Sharpsburg Transplant Takes Strategic Approach To Community Development, One Cleanup At A Time

Oct 30, 2017

On a brisk afternoon, Brittany Reno is walking through Sharpsburg’s business district on Main Street, giving a tour.

“We’ve got a thrift store right here, St. Vincent de Paul, which takes care of a lot of our people," says Reno. "We also have a lot of family owned businesses here."

Reno grew up in Butler County, but moved to the city in 2008 to attend the University of Pittsburgh. After graduating, she was working with AmeriCorps and wanted to invest in her own house. She ended up settling down in Sharpsburg, a borough just outside the city on the northern bank of the Allegheney River.

Right away, she found a lot to like.

"There were a lot of really walkable amenities, there was a riverfront park, a bunch of playgrounds within a quarter mile of my house," said Reno.

Brittany Reno, executive director of the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, stands next to one of the borough's distinctive blue lampposts.
Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA

But she also noticed that there wasn't too much recreational activity going on.

So in her free time, Reno started organizing events like street cleanups, community art days and eventually, a fall festival. In 2014, she recruited volunteers and a board of directors to help found the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, or 'SNO', as an umbrella under which to plan these events; she was named the organization's executive director last year. She was also appointed to the borough's council in 2015.

Mary Jayne Kozlowski has lived in Sharpsburg her whole life. She said, in a community where many families have been around for generations, it was a pleasant surprise to see a new face come in and start contributing this way.

“It was like [Reno] belonged. I don’t know how else to explain it. She just belonged. Her heart is here,” said Kozlowski.

Another lifelong Sharpsburg resident, Chas Smith, has an anecdote that sums it up for him.

"One time, I saw her driving a tour bus and showing people the sights and sounds of Sharpsburg, " said Smith with a chuckle, explaining that as far as he knows, there have never actually been organized bus tours of Sharpsburg. "It was a strange sight to see.""

In its first two years, SNO did a lot of that kind of work, which Reno calls “cheerleading for Sharpsburg.” However, she felt like she could be doing more.

“These little events are great and they’re a lot of fun, but they don’t really get as much to the core of the issues as I wanted to,” said Reno.

Like so many communities in the region, Sharpsburg has had trouble recovering from the loss of steel and manufacturing jobs. Reno said unemployment, poverty and blighted structures are common.

She also pointed out that Sharpsburg faces environmental challenges. As with Pittsburgh in general, air quality is a problem in the borough and much of it's land is in a flood plain.

"We have combined sewer overflows throughout Sharpsburg, which we're working to fund to fix, but as it stands now, when we have a heavy rainwater event, we have raw sewage pouring into the river," said Reno.

However, from a development standpoint, Sharpsburg has strong potential. The borough is close to the city, property is affordable and it falls in the wealthy, high-performing Fox Chapel school district.

Reno knows that an influx of investment could help Sharpsburg address many of its issues, but she's also worried that some current residents, especially renters, could be pushed out of the neighborhood or otherwise not benefit equally from improvements.

“Our housing quality is not great, and it does need to improve but, on the other hand, we have to manage the growth really carefully, or else it’s going to get out of control," said Reno.

Right now, SNO is looking at the feasibility of a community land trust, which, in the future, would keep a number of houses in Sharpsburg in the hands of residents who meet certain criteria. A similar program is currently being piloted in Lawrenceville.

Earlier this year, they were also included in the new Triboro Ecodistrict development plan, a collaboration between organizations in Sharpsburg, Etna and Millvale as well as the sustainable consulting firm evolveEA. The plan expands on the model which has already found success in Millvale.

Reno is excited about these prospects, but she has one priority above all.

“To keep checking back in with the residents, to make sure we’re doing stuff that they support, that they feel is really good for them and the community as a whole, " said Reno.