- Associated Press - Saturday, June 4, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - When Mary Ellen Ramage became Etna’s borough manager in 1990, someone at a meeting made a reference to the term “river towns” that angered her.

“They meant poor, blighted, old, with remnants of industry,” she said. “But that was everybody then. Now, river towns are cool.”

While some still struggle, Etna and its near neighbor Millvale on the Allegheny are starting to live up to her description.

After devastating floods during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, these towns cleaned up their creeks and have taken measures to keep stormwater out of combined sewers. Seven municipalities - Etna, Millvale, Shaler, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, Blawnox and O’Hara - joined forces to form the Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone as a measure of resilience.

ARTEZ functioned to help secure funds to build “thriving, walkable and bikeable business districts; affordable, sustainable housing; scenic and accessible riverfronts,” according to its mission statement.

There is still blight in both boroughs - many buildings need more than soap and water, and median income is less than $40,000. But industrial remnants, empty storefronts and working-class housing are attracting artists, activists, developers, business incubators, galleries, families and bicycle commuters.

One advantage is that Lawrenceville, one of Pittsburgh’s hottest neighborhoods, lies directly across the Allegheny River. With increasingly engaging business districts of their own, Millvale and Etna have more affordable apartments, homes and storefronts.

Solar-powered library in Millvale

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Millvale

Population: about 3,700

Median income: about $35,900

Median house value: about $68,000

Millvale was also incorporated in 1868. It once was connected to Lawrenceville by a covered bridge and a narrow gauge railroad that was part of the trolley system. It too was a mill town that, by the turn of the 20th century, had three breweries. In a different iteration, Millvale has become a brewery town again with two craft breweries. It is home of the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, which attracts visitors from all over the world to see its Maksimilijan Vanka murals.

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Lisa Love moved her Salon 22 to Millvale last year after 10 years in Lawrenceville, she said, “because I couldn’t afford the rent anymore.”

She spent part of her childhood in Millvale. Last year, her efforts united 25 business owners - longtimers and newcomers - in forming the Business Association of Millvale.

“The momentum started way before me,” she said, “but there is a surge of people coming over here. We want to improve the economic level, but not so that people who built up our town can’t live here anymore.”

Mr. Small’s, a concert venue in a former Millvale church, became a destination in the early 2000s. Now the borough is something of a destination itself, with an authentic French bakery, two craft breweries, bars and restaurants, and a busy community library that runs on solar power.

Tina Walker, president of the all-volunteer Millvale Community Development Corp., said the borough is courting a hotel to build at its gateway to Route 28 and is working on better access to its riverfront.

She attributed much of the momentum to a core of people who “just recognized that we had this unique place and started moving forward. We formed a focus group, got a lot of neighbors involved and discussed what we wanted. First was a library and a food market.

“The library was built (in 2013) with foundation money and tons of volunteer hours,” she said. “If we hadn’t had the volunteers we have, we would never have gotten this far. The town could never have afforded it.”

Millvale is nearing completion of its new food hub at Grant and North avenues in the former Dinette Place and Kitman Furniture store. It is expected to open this summer. A $500,000 regional development grant helped make possible this marketplace and food enterprise incubator to be operated by the nonprofit New Sun Rising.

Tazza d’Oro, one of the city’s first community coffeehouses, in Highland Park, has agreed to open another store there and be the hub’s anchor, Ms. Walker said.

The Gardens of Millvale, a community garden and orchard, needs to expand to accommodate demand for plots, said Denise Rudar, co-chair of the project. She hopes expansion can help supply the food hub.

Three years ago, Millvale completed an EcoDistrict plan with evolveEA, a sustainable architecture and consulting firm.

“Food, water and energy were the three areas the community wanted to focus on,” said Zaheen Hussain, Millvale’s sustainability coordinator. “The community has completed 70 percent of its goals. We’ve added air quality, mobility and equity” to the list “to encourage energy efficiency and multi-modal transportation.”

Janet Zipf has lived for 43 years in Millvale, where she operates a massage therapy business. She said the gardens and the plan for a sustainable future “have changed our world. We are getting grass-roots people, people into green lifestyles, people who are educated and open-minded.”

The sun that’s shining on Millvale supplies all the electricity its library can use - and then some. Savings from the solar array pays for expanded programs and hours. The library also gets revenue from upstairs tenants.

Etna needs a coffeehouse

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Etna

Population: about 3,500

Median income: about $38,700

Median house value: about $80,000

Etna, incorporated in 1868, was the original site of a Seneca village where the first immigrant settler established a trading post. The town grew with construction of the Pennsylvania Canal and became home to iron mills, grist mills and lumber mills through the 20th century. A popular asset for Etna residents is the Dougherty Nature Trail along Pine Creek. It was originally a bank stabilization project in 2006 that grew into a favored site for dog walking, fishing and heron sightings.

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Apartments above storefronts is an old idea that’s new again in Etna, too. Its recently revised zoning code removed obstacles to renovating above storefronts.

Etna’s new zoning code also addresses solar installations, permeable pavement and removal of downspouts for stormwater diversion. A regional leader in green infrastructure solutions, Etna recently hired an economic development director.

Two years ago, it scored the catering company City Gourmet, which moved from Downtown.

Co-owner Libby Calato said the lease was up in the Koppers Building “and Downtown is a crazy mess for parking and deliveries.” She was referred to Etna by Carl Funtal, a retired Shaler police officer who opened Cop Out Pierogies in an Etna storefront in 2011.

“It is so accessible to Downtown, with so much better rent and easier loading and unloading,” Calato said. “This is a lovely little community that works very hard to be business-friendly.”

Etna also has attracted a glass-blowing shop; a recording studio that was formerly in Lawrenceville; ballroom dancing, boxing and fencing studios; and dozens of artists and musicians to the old Tippins Inc. mill site.

Steve Mitnick, owner of 448 Studios, bought the old Tippins complex “because the price was right and it is so close” to Pittsburgh, he said. Forty artists and more than 40 musicians rent spaces in the converted office building with 24-hour access.

Artist Tom Mosser moved into a large studio after losing his rental space in Lawrenceville.

“This was life-changing for me,” he said. “It is hidden behind a giant industrial warehouse, so when I walked in, it was like Dorothy” entering the colorful land of Oz. “Lots of natural light, skylights, a lounge. There’s a cool vibe in the building. I’ll be burning midnight oil and hear people playing music down the hallway.

“Somebody’s got to open a coffeehouse in Etna,” he said. “There are so many opportunities. Etna is kind of like a cocoon waiting to become a butterfly.”

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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