Originally published by The Times Tribune, “Historic Scranton furnaces eyed as heart of new Iron District,” by Jim Lockwood (firstname.lastname@example.org), 2012 11 13.
The historic Scranton Iron Furnaces, which helped forge the Industrial Revolution, now could have a bustling future as the heart of a new “Iron District” in the city.
That’s the vision of a group of stakeholders that has begun efforts to transform the four-acre furnace site at 159 Cedar Ave. into a more-active, vibrant community and tourist destination.
Under an admittedly ambitious concept, the massive remnant of a bygone era would possibly become home to artist studios, a restaurant and microbrewery – all situated inside the furnaces’ several-feet-thick walls, said Maureen McGuigan, Lackawanna County’s deputy director of Arts and Culture who leads an “Iron District steering committee.”
“It would be a living, breathing historical site,” Ms. McGuigan said. “In our grand vision, you’d be able to go inside the furnaces.”
The steering committee, which has been meeting periodically for nearly a year, includes representatives of various entities, such as the Anthracite Heritage Museum, the Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area, Keystone College, the University of Scranton, Lackawanna County, the City of Scranton, United Neighborhood Centers, Scranton Tomorrow, the Pop-Up Studio, McLane Associates landscape architects and DX Dempsey architectural firm, according to Ms. McGuigan.
A description and artist’s rendering posted on DX Dempsey’s website and Facebook page states, “The design concept is to allow the user to explore all of the interesting spaces within the furnaces. The team has imagined a center bustling with activities, including a restaurant, microbrewery, large meeting spaces, as well as interpretative and interactive displays related to the arts, the history, and the production that was once born in the spaces left behind.”
An Iron District designation would be a branding/marketing tool linking the downtown with South Scranton, by stretching from Bogart Court behind Lackawanna Avenue – a part of the “Renaissance at 500” redevelopment project – to the 700 block of Cedar Avenue.
The “keystone” of such a district would be the furnaces, which were originally operated by the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Co. between 1840 and 1902 and which were the site of the first mass production in the United States of iron T-rails for railroads.
An Iron District also would encompass other South Scranton revitalization projects. Those include the United Neighborhood Center’s Elm Street project, and a “gateway” project that aims to coincide with an eventual state Department of Transportation upgrade of the intersection of Cedar Avenue, Orchard Street and the two ramp lanes of the Central Scranton Expressway, to make the junction more pedestrian-friendly and extend the look and feel of the iron furnaces to the South Side gateway at Cedar and Orchard.
Noting the furnace site is “the downtown’s backyard and South Scranton’s front yard,” steering committee member Wayne Evans, who also is a member of the South Side Residents Association, said, “We’re trying to create this synergy between that (Cedar Avenue) area and the furnaces.”
Owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the furnace site is administered by the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces. Efforts made Monday to reach both state agencies were unsuccessful.
According to the museum’s website, the four surviving stone blast furnaces are remnants of an extensive plant of the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Co. and represent the early iron industry in the United States. Started in 1840 as Scranton, Grant & Co., the firm had the largest iron production capacity in the United States by 1865. Historical accounts state the blast furnaces were constructed between 1848 and 1857.
By 1880, the furnaces poured 125,000 tons of pig iron, which was converted in its rolling mill and foundry into T-rails and other end products. In 1902, the company dismantled the plant and moved it to Lackawanna, N.Y., to be closer to high-grade iron ores.
A few years ago, a vaulted arch that spans the back of the furnace structure and supports the rear stacks had a minor structural failure, and this damage was repaired in August.
In recent years, the museum also has increased efforts to promote the furnaces as attractions and draw crowds. Last month, the second annual Bonfire at the Iron Furnaces followed a lighting up of the furnaces for a First Friday event. The third annual South Side Farmers Market moved this summer to the furnaces. In September, an inaugural Scranton Cultural Crossroads Festival also was held there. And in June, the furnaces hosted the third annual Arts on Fire Festival, which included a Fire at the Furnace fundraiser.
The steering committee also has looked to ArtsQuest, a nonprofit firm that has been involved in revitalizing the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Ms. McGuigan said.
In 2011, ArtsQuest and other public and private partners launched SteelStacks, an arts and cultural campus at the former Bethlehem Steel plant that closed in 1995.
The Iron District concept is in the early planning stage and the next step would be a preliminary study that the committee hopes to have done next year, Ms. McGuigan said. Such a review may cost around $30,000 and possibly could be funded by grants or contributions from stakeholders, she said.
A preliminary study would help form a fundraising basis for a more-extensive feasibility study, she said. As a result, it could take several years for an Iron District to fully come to fruition, she said.
“Part of the problem is we don’t even know if a lot of it is feasible,” Ms. McGuigan said.
Mr. Evans added of the idea of having studios, restaurant and/or a microbrewery inside the furnaces, “That may or may not be the end result. We’re just thinking outside the box of what it could be.”
Ms. McGuigan said of the furnace site, “We need to make it a living part of the community and make it sustainable. We’re trying to be proactive.”
Mr. Evans added, “It’s such a natural fit. It’s something that we probably should have done or talked about years ago.”
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’.”