Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Bethlehem counted among best small cities

Listed 88 out of 90 on Money magazine list. Ranked high in arts and leisure, short commute.

By Nicole Radzievich Of The Morning Call

Bethlehem doesn't have the priciest homes, droves of well-paid professionals or the skinniest residents. But 15-minute commutes, lots of public golf courses nearby and safe streets make it a great place to live.

Money magazine's new nationwide ranking of best cities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000 puts Bethlehem among the Top 90 finalists — but barely. Bethlehem ranked No. 88, while no other Pennsylvania city made the list.

''Bethlehem ranked very high in the arts and leisure, the ease of living and the [short] commute,'' said Donna Rosato, one of five Money writers who worked on the project. ''Bethlehem is a very historic city, and that just comes out [when you look at its] cultural attractions.''

The ranks were culled from a list of 745 communities based on population and other benchmarks such as jobs, housing and entertainment. As opposed to last year's list of best suburban places to live, this year's list focused on small cities.

The analysts found Fort Collins, a Colorado town with roots as a military post, as the best place to live because of its great schools, low crime rate and high-tech jobs. Also among the top cities are Naperville, Ill., Sugar Land, Texas, and Columbia, Md.

When compared to the other finalists, Bethlehem receives about 10 inches more rain a year and 135 fewer bars within a 15-mile radius. The median price of a home in Bethlehem is $149,900, nearly $107,000 cheaper than the others. However, the price of Bethlehem homes grew by 16.7 percent from 2004 to 2005, compared to the average of 9.4 percent among the finalists.

Bethlehem's commute time is about five minutes faster than the average of the other finalists. And it has six more golf courses — 79 — within a 30-mile radius.But its body mass index — an indicator of body fatness using height and weight — is 28; the finalists' average is an index of 27. And if Bethlehem Steel — once the city's biggest employer — had still been operating with tens of thousands of jobs, Rosato said, Bethlehem may have ranked higher among the finalists.

The city has lost what was once the nation's No. 2 steelmaker. But it is also known as the Christmas City, drawing tourists who want to tour a community founded in the 18th century by Moravians. The city features five historic districts on the National Register, and is connected to the former Delaware & Lehigh Heritage Corridor.

Former Mayor Gordon Mowrer talked up the city's amenities, such as the towpath running along the city's historic downtown and Victorian lights dotting the streetscape. Those draws — including close proximity to the New Jersey shore and theaters in New York City — persuaded the councilman to spend his life in Bethlehem.

At 70, Mowrer has watched the city change from a blue-collar town dominated by Bethlehem Steel town to one with a more diversified economy complete with cafes, upscale boutiques and gourmet restaurants.

''In the past, there was this illusion that Bethlehem was a dirty town. When the Steel closed, everyone thought the city would go bankrupt because no one would be able to live here,'' Mowrer said ''The truth is that Bethlehem is nicer now than it's ever been. Now, we are getting the recognition.''

It's not just the history; it's culture. People are drawn to the offerings that Moravian College and Lehigh University bring to town. The Bach Choir is world renowned, and the masses turn out at the 10-day celebration of the arts called Musikfest.

Linda Harris, a lifelong city resident, said she stayed in Bethlehem all her life because she can get ''a big-city feel in a town where a lot of people know your name.''

''I like the fact that in the summer, I can walk to Musikfest and take in some of the shows,'' Harris said. ''I like the restaurants. I like the fact that I have a job only a few miles from my house.

''After hearing friends rave about Bethlehem, Sandra Melendez decided last year to leave her New York City home for Bethlehem.

''The price of living — food, housing, clothing — I can't find it cheaper than here,'' said Melendez, who rents a home off Atlantic Street. ''Look at all the green. I have a tomato garden that I love. I'm not moving.''

Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan said the ranking is a coup for a city that is overcoming a ''rust belt'' image.

While the recognition is something Callahan takes pride in, he's not settling for No. 88. The only finalists ranked lower than Bethlehem were Portland, Maine, and Fayetteville, Ark. Allentown was considered but came up short. Easton wasn't in the mix because its population is less than 50,000.

''We wanted to become a model for mid-sized urban America, and we're there. We're on the list,'' Callahan said. ''But we've got room to improve.''

Article courtsey of the Morning Call

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