Valley business leaders peer into casino future
24 light one line goes here
An artists' rendering of a redevelopment project on Hamilton Street in Allentown, Pa. Civic leaders from around the Pioneer Valley will go to the Lehigh Valley later this month to learn about redevelopment as part of the City2 City Program Purchase photo reprints »
11/15/12 Springfield -Republican Photo by Mark M.Murray - Kent W. Faerber, interim President of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. He is leading a group of Springfield leaders on a trip to Allentown and Bethleham Pa., as part of the City toCity program. Purchase photo reprints »
SPRINGFIELD — Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley has a lot in common with the Pioneer Valley, starting but by no means ending with the Sands Casino Resort that opened in 2009 on part of the sprawling derelict Bethlehem Steel site.
But that casino, and its impact on Bethlehem, will be the hottest topic Wednesday to Friday, when a delegation of 33 Pioneer Valley community leaders from business, government and nonprofit organizations journey to Allentown and Bethlehem, Pa., as part of the City2City program sponsored by the Federal Reserve Banks of both Boston and Philadelphia.
The Pioneer Valley delegation will hear about neighboring Easton, Pa., but won’t get a chance to visit that city.
The group, organized locally by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, has already visited Winston-Salem, N.C., Grand Rapids, Mich., and taken a day trip to New Haven, Conn. Once in town, leaders from here tour sites and talk with leaders.
Kent W. Faerber, interim president of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, said Allentown and Bethlehem were chosen because of the Sands development and the ongoing process of selecting a casino developer for Springfield.
“What preparations were done in advance?” Faerber said. “What was the impact of the casino? We know that no place has hit a home run. But they seem to have done this well.” Bethlehem Mayor John B. Callahan said he thinks his city has handled the casino development well, although it is still wrestling with the ongoing redevelopment of the Bethlehem Steel site.
“We had the largest single-owner contaminated Superfund Site in the country in a city of 75,000 people,” he said. “It was the quintessential mill town and we needed to do something with the old mill.” The decision to use the part of that mill site that would have been the hardest to redevelop as the casino site was the right call, he said.
“Why not put that hundreds of millions of investment right downtown?” he said. “It makes it riskier, because if the development goes wrong it is right downtown as well.” Alan L. Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, an anitpoverty group, said the casino jobs did the most good because they went to an area where jobs were needed.
“Don’t put your casino on a green field in the suburbs. Put it in an urban community so people can walk to work,” he said. “Frankly milk the casino for as much as you can.” Jennings, who like Callahan will speak to the delegation, said the casino is just one part of an ongoing effort to attract businesses to poor neighborhoods. Look at medical services and educational institutions, he said.
“Today an antipoverty organization has to be an economic development agency,” he said.
Like Springfield, Allentown and Bethlehem are suffering for a flight of capital to the suburbs and the struggle to redefine cities once major employees are left.
According the Federal Reserve, the Lehigh Valley has similar population to the Pioneer Valley and similar numbers of Hispanic residents. Like here, the Lehigh Valley still boasts some legacy manufacturers that continue on like Mack Trucks in Macungie, Pa., and Martin Guitar in Nazareth, Pa.
Callahan said another part of the Bethlehem Steel site was redeveloped into Steelstacks, an arts center. But most of the space is being redeveloped for high technology startups and warehousing and logistics companies.
In Allentown, director of planning Michael C. Hefele will talk about an arena project, a proposed waterfront redevelopment and an 11-floor office building that has been announced for downtown. Allentown uses a special Pennsylvania law that can direct all taxes except real estate taxes collected in certain area and uses those funds to spur development in that area.
“Well, we are reinventing our downtown. It’s an exciting time to be here,” he said.
Faerber recently went to the Lehigh Valley to scout out the trip and participate in some preliminary meetings. What impressed him was that even though Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are separate political entities, their leaders work together and they meet regularly with people like the president of Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
“It is clear there is more collaboration,” Faerber said. “It is pretty clear they have a history of working together that has benefited the region.” Marsha Montori, chief creative strategist at Six-Point Creative Works in Springfield, plans to go to Allentown and Bethlehem as she has gone on previous City2City trips.
“Most of what I go to city to city for is the company, the other people that go from here,” she said. “It really gives us a chance to talk about issues.” Bethlehem’s Callahan said a lot of the ideas his city has used came from projects done in German’s Ruhr Valley as it transitions from a Steel Mill economy.
“We learned from them and now Springfield can learn from us,” he said. “We can pay that forward.”