Vision fires up steel city

Mill: A developer hopes to turn the defunct Bethlehem Steel complex into a historical and shopping experience that will revitalize the Pennsylvania town.

January 28, 2001|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Robert F. Barron Jr. holds the future of the Lehigh Valley region in his hands - a map showing 1,800 acres in the middle of Bethlehem.

He's talking about brownfields and revitalization, industry and history - and shopping. His focus is on how the development arm of his Enterprise Real Estate Services Inc., based in Columbia, will help industrial giant Bethlehem Steel turn those acres that hold a hulking, defunct steel plant into a family attraction and a centerpiece for the 360-year-old town.

Barron, president and chief executive officer of Enterprise, is heading up the plans for Bethlehem Works and Bethlehem Commerce Center, two projects designed to bring new life to a dead steel mill that once employed more than 30,000 in the region.

"This is the heart of the city," he said, pointing out the plant complex, which stretches for four miles along the Lehigh River.

On those same grounds, Barron plans a stadium-seating movie theater, ice and roller skating rinks, 175,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, an industrial museum linked with the Smithsonian Institutions, office complexes and warehouses. They would mean 10,000 jobs and $80 million a year in tax revenue, Enterprise estimates, for Pennsylvania, the city of Bethlehem, the county of Northampton and the local school district.

"Relatively, that's the impact the Inner Harbor had on Baltimore," Barron said. "In significance to the Lehigh Valley area, this is huge. It will have a significant, major and ongoing impact."

Bethlehem Steel began scaling back at its hometown plant in the early 1980s as the industrial era was grinding to a halt. The only reason Baltimore's Sparrow's Point plant didn't face a similar fate was because it produces flat-rolled products, which is a growing market. The Bethlehem product was used to construct high-rise buildings and long-span bridges, for which demand has substantially decreased.

By mid-1996, the company that had employed thousands in the Lehigh Valley region had only about 1,800 hard-core steel workers who all their lives had done little else.

By 1998, the coke ovens that had burned hot day and night and the blast furnaces that gave a warm glow to the city's landscape went cold as the company shut the plant down.

Fortunately for Bethlehem and the surrounding area, the plant's closing didn't shut down the local economy. The rest of the country was experiencing an economic boom, and area business leaders who witnessed the steel plant's decline had been working since the early 1980s to draw technology businesses to the area and welcome the information age.

But emotionally, residents say, it was hard to imagine life in Bethlehem without the mill that seemed as sturdy and long-lasting as the steel it produced.

`A way of living'

"The [Bethlehem] Steel's closure was the end of a way of living," said Megan Distler, director of marketing for Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. "Sons could no longer follow in their fathers' footsteps."

"Virtually everyone thought this plant would be here forever," said Stephen P. Donches, Bethlehem Steel's vice president for public affairs.

But the large industrial plant that stood as a monument to industrialism and American ingenuity had become a lifeless backdrop to the south side of Bethlehem. In 1994, when company executives determined that steel making at the plant would cease, Curtis H. Barnette, who was at the time Bethlehem Steel's chairman and CEO, directed his executives to find a way to make the land profitable again - for the company and for their hometown, Donches said.

Two years later, they hired Enterprise to develop the projects.

"If this was going to be a positive experience, we had to reach to get the best of each discipline," Donches said.

Enterprise, founded in 1981 by James W. Rouse after he retired as chief executive officer of Columbia-based Rouse Co., had done similar projects around the world, including the Avenue at White Marsh in Baltimore County and the Aloha Tower Marketplace in Honolulu. But this endeavor was the largest brown-fields project under single ownership in the nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the largest land area that Enterprise had developed.

"This is probably one of the largest redevelopment projects going on in Pennsylvania," Barron said, adding that the entire project is expected to attract more than $1 billion in private investment. Bethlehem Works alone, he said, "will generate $20 million a year in taxes, so this is a major economic engine."

Next year, the furnaces and coke ovens that were symbols of the plant's power and purpose will become backdrops to what local officials hope will be a thriving recreation center, historic site and tourist attraction.

Focus on plant's history

Bethlehem Works, planned for 163 acres along the Lehigh River shoreline, will be steeped in the history of the plant. Giant steel gears and parts stripped from the machines will decorate street curbs and adorn walkways.

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