When David Pienaar first met McKees Rocks early last year, he was in a class at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh whose instructor directed the students' work on a rebranding campaign for the borough.
With fresh eyes, they created brochures, maps, tours and interactive social media that showed optimism and respect for the place and its history.
Many college students get "real world" experiences in communities they might never have known, but most take the experience with them. Mr. Pienaar kept bringing it back. Now ready to graduate from the art institute, he wants to be part of a resurgence he envisions in the Rocks.
McKees Rocks has suffered vacancies and loss of tax base and population like so many inner-ring communities. It doesn't look like a place into which a typical 20-something would want to pour his heart and soul -- unless you reconsider typical.
McKees Rocks fits the casting call to play any beleaguered Rust Belt town, and 20-somethings have type-casting of their own to overcome. It depends on what people want to see.
Mr. Pienaar sees a place that should appeal to young people, artists and developers, being 15 minutes west of Downtown, with affordable housing and miles of riverfront.
"If someone wants to be in a place that's considered cool, that can feel gratifying," he said, "but I think things that require great faith are the things" most worth doing. "I have great faith in McKees Rocks."
"I was never into civic engagement before," he said Monday over coffee at The Snack Shop there. "I got paired with the [McKees Rocks Community Development Corp.] during the branding project, and when they wanted an intern, I took on the opportunity."
It was one of those decisions that when you're young might stand as a marker of where your life is heading. Sometimes you know it was a marker only after looking back years later. Mr. Pienaar recognizes it now.
The recent weeks he spent as a volunteer organizing and marketing the borough's first community food event, FEASTival, "is something I will tell my kids about," he said. FEASTival was Saturday. It will become a regular event, once or twice a year, said Taris Vrcek, executive director of the CDC.
"I think it was a huge success," he said, despite the chilly weather and some vendor no-shows. "This was an experiment. We had a variety of food vendors, and most sold out. We had cool art and a mobile wellness truck, fantastic live music and a nice crowd."
Mr. Vrcek said he spotted a potential intern when Mr. Pienaar worked on the class project with the CDC, based on "not only his creative talents but a real mind for business and being able to focus and be disciplined with schedules."
After the 11-week internship, Mr. Pienaar, who has been living at his parents' home in Monroeville while in school, stayed on the job to finish the work of FEASTival. Being a volunteer was "a good thing," he said, "because I can only imagine getting paid and how much more I could do."
Among McKees Rocks' daunting challenges is the CDC's effort to wrestle the former Roxian Theater back into usable shape and make it a regional concert venue, which would be a $7 million project. The CDC has raised $1 million and completed basement flooding repairs and built elevator shafts. A facade renovation begins next month.
"It will take a regional team to put this together, and we feel we have a compelling argument," Mr. Vrcek said. "The Ryan Arts Center is a cultural destination on its own. With the Roxian operating, McKees Rocks can start to be a draw."
"It's daunting," said Mr. Pienaar, "but it's doable."
He said he wants to continue to do marketing and arts projects for the borough.
"I've never picked anything easy to do. I've started to realize that about myself," he said, noting he picked wrestling as his sport when younger, art as his field of education and now a challenging neighborhood in which to do community development.
"This place has the potential to be the next fresh young place, like Lawrenceville. Places like that have the support this place doesn't have. This could be a Cinderella story," Mr. Pienaar said, adding with a grin: "Not that other places have to be ugly stepsisters."
Every place has its champions in part because there are enough people who don't see, or do, typical.