Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone receives $350K for municipal projects
Eddie Figas wants people to not just drive through Millvale but to stay a while.
“There's enough here to keep people here for about half a day. We'd like to have enough to keep people here for the whole day,” said Figas, economic development director in Millvale, whose attractions include restaurants, a bakery, a brewery, a vintage record store, a hobby shop and a gallery and frame shop called the Panza Gallery that sometimes exhibits sculpture.
Millvale is one of seven member communities of the Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone, a community economic development organization that received $350,000 in grants last week.
The organization received $200,000 from the Heinz Endowments and $150,000 from the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County. ARTEZ, as it's known, hired Iris Whitworth as the organization's executive director.
“It's an unprecedented opportunity for communities to basically create an economic development engine for the local economy of our seven communities,” Whitworth said.
The organization, formed in 2005, is made up of seven municipalities along the lower portion of the Allegheny River: Millvale, Etna, Sharpsburg, Blawnox, Aspinwall, O'Hara and Shaler.
The grants will be used to build and rehabilitate sustainable housing in Sharpsburg, Etna, Blawnox and Millvale, where some rental properties have absentee landlords. Other uses will include riverfront planning and business development on main streets.
The organization's goals include standardizing zoning and extending the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which stops in Millvale. Only a small portion of the towns' riverfronts have parks or hiking trails.
Heinz became interested in underwriting the project because of the level of cooperation that the municipalities have shown in recent years, said Rob Stephany, director of the community and economic development program at the Heinz Endowments.
“The municipalities seem to be talking to each other more. They already have a history of working with private property owners to clean brownfield sites. We were compelled by the shared vision the seven municipalities have. They share the river and have the potential of being very vibrant neighborhoods,” Stephany said.
Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg are more likely to flood than Aspinwall or O'Hara, which has higher property values.
To an extent, absentee landlords and abandoned buildings are a problem in Millvale, Etna and Sharpsbug — all 19th-century river towns.
“The homes in those towns have not had the historic rehabs the way they did in Aspinwall,” Whitworth said.
Municipal officials say they appreciate the advocacy on their behalf.
“This organization gives all the communities a bigger voice. Municipalities are all financially stretched now. We need to look at marketing and attracting economic opportunity. Everything is regional now,” said Mary Ellen Ramage, Etna's manager.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org