Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bethlehem area scores $18 million in grants from the state

He wasn't wearing a red suit or white beard, but Gov. Ed Rendell arrived in Bethlehem on Monday with a sack full of $18 million worth of presents for an area that's clearly on his nice list.

ArtsQuest and PBS-39, WLVT-TV must have been very good this year because Rendell left a $5 million grant for the SteelStax performing arts and broadcast center planned for former Bethlehem Steel land on the South Side.

But that present sat atop an unprecedented stack that included a $5 million present for the South Side campus of Northampton Community College, which has its main campus in Bethlehem Township. The governor also dropped off a $4 million grant for St. Luke's Hospital and its proposed Route 33 campus in the township.

And Rendell left a $2.5 million grant for Historic Bethlehem Partnership to maintain its Colonial Industrial Quarter along Main Street, and a $1.5 million grant to build a technology center in Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII in south Bethlehem.

As Rendell passed out the giant cardboard checks, all that gift-giving took on a festive tone, complete with singing elves and a Bethlehem mayor who looked very much like a child tearing open his Christmas morning haul.

''We all want to ride in the governor's limo,'' said 8-year-old singing elf Tajaliah Wheeler, who performed at the event with the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre.

''I want to ride in the governor's limo, too,'' Mayor John Callahan joked back. ''Maybe there's more checks in the trunk.''

There weren't. But Rendell had already dropped off more state Redevelopment Assistance Capital money in Bethlehem than the city previously received in the entire 14-year history of the program, according to the mayor.

Rendell explained that the Bethlehem area didn't get on his nice list by chance.

''We assess the potential of every region,'' Rendell said. ''This is one of the regions with the biggest upside of creating good-paying jobs. Instead of a [Bethlehem Steel] brownfield, this site will come alive with culture, entertainment and excitement.''

The gifts came two days before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is scheduled to decide whether Sands BethWorks Gaming will get a license to build a casino on the same 126-acre Bethlehem Steel site. But Rendell said that was merely a coincidence, and he originally planned to deliver the checks in October, but delayed that because of the elections.

A look at the gifts left under the Bethlehem area's tree Monday:

$5 million to help build the SteelStax performing arts and broadcast center. The $49 million complex is to include an ArtsQuest performing arts center with a glass-walled concert cafe that would have a view of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces, and a state-of-the art PBS-39 studio. It would be a year-round concert venue and education center run by Musikfest's parent, ArtsQuest. The PBS-39 studio would be a three-story, 40,000-square-foot headquarters.

$5 million for Northampton Community College to help with its $15 million renovation of a former Bethlehem Steel office building. NCC moved into the first two floors of the six-story building last year, but completing the renovation will allow more than 4,000 students to take classes in the Third Street building as early as next year.

$4 million for St. Luke's Hospital-Fountain Hill to begin building its cancer, surgery and hospital campus on 200 acres at Route 33 and Freemansburg Avenue.

$2.5 million for the Historic Bethlehem Partnership to help it maintain 19 buildings and 40,000 artifacts at its 20-acre site just off Bethlehem's Main Street.

$1.5 million for the city to build a technology center on the LVIP VII property in south Bethlehem. The technology center is part of an overall plan by the city to sell two operating technology centers near the Fahy Bridge, and begin building a series of tech centers on the LVIP VII site.

For Tony Hanna, city director of community and economic development, the haul from Rendell hit every corner of the city's vision for the South Side.

''It shows the commitment we've made for arts, history, preservation and technology development,'' Hanna said. ''It's a balanced formula, and today the governor bought into every part of it.''

The flurry of checks came during a festive news conference at ArtsQuest's Banana Factory in south Bethlehem. While city, county and state officials lined up to have their photos taken with Rendell and his giant checks, those 15 elves from the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre kept asking him for a ride in his sleigh, er, limo.

As they guessed the governor's age to win the ride, Rendell resisted his urge to award the prize to the elf who guessed 39. He awarded the prize to 8-year-old Madison Cerniglia of Nazareth, who guessed 57, and her friend Heather Goff of Bethlehem, who was celebrating her ninth birthday. They got a ride around the parking lot.

Then, as Rendell rushed to his limo, blaming his next appointment for his haste, he said, ''I hope everyone in the Lehigh Valley has a great holiday season.''


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