n a funky third-floor cafe, a microbrew-sipping crowd watches alternative rock sensation Death Cab for Cutie belt out a tune no one will ever hear on local pop stations. Bethlehem Steel's blast furnaces, now festooned with lights, tower behind the glass wall at the back of the stage.
A few floors below the cafe, children scurry to theater practice, and just down the street some people leave their new condominiums to amble through high-end shops such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Barneys New York and Tommy Hilfiger.
And, of course, a couple of blocks away, thousands of people are dropping money at the recently opened casino in south Bethlehem run by Las Vegas Sands.
That's what ArtsQuest President Jeffrey Parks sees for 124 acres of former Bethlehem Steel lands come 2009. It's a vision that came into clear focus Wednesday when the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board issued Sands BethWorks Gaming a license to operate a casino on the site.
While the glitzy casino has garnered most of the attention in the past year, it is the mix of music, performing arts and shopping that could make Bethlehem the kind of attraction Lehigh Valley people have been traveling to New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore to find.
Now that Sands BethWorks Gaming has been approved to move forward with a casino on the east side of the lot, Parks said he will quietly begin a capital campaign to raise $49 million to build the first phase of the SteelStax performing arts center.
Gov. Ed Rendell on Monday awarded ArtsQuest, which also runs Musikfest, a $5 million state grant for the new complex.
And it's not the only nongambling project that kicked into gear Wednesday. Barry Gosin, a partner in Sands BethWorks Gaming, said he will immediately begin a $50 million to $60 million project to transform the former Bethlehem Steel headquarters building on Third Street into neighborhood shops, apartments and condominiums.
By 2009, what is now a barren collection of rusted steel buildings stretching along the south bank of the Lehigh River would be a nearly $700 million casino and hotel complex that would include homes, shops and a cultural arts center.
From east to west, the 124-acre property is to include:
A $350 million casino complex with a 300-room hotel tower and a 100,000-square-foot gambling floor with 5,000 slots machines. Room for poker and other gaming tables could be included to accommodate plans by some state legislators to approve table games. To be open in July 2008.
A 200,000-square-foot mall of shops and restaurants. Already signed are Polo Ralph Lauren, Barneys New York, Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole, Nike, Adidas, Rockport, Torneau jewelers, Reebok, Eddie Bauer and Salvatore Ferragamo Italian fashions. Other retailers that could sign include an Agassi Enterprises 24-hour fitness center, the Cheesecake Factory and restaurants affiliated with Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Thomas Keller. Grand opening as early as July 2008.
Refurbished blast furnaces. The massive task of turning the rusted icons into a brightly lit spectacle has been estimated to cost anywhere from $5 million to $20 million. Work will start in January, said Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands vice president of government relations.
''We're still working out who will pay what portion of that renovation, but we consider it key to the property,'' Abboud said. ''No one else has anything like this. We're going to get it done.'' Scheduled for July 2008.
The National Museum of Industrial History. The $22 million museum, affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, would be in the former Electric Repair Shop.
A redeveloped Bethlehem Steel headquarters on Third Street. Gosin said he plans a $50 million to $60 million project to transform the complex into about 200 apartments and condominiums. Gosin believes its location at the edge of the BethWorks property will be attractive to upscale professionals looking to live in the middle of the action. Could open as early as May 2008.
''What we are about to build will not only be the coolest place in the Lehigh Valley, it's going to be the coolest place in the state,'' Gosin said of the entire development.
SteelStax performing arts and broadcast center. The $49 million complex is to include a three-story performing arts center with a theater, several education rooms and the third-story Musikfest Cafe, with a view of the refurbished blast furnaces through a glass wall behind the stage.
The 450-seat cafe would host 150 concerts for the type of alternative and progressive music featured at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.
''That sounds very, very cool,'' said Bruce Warren, a program manager for WXPN in Philadelphia, which caters to an audience similar to what SteelStax will be targeting. ''If these are the same people who do Musikfest, then I'm sure it's going to be something special. That's a world-class event.''
Across the courtyard, a new 40,000-square-foot PBS 39, WLVT-TV headquarters would include state-of-the-art studios wired to broadcast live concerts, plays and dinner events from the performing arts center.
The link between the two operations, and the collection of new classrooms, would allow PBS 39 — which goes into 2.5 million homes — to expand its education programs, said General Manager Pat Simon.
''Our education programs are exploding, but we just don't have the space to handle it all,'' Simon said of the current studio on South Mountain. ''We're out of space, the roof is leaking and this building is falling down around us. We're going to be able to serve the community so much better from SteelStax.''
It also would enable PBS 39 to give SteelStax national exposure.
''People overlook the importance of PBS-39,'' said Tony Hanna, Bethlehem's director of community and economic development. ''The venue is great, but PBS gives them the ability to transmit all of those activities to the world. That's huge.''
A capital campaign has already begun, and construction could begin in 2008, with a grand opening in late 2009, Parks said.
A second phase of SteelStax would be a 3,500-seat venue called Festival Hall, capable of hosting big-time acts such as Elton John and John Mellencamp. The complex also would have a glass wall with a view of the brightly lit blast furnaces behind the stage.
When big acts are not in town, the space could be converted into a 1,000-seat venue that would host about 100 dinners, private parties and conferences a year. The campaign to raise money for that won't start until after the first phase is funded, Parks said.
All told, SteelStax is projected to draw 300,000 to 500,000 people a year, in addition to the nearly 5 million expected to visit the rest of the casino and entertainment site each year.
Parks said he expects the complex to become a nationally known spot that will attract the attention of Lehigh Valley corporations.
''That is probably the aspect most overlooked,'' Parks said. ''Corporations won't have to travel to New York or Philadelphia to entertain their clients.''
But that ambitious vision means a lot of work over the next three years. Abboud said Las Vegas Sands will begin filing site plans after the new year, and the city expects to hire more planning bureau workers to handle the flurry of activity. A $70 million widening of Route 412 from Interstate 78 will begin this year and continue through 2009.
And if you own a business, or just have a lot of money, you should expect to see Parks on your doorstep very soon.
''In three years, I think we will have something very special down there,'' he said. ''But until then, things are going to get crazy.''