Beth Steel plant yielding to casino

May 12, 2007|By Matt Assad | Matt Assad,The Morning Call

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Bricks and steel crumbled this month as crews began demolishing former Bethlehem Steel buildings in south Bethlehem to make way for the $600 million casino, hotel and events center to open next year.

Yet 70 miles away, two professors at the Rutgers University campus in Camden, N.J., were assembling a team to save the essence of Bethlehem Steel.

To be sure, the 117-year-old steel foundry building that fell into a heap can never be saved, but the memory of what went on inside it can.

The two Rutgers educators, Howard Gillette and Sharon Ann Holt, are planning a two-day conference next month in Bethlehem at which industrial historians from across the nation will discuss what Bethlehem Steel has meant to America, and how its memory should be preserved.

"The buildings that are saved give a sense of the magnitude of that site, and our mission is to interpret the story behind them," said Gillette, a director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Humanities at Rutgers. "This is going to be a very powerful teaching site."

More than three years ago, Gillette and Holt gathered a coalition of 30 Lehigh Valley groups, including the National Museum of Industrial History, the National Canal Museum, Historic Bethlehem and ArtsQuest, to form the Lehigh Valley Industrial Heritage Coalition.

Now, armed with a $45,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the coalition is planning a two-day conference starting June 14. A public meeting on the first day will ask community members what Bethlehem Steel meant to them.

Historians, scholars and local officials will hold a series of sessions the next day to devise a plan for presenting that story on the 124-acre casino, shopping and museum development.

While the museum will tell a story of the industrial revolution and Bethlehem Steel's place in it, the coalition is focusing on the impact on the people who lived and worked in south Bethlehem, from immigration and education to the company's connection to other industries such as the railroad and the canal system.

Gillette said he envisions people coming into a visitor center, where they would be directed to the museum or exhibits or kiosks set up around the property. Or maybe they would participate in walking tours conducted by retired steelworkers.

"The power and reach of what happened there stretched not just across the nation, but throughout the world," Gillette said. `The number of people touched by Bethlehem Steel is incredible. We want to tell the story of those people."

Someone has to gather 150 years of history and put it in a form that will interest not only historians and former steelworkers, but the people playing the slot machines at the casino. In fact, the mission will be to make people understand there's more to do than gamble.

The coalition hopes to have a plan to present to city officials by December. Ultimately, the mission is to draw people into the visitors' center being planned for the former Bethlehem Steel stock house. Built in 1863, the stock house is the oldest building on the site.

"We envision this as a launching point to get people not only out into the BethWorks property, but out into south Bethlehem and across the Lehigh Valley," said Mayor John Callahan.

Even as the conference convenes, Sands BethWorks Gaming LLC, the developer of the gambling site, will be tearing down 10 former Bethlehem Steel buildings. Nearly two dozen other buildings will be saved, including the five blast furnaces.

Sands BethWorks expects to open its casino by the end of 2008. A 300-room hotel, an events and concert center and several restaurants and shops would open by the middle of 2009.

Matt Assad writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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