Overnight Tuesday, while some of you may have been sleeping, President Donald Trump took credit for a “now thriving” Bethlehem.
To be sure, Trump’s tweet was aimed at U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and at Fox News. Fox hosted Sanders at a widely watched town hall Monday that, judging from the live audience reaction inside ArtsQuest Center, went well for the Democratic presidential candidate.
“Many Trump Fans & Signs were outside of the @FoxNews Studio last night in the now thriving (Thank you President Trump) Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for the interview with Crazy Bernie Sanders. Big complaints about not being let in-stuffed with Bernie supporters. What’s with @FoxNews?” Trump wrote.
His 43-word tweet has become the talk of Bethlehem. Some are scratching their heads over what the president is taking credit for, others figure he was referring to his administration’s economic record.
Roger Hudak, a retired teacher and son of a Bethlehem Steel employee, laughed off the tweet, saying Bethlehem’s turnaround came years before Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017.
“For him to take credit for this is hilarious. Hyperbole should be his middle name,” said Hudak, longtime chairman of the Mayor’s South Side Task Force. “He would take credit for beating the Japanese in World War II.”
But Tom Carroll, chairman of the Lehigh Valley Tea Party, who arranged for Trump supporters to stand outside the Sanders event flying American and Trump flags, cautioned against splitting hairs in a social medium based on brevity. Carroll said he read the tweet as the president acknowledging the good economy, using Bethlehem as an example because that’s where the town hall was. And the economy, Carroll said, is something Trump can take credit for.
“The economy across this nation is thriving. We have the lowest unemployment in decades …” said Carroll, a Bethlehem Republican running for Northampton County district attorney. “His tax policy and reduced regulations have really helped our economy.”
Asked what the president was referring to in his tweet, a White House spokesman said regional employment has increased under Trump. The gains, he said, include 1,900 new manufacturing jobs in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metro area.
By many accounts, Bethlehem in particular is doing well and even “thriving.” That’s a sharp contrast from where the city was in 2001 when Bethlehem Steel — the city’s biggest employer — went bankrupt. But it’s an economic resurgence that crested many years before the president came into office.
Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., said “thriving” is an accurate description of Bethlehem, but… “I kind of feel that we’re the band playing in bars for 20 years and becomes an ‘overnight’ success,” said Cunningham, Bethlehem mayor from 1998-2003 and someone who actually does play in a band. “Things just don’t happen. The foundation for Bethlehem’s economic success had been laid decades ago.”
Once the quintessential steel town, the reimagined city now includes history and entertainment draws attracting not only empty nesters looking to shed suburban life, but also young people. With 31 percent of the population between 18-34 years old, Bethlehem’s young adult population outpaces the Lehigh Valley’s two other cities, Allentown and Easton, as well as Philadelphia and the state.
And investment is following. Last year, Bethlehem granted 8,404 building permits, the most since the city began electronically tracking them, accounting for $295 million worth of development. In the last 14 years, the real property market value in Bethlehem grew from $2.6 billion to $3.8 billion, city records show. Bethlehem, which posted multiple deficits during the Great Recession, has fattened its surplus and boosted its S&P bond rating to A+.
That’s a big swing from the mid-1990s, as Bethlehem gradually lost its biggest employer, taxpayer and water customer. Tax assessments plunged by $68 million between 1994, the year before Steel went cold in Bethlehem, and 2001, when the manufacturer declared bankruptcy. By 2007, those assessments recovered and continued to climb.
Community leaders describe the change in trajectory as a convergence of several efforts that started during Steel’s decline in the 1990s. Through a mix of tax incentives, infrastructure and zoning, Bethlehem Steel and city officials planned for the company’s eventual departure and came up with a plan to diversify the economy, eventually courting Lehigh Valley Industrial Park and California billionaire Ed Roski’s Majestic Realty to build business parks on former Steel land.
Then the state legalized gambling and the Las Vegas Sands came to town, opening a casino in 2009 and priming the pump for development of an arts and entertainment campus dubbed SteelStacks, where the Fox town hall was held. Meanwhile, nonprofits brought in millions of visitors for school, health care and festivals, including Musikfest, while retaining the historic character of a city founded 278 years ago by Moravian settlers, putting Bethlehem in the running as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“I’m glad that the president of the United States recognizes that Bethlehem is doing well, but we’ve been doing well for a good number of years since Bethlehem Steel closed,” said Mayor Robert Donchez, a Democrat. “We’re lucky to have good political and corporate leadership that helped Bethlehem to develop an economy that is very diverse” and a quality of life that is attractive to visitors, residents and employees.
Bruce Haines, a Trump supporter who was among downtown Bethlehem’s early investors as managing owner of the Hotel Bethlehem, said Trump doesn’t deserve all the credit for Bethlehem’s turnaround — but he deserves quite a bit for its economic climate the past two years.
“The recovery [in Bethlehem] was occurring. There’s no question about that, but we are now at unemployment levels we haven’t seen in this country since I graduated from college,” said Haines, now 74. “We have more jobs, less people looking for full-time work. We’re thriving.”
He credits Trump for a soaring stock market and a tax overhaul that put more money in workers’ paychecks. That tax overhaul, he said, included a special tax vehicle called the Opportunity Zone, which encourages investors to put their capital gains in low-income areas.
Bethlehem is among the first in Pennsylvania to take advantage of that incentive. Developer Charles Jefferson used it in the $9.5 million Brinker Loft project under construction near Lehigh University’s campus and plans to use it to redevelop the property where the shuttered Boyd Theatre now sits on Broad Street.
Bethlehem City Councilwoman Olga Negron, a Democrat who was at the Sanders event, said she’s talked to people who are really upset over the president’s tweet, but said she’s not going to waste any energy over Trump.
“That’s who he is. I just ignore it. I’ve been in the Lehigh Valley for 23 years, and I’ve seen it change … to a bright light, especially South Side Bethlehem,” said Negron, who supports Sanders in 2020. “I’m not going to give [Trump] any credit.”
Tweet reverberations across social media included one from John Callahan, a Democrat who was mayor from 2004-2013, during the redevelopment of Bethlehem Steel.
“I grew up in Bethlehem and went on to be Mayor and you had as much to do with making Bethlehem great again as you did America. Absolutely nothing!” Callahan tweeted. “Like America we were #alreadygreat.”
Probably the only thing that Callahan and Trump can agree on is that Bethlehem is, indeed, thriving.
Morning Call reporter Nicole Radzievich can be reached at 610-778-2253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.