Above: Brittany Reno, Executive Director of Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, standing outside of the building that SNO closed on in September 2019.
During the summer of 2013, Brittany Reno was rounding out her first year of AmeriCorps and was given the opportunity to do a service project in the neighborhood she had moved to earlier that year: Sharpsburg.
The event, dubbed Smiles and Tiles Day, was a public art project that brought kids and their family members out to the 16th Street Park to paint ceramic tiles that would become a mural, which was put on display at the community library and is still there today.
“People were so excited about it and wanted to do more, and everybody had all these great ideas,” Reno said. “I wanted to give them some structure to make the ideas happen, so I started Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization (SNO).”
It began with a two-page Word document and a board of local volunteers, with Reno leading the organizing. In 2016, SNO received funding for operations and programs from the UPMC Health Plan, First National Bank, Giant Eagle, and the Hillman Foundation, and the board created a hiring process to find an executive director. Reno, who was not on the board, applied, interviewed, and got the job.
Sharpsburg Mayor Matthew Rudzki said before SNO there were residents and allies putting in work to rejuvenate the borough, but there was “trouble getting traction.”
“What SNO brought to the table was an umbrella organization with terrific leadership to rally that energy into one focused goal: the revival of our community,” Rudzki said. “The pieces of the puzzle were always there; we needed the glue to get them to stick together.”
Until recently, Reno was running the organization out of a home office and traveling to meetings around the community every day—literally “meeting people where they were”—or holding them at Brother Tom’s Bakery, the Sharpsburg Community Library, and other local spots. She said she felt like a “nomad,” but that it felt good to have people visiting the Sharpsburg business district and for her to “bring people here and show them everything I love about Sharpsburg and the great people who live here.”
Today, Reno will soon be able to invite visitors to 511 S. Main St., the location of the building that the neighborhood organization closed on this September and will use as the home base for its operations and community organizing workshops in the form of the new Sharpsburg Sustainability & Civic Engagement Center. The building itself was built around 1900 and the last occupant was a small business owner who made significant repairs to make the building more accessible and safe. Along with providing the organization a space to hold day-to-day activities, there is also an upstairs apartment that SNO will rent out to cover the mortgage payments and eventually “become a source of sustainable unrestricted revenue” for SNO, Reno said.
Shanna Carrick, SNO Board President, said a handful of other locations were considered, but in the end they ended up finding “the perfect building.”
“For the last two years we’ve been saying we wished we had a space to hold public meetings with residents to talk about the ecodistrict and the different needs we have in the community,” Carrick said. Now, thanks to support from the Hillman Foundation, UPMC Health Plan, and First National Bank, they have that space.
As well as a meeting place for people to organize and advocate for things they want to see in the community and region, the building will serve as an example for solar energy and flood retrofitting, and give residents access to real-time air quality data. Reno said SNO is working with EIS Solar, who has created a layout for the solar panels and previously completed the installation at the Sharpsburg Community Library, but the roof will be replaced before the installation in the spring.
“We really want this space to provide an opportunity [for the community] to interact with new, green technologies and see what they’re all about and how they can help people beyond just being good sustainability investments for the environment,” Reno said.
Using solar to power the building will reduce operating costs and provide results comparable to the outcomes expected by the solar installation on the Sharpsburg Community Library. Every dollar saved through solar can be reinvested back into the community resulting in longer library hours or more funding for programs.
Reno said she is excited to demonstrate how solar can be a viable source of energy for Sharpsburg and showing how much energy will be generated minute-by-minute, and in turn how much money is being saved, as well as how much the installation is saving the building in carbon dioxide emissions.
These initiatives fall in line with the Sharpsburg Community Vision Plan, which was built over two years of local stakeholder engagement on the foundation of the Sharpsburg and Triboro Ecodistrict priorities including: equity, food, water, energy, mobility, and air quality.
“The plan is for this space to be a real civic engagement hub where people can learn about the community vision plan, get more involved in the community and local government, learn about resources for starting a local business, and learn about green technology and different opportunities for jobs and education in that field,” Reno said. “They can share their feedback on the plan and share their knowledge about life in Sharpsburg, the history of Sharpsburg, or whatever it is that they’re passionate about.”
After SNO secures its occupancy permit, the organization will open its doors with a community celebration and open house in the winter. Supporters can help cover start-up costs for SNO’s Sharpsburg Sustainability & Civic Engagement Center at 511 S. Main St. by making a tax-deductible donation at https://www.paypal.me/sharpsburg or by sending donations to 511 S. Main St.