Butler & Freeport St. Etna
Butler and Freeport Streets in Etna. Photo by Tom O'Connor.

By Melissa Silmore

The small riverfront borough of Etna is hoping for a big takeover — a “Home Town Takeover” that is — sponsored by HGTV’s popular renovation show, “Home Town.”

While the series features hosts Ben and Erin Napier revitalizing homes in their hometown of Laurel, Miss., the nationwide contest is open to all towns with populations under 40,000.

The community selected will see the Napiers lead a team of pros as they breathe new life into the town’s tired homes and buildings. The resulting six-episode special event is scheduled to air in 2021. HGTV says it has received more than 5,000 entries.

It all began when Jeff Plowey, vice-chair of the Etna Economic Development Corp. (EEDC), posted an announcement about the contest to Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage’s Facebook page. “We got a great response,” he says.

The reaction wasn’t surprising to Ramage, a lifelong resident.”I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. It’s a hard-working, awesome community of people that really help each other,” she says.

In fact, led by Ramage and a $2,500 grant from the EEDC, they put together a professional video in less than two weeks emphasizing why Etna should be the lucky winner.

Situated north of Pittsburgh on the Allegheny River, Etna enjoyed an industrial heyday until the early 20th century, boasting the oldest running iron pipe mill in the world. In the ensuing years, the borough faced recurrent flooding, mill closures and homes that were lost to highway construction.

Despite this, longtime residents like Ramage and Plowey (now living in his grandparent’s original home) “survived and thrived,” says Ramage.

More recently, Etna has seen young families moving in to join the long-term residents and newer businesses establishing themselves, like Carl Funtal’s Cop Out Pierogies and Kiya Tomlin’s Work/Shop.

“I love Etna. I had never heard of it before finding our building, but I could see the neighborhood potential immediately,” says Tomlin. “It has so much character. From the small-town main street feel to the friendly business neighbors to even the cute gutters that weave artistically down the sidewalks. I am excited to be a part of its renaissance.”

The community of 3,450 recently earned the world’s first EcoDistrict certification, signifying a shared vision of equity and sustainability through efforts that span extensive stormwater management to the construction of a new riverfront park. Ramage points out it’s a designation still being sought by cities like Portland and Seattle.

Etna’s Main Street, however, remains a challenge, with a number of privately-owned historic buildings sitting intact but vacant.

“You have to look up above the facades,” Ramage says. “ You’ll just say ‘wow.’ A lot are brick, with old strong bones. We’re fortunate they’ve been left. They just need help. We don’t want to lose our history.”

Architect Robert Tuñón, instrumental in the EcoDistrict effort, represents the new guard. He and his wife purchased a 1920s home in Etna that they are renovating. He says they were impressed by the “real sense of community. We can walk anywhere we want to go. It has a lot of assets for families.”

Tuñón appears in the video, talking about the Osche Building, a circa 1885 Main Street structure with soaring 20-foot high, tin-coffered ceilings and original light fixtures. Coincidentally, it was built by the father and uncle of the man who built their home.

The Tuñóns purchased this building, as well, with the dream of creating apartments above to fully support a community library on the first floor.

Also highlighted is the picturesque old Union Hotel, circa 1860, that Ramage calls, “the heart of the community and business district,” and several Main Street businesses.

As Tuñón notes, “The video focuses on the idea of revitalizing our downtown. I can only just imagine what it will be like to live here — we would love help in helping our dreams come true.”

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