Originally published on WGRZ.com, “Two Communities, Two Fates For Former Bethlehem Steel Sites,” by Dave McKinley, 2012 11 15.
Bethlehem, PA – When the sun finally set on this Eastern Pennsylvania city’s most venerable industry in 1995, many thought it would be “lights out” for the community whose fortunes were tied for more than a century to steel making.
The memories of the sprawling Bethlehem Steel plant, and the reputation residents of the Lehigh Valley enjoyed as the region “which built America” remain forever etched in the minds of natives like Jeffery Parks.
“Oh my goodness yes I remember the smoke, the noise, the smells …,” recalled Parks, while glancing at the giant, black, blast furnaces which remain as a testament to days gone by.
Resembling something out of a factory in a Dr. Seuss book, the furnaces stand silhouetted against a sun-splashed sky, silent, and rusting with trees growing through parts of them.
“One stack on each of these blast furnaces was called the Bethlehem Candles,” Parks explained. “And the myth always was that when the candles went out that would be the end of Bethlehem.”
However, where blast furnaces once belched soot into the sky, music now wafts through the air.
An I-beam away from the row houses from which generations of immigrants trooped off to make steel, agrarians now sell vegetables at a popular farmers market.
Across the river from the homes where the wealthy steel barons once lived…and where they now rest in a cemetery overlooking the blast furnaces, the candles remain …no longer burning…but hardly extinguished
“They’re illuminated in a different way today,” Parks said.
By night, bathed in colored light, they are an unusual work of art forming the centerpiece to a table of rebirth.
Parks, its chief visionary, now stands as its President and CQO.
“That stands for Chief Quest Officer,” Parks said with a laugh.
What’s no laughing matter is that in just over one year of operation, it’s welcomed more than one million visitors…to a place once given up for dead, now slowly being transformed with artist colonies and eateries.
“There’s a lot of people who are surprised to see us here frankly,” said Parks, not the least of whom, were some folks from Buffalo who happened to be visiting when Two On Your Side went to Bethlehem back in August.
“I think it’s phenomenal what they did to it,” said Amy Barron of Amherst, who with her family had just enjoyed an evening concert at the amphitheater where the blast furnaces form the background to an outdoor stage. “To have the community come down here and listen to concerts and get together I think it’s great,” Barron said.
The redevelopment of the largest Brownfield project in U.S. History has largely occurred over the time that John B. Callahan has served as Bethlehem’s youthful and energetic mayor. Callahan, now 43, had just turned 34 when he was elected in 2003.
“It’s part of our skyline that we didn’t want to see go away…but everything else you see around me didn’t exist even a year and a half ago,” Callahan told WGRZ-TV, as he pointed to various infrastructure improvements installed after years of planning.
Although, how this came to be, literally hinged on the roll of a dice…where they literally hit the jackpot.
“The real spark that allowed us to move forward with even this particular part of the project was the investment on the other end of the site,” explained Callahan, referring to the Sands Casino and Resort, which became a reality when Pennsylvania approved casino gaming in 2007.
The Sands has since become the most financially successfully casino in the state, bringing seven million people to Bethlehem annually.
“Without that investment of over $800 million and the tax revenue that came as a result of that investment much of this would not have been possible,” Callahan said.
That’s because the Casino, like other developers here, pays into something called a Tax Incremental Financing District.
“The property is assessed down at a really low level based on its value before a developer builds on it,” explained Parks. “And the difference between that, and the value after something is added to it, is put into a fund. Those new dollars that are created go back into the site to fund infrastructure in order to facilitate what might come next.”
“We’re not done yet,” said Callahan, ticking off a list of planned or soon to be completed new additions.
There’s a partially finished museum of industrial heritage, and the oldest building on the site has been re-purposed for a visitors center.
There are designs to transform the iconic Bethlehem Steel Administration Building into a 13-story apartment complex
One building, the longest in the country when constructed in 1888, will become an outlet mall, connecting the casino and two new hotels back to Steel Stacks, along a yet to be restored section of elevated railroad which will have a trolley to carry those who don’t care to walk.
When it was suggested to Parks that he didn’t seem like the type of person who says “we can’t”, he replied with a chuckle, “I’ve never heard those two words together.”
The biggest irony of all may be that there was a time when Parks was among those who felt the very anchors of the complex, the blast furnaces, should come down.
“Absolutely. Tear them down. Until 2002 when a group of us went to Germany.”
That’s where they saw, in the Ruhr valley, how former steel mills had been transformed into tourist attractions, with museums, nightclubs and restaurants.
“That’s when the light bulb went on and we said, ‘whoa, you know if you tear these blast furnaces down nobody’s ever going build them again in this country’.”
The blast furnaces are actually owned by the casino, which had also been tempted to divest itself of the relics, according to Callahan.
“The truth be told, the blast furnaces are probably worth more in terms of scrap steel than they are as they stand there today.”
But through a bit of his own steely resolve, Callahan tempered that thought shortly after he took the reins as mayor.
“Early on in my discussions with the developers of The Sands I identified those as a non-negotiable…I told them that if they wanted my support for their project, these were not to be touched, in fact not only were they not to be touched but they were to be preserved and restored and lit and sort of celebrated.”
“This is not Williamsburg, and it’s not Disney Land,” said Parks. “This is Bethlehem as it has evolved for almost 300 years. We’re taking our heritage and making it a part of everyday life in our community.”
“You’ve got to take what makes you special, what makes you unique,” agreed Callahan, “and try to build on that.”
It’s not like Buffalo isn’t attempting to do the same thing.
While it is true that the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces that once dominated the Lackawanna skyline are gone forever, not far away the Harbor Development Corporation is spending hundreds of millions of dollars, to reclaim arguably our most important piece of heritage-the Erie Canal, with plans to similarly light up another of our historic treasures, the grain silos.
But the 1,200 acre Bethlehem site in Lackawanna, now mostly vacant, seems destined to remain a place for commercial and industrial use.
“It’s a very difficult site, a very complex site, and it’s privately owned,” said Chris Pawenski, who the Coordinator of the Erie County Industrial Assistance Program serves as the county’s point man for the site’s continued re-development.
“This is probably the largest site in the northeast United States that has rail, a Great Lakes port, and highway access which makes it very unique in terms of its potential for industrial use.”
Pawenski says he knows of no plans to turn this place of crumbling coke ovens into a waterfront playground. Nor does he think there should be.
“We don’t want to compete with the inner harbor. I don’t think the city or the county does… there’s quite a bit of effort already going into that type of thing, so why compete with yourself? And we don’t want to turn it into something that, regrettably, doesn’t generate taxes.”
Meanwhile in Bethlehem, they are poised to continue the transformation.
“I think we’re not going to see any more buildings come down here and all the buildings you see will be used for adaptive re-use, said Callahan. “We’ve never lost our authenticity and our sense of history but we’re also very progressive and very forward minded as a community and I think, to the extent that you can find that right balance for any particular community, that’s really kind of where the magic is.”
As for what he believes the future holds, Parks thinks the possibilities are endless, needing only the two words in the slogan of his organization to summarize them.
“Our motto at Arts Quest is: ‘imagine that’.”