council directed Nicholson to begin checking the Liggetts' buildings and ordering them to correct safety and health violations. Nicholson determined that the theater and a collapsing Italianate mansion, known as the Sisti house, most urgently required attention and issued citations against the Liggetts when they ignored orders to correct violations there.

Borough officials said they also will continue to urge the county tax claim office to ensure that the Liggetts comply with their agreement to pay more than $66,000 in borough, county and school taxes they owe for 1998-2000. That agreement called for them to pay a quarter of that amount last October and to make additional payments in February, June and October.

The February payment is now overdue, tax office officials said. Daley, the attorney who responded to requests for comment from the Liggetts, said he represents the couple only on their property citations and not on tax matters.

"We're not on a witch hunt here," Lawver said, noting that council has directed Nicholson to examine all dilapidated buildings in Brownsville and, if necessary, cite their owners as well. "I believe we can turn the town around, and we'll work with anyone who's reasonable to do that. But they haven't been reasonable. We're at the point where our main concerns have to be the safety and the future of this town."

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