Tropicana Pennsylvania's failure to win a slots license for an Allentown casino might open the door to a regional convention center and potentially even a minor league hockey arena on the city's east side.
At the very least, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board's decision Wednesday to award a slots license to Sands BethWorks Gaming, not to Allentown, will put 18 acres of valuable land adjacent to the proposed IronPigs' minor league baseball stadium back on the market.
Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski both embraced the backup plan, which offers some salve for the wounds the gaming board inflicted on the city. But it won't come close to replacing an estimated $11.5 million in annual revenue for a city facing significant financial hurdles.
Allentown will have to settle for an annual $3.3 million — the loser's share of a slots revenue-sharing deal with Bethlehem.
Cunningham said he had been hedging his bets and talking with developers, including Asbury, N.J., developer James G. Petrucci, about converting the Tropicana land into a regional conference center with restaurants and perhaps a minor league hockey arena.
''I think having all the components of the Aztar [casino] proposal without gambling, next to a baseball stadium, is in a lot of ways better,'' Cunningham said. ''Our ultimate goal and vision in this is to make this a family destination and a center for business and recreation in the Lehigh Valley.''
Pawlowski said he and the administration of former County Executive Jane Ervin started talking with Petrucci about the project about two years ago, enticing him to purchase an adjacent 26-acre parcel.
''It is something that is definitely needed in the Lehigh Valley� '' Pawlowski said. ''My hope now is the state will give us some money to make this happen, since there was a pretty big portion given to Bethlehem this week. I think Allentown deserves a little bit to help us with this project.''
Cunningham said the county and IronPigs owner Gracie Baseball will buy the 18 acres from Tropicana under a pre-existing agreement for about $450,000.
The county will outline how it would like to see the land developed, then put the property up for grabs using a request for proposals as early as the first quarter of 2007, Cunningham said. Any development would have to consist primarily of private investment dollars, he said.
Without the promise of millions of dollars in gambling revenue, development will probably take longer to materialize, Pawlowski said.
A group of minor league hockey investors has approached the county about putting a hockey arena next to the baseball stadium, Cunningham said. That proposal is in the very early stages, he cautioned.
''Ultimately, we would like for this not to be a government-owned parcel of land,'' Cunningham said. ''We would like to see this be a private development. Because of [Petrucci] owning the 26 acres across the street and his willingness to be a partner with us, it opens up options.''
Tropicana has not decided how it will dispose of an additional 5.6 acres it acquired nearby in preparation for the project, spokesman Mark Nevins said.
The area still has plenty of development potential, said Petrucci, who has completed a variety of substantial projects in the Lehigh Valley. He said he has done some planning for a convention center, but will wait to see what happens with the newly available Tropicana land.