Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: A loyal son of Kittanning promotes his town

Michael Rizzo lured me to Kittanning the other day.

I met him at an overlook in West Kittanning, across the Allegheny River. The promontory on Bluff Street is its Mount Washington. I waited for him in an apron of grass overlooking the town below, taking in the amphitheater on its soft riverfront, its banks lined with grass.

I had never been to Kittanning in my 27 years in Pittsburgh and might never have gone had it not been for Mr. Rizzo’s enthusiasm.

Forty-five miles northeast of Pittsburgh, it has almost 5,000 people. Among them are Mr. Rizzo, who is 35, born and raised there, and all the members of his family.

I hailed from a small town, not terribly unlike Kittanning, although a bit smaller. A river ran through it, too, though one less lovely than the Allegheny. It was a town with few things to do, as Kittanning has. But I got out of there after high school and never looked back.

By contrast, Mr. Rizzo makes the commute to work in Pittsburgh specifically so that he can live in Kittanning.

Mr. Rizzo, a member of the zoning board who works in digital marketing for Direct Energy, thinks Kittanning’s size and location are calling out to entrepreneurs looking for cheap space, chefs looking to own a market — at least until other chefs arrive — and for artists and other creative people to own a studio and a home, with access to a trail that could run to Pittsburgh.

It will run to Pittsburgh, Mr. Rizzo says. It is a matter of time and activism.

“It is 46 miles from the Point to here,” Mr. Rizzo said. “Every 50 miles in the trail system to D.C., there is economic activity because 50 miles is a good stopping point. We have gaps in the trail and we have a meeting on the 18th [Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the Courthouse Annex Building] to talk about how to fill the gaps. We have a new set of commissioners [of Armstrong County] who are really good, and they’re talking about trails.”

We passed Attaboy’s Bar and Grille, Klingensmith’s Drug Store, the Hot Spot Hotel and Lounge, Dizzy Lizzy’s, the County Seat Restaurant, the new YMCA, and the new Sheetz on the outskirts.

Most of the eating places have been around for a while, Mr. Rizzo said.

“If we could get a couple of chefs up here, some startups,” he said, turning at intersections and pointing at big yards with big trees, swaths of flowers, big porches, “Kittanning would be a phenomenal day trip, a destination.

“The old railroad station would make a great brewery. Kittanning would be a great test market for new companies, a great test market for Uber.”

On my drive back to Pittsburgh later that day, I considered his devotion to his town and concluded that American small towns, more than anything else, need people who love them beyond acceptance, to rally great ideas into action so they can thrive. Luckily for Kittanning, Mr. Rizzo isn’t the only such person. He said he is “super-encouraged by our commissioners,” which include several young people.

We hear often that small towns and rural America have taken it on the chin, that so many people there are disenchanted, feeling stuck and forgotten. I wonder how much of this disenchantment, even bitterness, is caused by forces imposed, or how much of it is all too easily explained as such.

How much of what isn’t happening can be explained by ennui or lack of imagination?

Small towns, especially those in great locations with great bones, are gems waiting to be embraced, and Kittanning looks like a gem that just needs a little more energy. It is a real, authentic place, not a swath of suburban sprawl. It has a nice layout, a riverfront park, some gorgeous housing stock, nice lines along its retail corridors, but just not enough active retail.

I commented as we tooled around that Kittanning doesn’t look depressed, although it has edges of sadness.

“That’s because it has great bones,” he said. “And a beautiful riverfront. We need to capitalize on that more.”

Mr. Rizzo suggests that Kittanning could follow the lead of Lawrenceville, Pittsburgh’s hippest neighborhood. I did see two vape shops on our tour of the town. But there is no must-go restaurant, no true ethnic fare.

The town lost its hospital to Route 28 and its high school, which merged with Ford City. The empty middle school needs a suitor.

So much of what has happened to Kittanning has happened to almost every small town in America, but the future awaits ideas and the people who can give them life.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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