Here’s the news in Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez’s annual “State of the City Speech” you’ve probably heard: If the pending sale of the Sands casino closes, the future owner plans to sink $190 million at the former Bethlehem Steel plant, including the storied No. 2 Machine Shop.
But here’s the news Donchez delivered that hasn’t grabbed the headlines: The city in 2018 issued building permits that collectively amount to an investment that far tops what Wind Creek Hospitality plans to immediately invest on the land surrounding the casino.
Those 8,404 permits, the most issued since the city began electronically tracking permits, account for $295 million worth of development, he said.
The Factory. Five10Flats. Gateway at Greenway Park. The South Side Commons dorms. Brinker Lofts.
“Outside of the Sands casino, this investment exceeded any prior year by almost $54 million,” Donchez said. “And to show how much the city has grown and how much confidence people have in investing in their homes and businesses, the estimated construction costs over the last four years exceeds those of the previous four years by $370 million.”
Donchez delivered the remarks Thursday to 250 business people at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks. At the event, organized by the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, Donchez struck an optimistic tone for a city he argues not only weathered the demise of its single largest employer, Bethlehem Steel, but reinvented itself with a healthier, more diversified economy.
Since Steel went cold nearly 25 years ago, Bethlehem has worked to rebuild its tax base with tax incentives, environmental cleanup and partnerships with hospitals, colleges and other nonprofits. Much of the focus has centered on the former Steel plant, where the casino is located, but Donchez noted the investment is reaching other parts of the city as well.
He noted 30 new businesses opened last year, Lehigh University has embarked on a $1 billion “Path to Prominence” campaign to increase student enrollment and more is on the way:
• Martin Tower, former Bethlehem Steel headquarters that have been vacant for a dozen years, could be razed by the end of April to make way for a mixed use project on the site.
• The Boyd Theatre, a beloved movie house shuttered since 2011, is expected to be replaced by a $22 million residential and commercial project.
• ArtsQuest is pushing forward on a $15 million expansion to the Banana Factory, an early indicator of the South Side’s insurgence in 1999.
• The city is spearheading a redesign of South New Street, improving the section between Morton Street and the Fahy Bridge to make it safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. It will include new lighting and a design aimed at slowing down traffic.
• North of the Lehigh River, the city is undertaking a master plan, dubbed North Side 2027, to spruce up the neighborhoods north of the historic downtown.
The questions Donchez fielded from the audience centered on the two big projects: Martin Tower and the Sands.
Providing the most detailed timeline yet in his answer, Donchez said Martin Tower would be razed in a way that would direct the debris of Lehigh Valley’s tallest building eastward toward Moravian College, a direction that provides the most room for it to scatter. The removal of the building, vacant for a dozen years, will open the 53-acre property up for development, he said.
Duane Wagner, a representative of owners Lewis Ronca and Norton Herrick, confirmed in a telephone interview that the intention is to implode Martin Tower by the end of April, though it’s not a formal timeline.
Donchez also noted that he met with representatives from Wind Creek Hospitality, which has reached a $1.3 billion deal to buy the Sands casino in Bethlehem. The deal with Wind Creek, the gaming arm of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama, is wending its way through state reviews, but Wind Creek has already announced plans to build a second hotel and renovate the No. 2 Machine Shop.
“The quicker that the [Pennsylvania] Gaming Control Board gets this on the agenda for approval the quicker we could move forward and develop the site,” Donchez said.