One man’s mission to overhaul downtown New Kensington opening doors for new business owners

About a minute ago

Amy Johnson’s earliest memories of downtown New Kensington include her grandfather, a doctor whose office was in the Shepherd Building on Fifth Avenue.

“I remember walking down from my home in Parnassus to his office,” said Johnson, 47. “My great aunt worked at the Harts building. We’d walk to Harts, shop, take the elevator to the third floor and visit her in her office.”

As a high school student, Johnson recalled going downtown with her friends to Ethnic Days, where churches showcased their culture and foods.

All fond memories.

But after she left for college and came back and forth to her hometown over the next 10 years, Johnson said she saw the city experience economic decline and a rise in crime and violence.

Still, in 2001, she and her husband, Carl, who served in the Air Force, moved back to New Kensington with their two daughters and bought a house. It made sense — their family and friends were there.

The turning point

After years of economic and social decline, Johnson said she thinks the city hit a turning point in November 2017 after police Officer Brian Shaw was shot and killed in the line of duty. She remembers the parade and memorial.

“Seeing all the people line the streets almost in silence for hours — it was freezing out — that hit everybody,” she said. “That was the final straw that something drastic needed to be changed.”

Today, Johnson is among a handful of people — most of them New Ken residents — who have been launching businesses in what had been empty buildings and storefronts in the city’s downtown.

The revitalization has been spurred by Michael Malcanas, who saw opportunity in blighted buildings and empty streets.

Johnson recently opened a storefront for Sweet Tillies, a bakery specializing in baklava and named for her grandmother, Mathilda Nader. It is set up more as a small production space than a retail shop and is focused more on online sales and pickups than walk-in business. She’s leaving her full-time job in human resources with UPMC to build the business.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to do it in a different city. If I was going to do it, I definitely wanted it to be part of the community revitalization,” she said. “It puts more meaning behind it since it’s my hometown.”

Tidal wave of support

Under the banner of “Olde Towne Overhaul,” Malcanas bought more than a dozen buildings, mostly along Fifth Avenue, and has been repairing and remodeling them into functioning business spaces.

The first was the former Ritz Theater, which he bought in late 2017. Voodoo Brewery opened there last summer.

Malcanas, of Butler County’s Middlesex Township, said the brewery set an example of what can be done and what he thinks New Kensington can become.

“Voodoo is the catalyst that I needed to jump-start bringing people downtown,” Malcanas said.

Malcanas thought rebuilding New Kensington would be a decade-long, weekend hobby. Instead, to his surprise, he said the project has accelerated, boosted by an unexpected tidal wave of support from people who love New Kensington and want to see it turn around.

Not even the covid-19 pandemic could slow it down.

“As an outsider, I wasn’t rooted in the city. I didn’t know the people were so invested in the town,” he said. “I bought all the buildings not knowing any of this.”

He anticipated getting two or three leases signed this year. Instead, he got 12.

Businesses open or on the way include a cafe and bakery, a tattoo supply shop, a massage and essential oils business, a beauty and nail salon, a 1950s-style diner and ice cream parlor, even an axe-throwing spot.

“Who would’ve known there was this type of enthusiasm?” he said. “I’m super excited because of the momentum in the worst possible conditions.”

More than a landlord

Tonie Vaughn-Clemons is one of Malcanas’ tenants who has already opened. A massage therapist since 2004, a storefront wasn’t in her plans.

“Mike made it so convenient and easy, and he worked with me so I was able to do that,” she said. “I couldn’t pass that up.”

Vaughn-Clemons, 61, said a client referred her to Malcanas. She talked with him at the end of July, signed a lease Aug. 1 and opened her business, Tonies Massage Therapy Retreat, on Oct. 5.

“He chose the location,” she said. “It’s a really nice building. He designed it to my specifications.”

Vaughn-Clemons said Malcanas is as much a partner and friend as a landlord. Throughout her space, she pointed out things he brought in to help furnish it and contribute to the environment she wanted to create.

“I know that once covid is gone and it’s passed and New Kensington starts to come back alive down on Fifth Avenue, it’s going to be successful,” she said of her business.

Mike Wentzel of Aspinwall moved his 15-year-old embroidery and printing business, Trademark Threads, to New Kensington from Cheswick, where he had been for four years. He met Malcanas at Voodoo. He was hesitant about having a storefront, having always been in a warehouse.

Trademark Threads produces custom apparel and uniforms for small businesses. Wentzel now has his first showroom and design center, where clients can preview and refine samples.

“This really was the way I needed to present my business now. This will be a way to have customers come through the door again,” he said. “It’s been fun to be part of bringing life back to these buildings.”

Inspired by architecture

Malcanas also is president of Mito Insulation, which he started in New Kensington in 1994. It specializes in large wood-frame apartment buildings. He’s also in the rental business; his Deer Creek Rentals buys and rehabilitates single-family homes.

The former PNC Bank building at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street is one of his buildings. He plans to move offices for Olde Towne Overhaul, Voodoo, Mito and Deer Creek Rentals into its top floor, and find tenants for the rest of it.

Malcanas recalled driving through the city one day in 2017 and thinking it was like a ghost town.

“There was not a single car on Fifth Avenue,” he said. “It looked like a scene from ‘The Walking Dead.’ ”

Then, he said, he started noticing all the “cool architecture.”

“I got to drive real slow and look at the buildings,” he said. “I never saw the facades before.”

In selecting buildings to buy, he focused on the most run-down ones because he felt he could make the biggest impact with them.

“I can get them at the right price,” he said. “I have a lot of motivation and energy to do stuff.”

Concerns and challenges

Malcanas heard city officials were wary early on about who he was and what he was doing.

“The only initial thoughts centered around making sure that his ideas were a fit, and they really have been,” Mayor Tom Guzzo said.

“Mike’s ideas, along with some of the other folks who have purchased buildings downtown and are putting in new businesses, are making New Kensington a destination point,” Guzzo added. “Many businesses have either opened or are about to open, and people are really beginning to take notice.”

Malcanas bought most of his buildings in 2018 and spent 2019 working on them. That included fixing roofs and removing garbage.

Renovating long-empty buildings in downtown New Kensington is a challenge, said Sarah Snider, former executive director of the city’s redevelopment authority who remains on as a consultant.

“If you get into a building that has a hole in the roof and the elements have been getting into that building for a while, you’ve got a ‘heavier lift’ than if you walk into a building that’s occupied where the heat’s been on and those sorts of maintenance things are attended to on an ongoing basis,” she said. “It’s difficult and it’s costly.”

While other developers are active in the city, Snider said no one is doing things on the same scale as Malcanas.

“What Mike and his team are doing is phenomenal. I’m so excited to see the momentum and the transitions,” Snider said.

“The revitalization is working. It’s still clearly at an early stage where risk is high and not everybody is convinced,” she added. “Having those leaders step up into that role and take on buildings that have been vacant and neglected for years and years is really fantastic. It’s clearly making a difference.”

Working with tenants

Malcanas is taking a risk on fledgling businesses. To help them get in and get started, he is offering incentives such as free rent for six months and rent that increases over time. He also has referred his tenants to The Corner Launchbox, a Penn State New Kensington program that offers business owners a series of 10 free classes.

Rhonda Schuldt, who facilitates the classes, said the program aims to give entrepreneurs a framework to evaluate and plan for the launch, operation and growth of their business.

“They’re bringing something to New Kensington, building a business here and creating jobs,” Schuldt said of the Olde Towne Overhaul effort. “Having a network of peers that are a part of that same journey and the excitement that’s happening in New Kensington is an important part of what we do.

“Starting a business can be lonely and hard work. With a support group around you, you can learn from each other and build a network. It builds a sense of energy that’s intangible. We want to help make sure that continues.”

Marketing New Kensington and its businesses is what owners say is among their greatest needs, Schuldt said. When Voodoo opened, people came from all over.

“People will come to New Kensington. You have to have a reason for them to come,” she said. “There’s a beauty to what New Kensington is doing right now. People are putting their heart and soul into a business and taking a chance on it. We have to capitalize on that.”

Seeing a change

Vaughn-Clemons said she already sees more traffic and people downtown.

“I’m always showing everybody the buildings and what’s going in them and what’s being done,” she said. “It’s really nice down here. At night when Voodoo is lit up and music is playing outside, it’s pretty cool. It gives me that Shadyside, Lawrenceville, Squirrel Hill feel.”

But Johnson added: “We’re not looking to be Lawrenceville. We’re looking to be a new and better New Kensington.”

Johnson said she had no reason to drive through downtown a few years ago. Now she’s there every day and sees activity that builds excitement and gives her hope.

“The people I have been seeing down there and working with, their character and their passion is so strong that I can’t see it being a lost cause. I can’t see it not being better,” she said. “If we can make it better, it’s worth my time. And it’s worth my energy because it’s my hometown.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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