Three boroughs, one green new plan

Etna Mayor Tom Rengers was with Steamfitters Local 449 for 44 years, and a contractor with U.S. Steel for 18.

January 12, 2022

Etna Mayor Tom Rengers was with Steamfitters Local 449 for 44 years, and a contractor with U.S. Steel for 18.

Rengers said over the decades, he has worked on coke batteries and installed piping for the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired plant in Beaver County; it was once the largest of its kind in Pennsylvania and currently slated to be deactivated by May 2020.

“We’ve used up fossil fuels on dirty energy… it’s nice to be involved now in cleaning up [our communities],” Rengers said.

Etna is one of three boroughs that make up the Triboro Ecodistrict, an initiative that began in 2012 when Millvale entered the first phases of ecodistrict planning with evolveEA and thus creating the Millvale EcoDistrict Pivot Plan and Pivot Plan 2.0, which focuses on food, water, energy, air quality, mobility, and equity. It was the implementation of this strategy that led to the collaboration with Sharpsburg and Etna.

Sharpsburg Mayor Matt Rudzki’s family has been in the area for five generations, and said these three river town neighborhoods “struggled with identity for a long time.”

“River town used to be a dirty word and people didn’t want to visit our communities, but now river town is a destination,” Rudzki said. “There have always been great things happening here, and now we have the right people in the right places sending out that message and it’s attracting growth.”

This revitalization comes after decades of depression. In the 1980s when the steel mills closed, many families that lived in the area were forced to move away. Rudzki said that the City of Pittsburgh had “eds and meds that sort of saved them, but Sharpsburg, Millvale, Etna and other river communities didn’t have that saving grace.”

On the heels of 25 years of disinvestment, Hurricane Ivan hit the Pittsburgh area in 2004 and devastated Millvale, Etna, and Sharpsburg. In the wake of the storm, brothers Scott and Brian Wolovich started recovery efforts that resulted in the creation of New Sun Rising, a nonprofit that has become an educator, resource provider, and activator of neighborhood scale innovation. But it’s first community project was the creation of the Millvale Community Library, the building where the Millvale EcoDistrict plan was born, which evolved into the Triboro Ecodistrict.

Rudzki credits the rise of new leadership in elected and nonprofit roles to the reinvestment in the area, and to “organizations like the Triboro bringing three distinct but similar groups together that are working for a common goal.”

Millvale Mayor Brian Spoales has been overwhelmingly supportive of the collaboration between the three communities and the ability to work together to obtain grant funding for similar projects. It’s something that Rudzki thinks the state and Harrisburg appreciate, too, because “instead of picking one community to receive funding, they can send it to all [three neighborhoods]. It’s one of the many reasons why the three boroughs took on the task of jointly updating their Comprehensive Plans and zoning ordinances in 2015 — to create multi-municipal goals and leverage their collective strength.

A common thread, and strength, that these three mayors have seen at Triboro meetings are the number of young and new residents who “are getting involved in anyway they can,” Spoales said.

“I pinch myself sometimes when I see young folks in these meetings,” Rengers said. “I like what they are bringing to the table. It’s a fresh take on some old ideas and it needed freshened up.”

Spoales remembers during the early ecodistrict planning days for Millvale there was a turnout from the younger crowd that knew what the ecodistrict was about and they have continued to show up and participate in the decision making process.

Rengers, Rudzki, and Spoales said that with their communities revivals, they are cognizant of gentrification, but it has been “exciting to see the town move forward as long as [they] can keep it equitable.”

The Triboro raises up resident voice in decision making, prioritizing the care for those most vulnerable, and working on housing issues. To date, over $200,000 has been invested into the Triboro Healthy Homes program, which has assisted 10 existing residents by increasing home safety and energy efficiency. Upcoming housing projects include additional Healthy Homes programs, solar panel installation, and the growing property ownership for residents like the project at 1141 North Avenue in Millvale (left).

Though the culture of these river towns has changed over the years, it has been redefined by the residents as a collective of culture, sustainability, and opportunity; or vibrant communities, if you will.

In June, Etna broke ground on its Riverfront Park and Trail that will feature a grandstand and scenic overlook, a blue water wall, and rainwater infiltration. It will also create a link for the Three Rivers Heritage Trail and the Pittsburgh to Erie Trail.

This past April, the Breathe Easy Millvale Air Quality Plan, which launch in 2016, won a national award and a key component of that plan turned the solar powered Millvale Community Library into a Clean Air Hub. Including healthy indoor air quality practices, there is also a live Air Quality Dashboard displayed in the library window that is increasing awareness about “local and regional air quality by displaying real-time data from outdoor sensors,” per evolveEAs website.

Last year, Sharpsburg installed solar panels on its library and in turn with gaining energy self-sufficiency, it is used as an educational tool for community members to get familiar with solar and become encouraged to try the panels on their own homes. There are also two community members, along with a couple each from Etna and Millvale, that are participating in the Triboro Air Quality Monitoring Cohort with ROCIS.