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North Hills Monthly

Etna and Millvale Two Towns on the Rise

Jun 30, 2019 10:53AM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

A mural in Millvale, photo by Vanessa Orr

Did you know that Etna Borough has a public swimming pool? Or that Etna is home to a large industrial park? Or that Etna is home to approximately 182 businesses, shops and restaurants?

At only 8/10th of a square mile with Route 8 all but shielding Etna from view, the borough might be easy to miss. However, despite some hard times, it is a community on the rise.

Etna has a rich history, said Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage. “It was founded in 1868 around transportation, being so close to the river. It was primarily a steel mill town, home of the Spang Chalfant company. There was a hospital inside the mill, a company store, a restaurant, and swimming pool. I had no idea of the extent of how much the company did for its employees,” she said.

However, when the mill closed in the 1960s, thousands of jobs were lost. “At the same time, Route 28 was constructed, which dissected part of our community. Whole streets were gone; 400 homes were taken. Those were two really huge blows to the community,” said Ramage.

Another more recent blow was Hurricane Ivan, which struck in 2004 and caused major flood damage.

But the future looks bright for Etna, which is home to roughly 3,500 residents. With grant money, the borough has restored the area along the banks of Pine Creek, which resulted in the Dougherty Nature Trail.

“In this urban environment with Routes 28 and 8 surrounding us, there is very little room for green space, but this provides an opportunity for kids growing up in an urban environment,” said Ramage. She added that blue heron, kingfisher, ducks and beavers are regularly seen on the trail.

Etna adopted a green master plan consisting of 23 projects, six of which are green streetscapes. The two phases that are completed remove a million gallons of water from the combined sewer system, with a third block to be completed this summer/fall with grant funding from Alcosan. “There is a gorgeous grate that snakes down the street and captures rainwater from the disconnected downspouts and sidewalk areas,” said Ramage.

Just last year, Etna, Sharpsburg and Millvale established the Triboro Ecodistrict with two million dollars in grant money from the Hillman Foundation. Etna is using its portion of the funding to in part to build the Etna Riverfront Trail and Park; groundbreaking was on June 3.

All of this revitalization has laid the foundation for a whole new Etna, while at the same time preserving its history and its longtime businesses. While residents and visitors alike frequent such fixtures as Pollack’s Candy, established in the late 1930s; Winschel Hardware, circa 1885; and Amato’s Pizza, circa 1950s, Etna is ready to welcome newcomers.

For example, Mike Tomlin’s wife, a clothing designer, recently opened Kiya Tomlin WorkShop Fashion, and several restaurants have found their way to the borough, including Seasons, and one coming this fall called the Rear End.

Ramage is excited about Etna’s future. “There are so many young families who are moving into the community. The real estate market is starting to change—houses are selling for a lot more, and what is amazing is that they are selling quickly,” she said.

“Everything in the town was centered around the making of steel,” she continued. “I find it so awesome is that we’re making Etna a healthier environment, so different from what we were.”

Millvale Making its Mark

Another community in the midst of rejuvenation is Millvale. Like Etna, Millvale is less than one square mile in size, with a population of over 3,600.

Borough Manager Eddie Figas said that Millvale was founded in 1886 and was a hub for lumberyards and lumber mills. “At one point in time, Millvale had more than 10,000 residents, not unlike many smaller river town communities in Allegheny County. Even though there were no steel mills, the decimation of steel mills hurt Millvale as well, with a number of residents moving out.”

Couple that with flooding over the years, and Figas said that “You really had a town that was, in essence, struggling to survive. There just weren’t a lot of reasons why people wanted to be in the community unless they had direct ties to it. We weren’t really attracting anyone new to the community.”

But things have changed for the better. The community is growing in population, but more than that, the people who are moving in are taking an active role in furthering the development of the area.

Figas said that today's homebuyers fit into the 30-something demographic. “Younger couples in their 30s are looking to come to a community where they can engage with their neighborhood and have an impact on what is happening,” he said. More and more single-family homes are being sold and renovated rather than people buying properties for the sole purpose of flipping them.

Figas attributes the revitalization of Millvale in part to Triboro Ecodistrict and noted that the collaboration between the three communities involved is allowing Millvale to implement their goals in the areas of air quality, solar roofs, and more.

New businesses, such as the Grist House Craft Brewery, Strange Roots Experimental Ales, Iron Born Pizza and Pageboy Salon & Boutique have flocked to Millvale. They join such longtime anchor businesses as Jean-Marc Chatellier’s French Bakery, Esther’s Hobby Shop, Yetter’s, and Vecenie’s Distributing Company. 

Mr. Smalls, a converted church that is now a music venue, put Millvale on the musical map back in the 1990s, which has been another positive for the community. Millvale also hosts several annual events: the Millvale Music Festival in May and Millvale Days, held the second Saturday in September.

If Millvale has a hidden gem, it’s Riverfront Park. “It is one of the few areas in all the county you can walk right down to the river, and you’re encouraged to do so,” said Figas. “We have people every day who are fishing down there, and Three Rivers Rowing has a boathouse on our side of the river.

“The other exciting thing about Riverfront Park is that it runs right into the city, so you’re able to walk or bike to any of the stadiums downtown from the Millvale Riverfront Trail.”

Figas is enthusiastic about the new energy flowing through the borough, noting that the challenge is to continue developing Millvale without becoming gentrified and risk displacing people who have been entrenched in the community for a long time.

“Our main goal is to continue to improve the community and add to it while still recognizing the people who built it,” he said.