Monday, January 08, 2007

Bethlehem industrial museum back on track

Nine years ago Bethlehem Steel executives stood with then-Gov. Tom Ridge to announce that the closed plant would be transformed into a fitting monument to the former steel titan and the other companies that helped build America.

The doors of the proposed National Museum of Industrial History would swing wide open to an enthusiastic public by the end of 1999, they said. Yet today, the museum is much like the other buildings the bankrupt steel company left behind: an empty space with grass growing from the pavement outside.

This week, museum officials say their streak of broken promises and missed deadlines is about to end. With a new board of directors, the arrival of a world-class fundraiser and the start of a new $12 million capital campaign, the $26 million museum is scheduled to open in the summer of 2008.

The prospect of 5 million people a year coming to south Bethlehem to gamble, recreate and shop might have something to do with the newfound optimism for the project.

By the time millions of people are dropping their money into thousands of slot machines, history buffs will be viewing the 1876 Centennial Exposition exhibit, watching movies in the museum theater, or walking across a steel beam that gives people the illusion of being 40 stories up. At least that's the new plan.

''It gets a lot easier to raise money when [donors] know that 5 million people will be coming to the property where their company name hangs over an exhibit,'' said Bob Happy, senior vice president of CCS Fundraising, of New York. ''I'm very confident we'll raise the money we need to get construction under way this spring.''

As part of their new charge to have the museum open in 18 months, museum officials have added to the board local heavyweights that include Alvin H. Butz Inc. chief executive officer Lee Butz, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation chairman Colin Campbell, former RCA executive William C. Hittinger, former DeSales University President the Rev. Daniel G. Gambet, entrepreneur Charles Snelling and National Job Corp. Association chairman Richard F. Schubert.

Stephen Donches, museum president and chief executive officer, said the most recent designs call for a two-story, 40,000-square-foot museum that will have the Smithsonian Institution's 1876 Centennial exhibit of massive industrial equipment such as a locomotive and a steam hammer on the first floor.

The second floor will include exhibits for everything from iron and steel to transportation to telecommunications, a 60-seat theater and several electronic kiosks. People will punch in like steelworkers as they enter the floor, and they will exit across a steel beam that gives the optical illusion of being 40 stories up on a skyscraper still under construction, Donches said. The admission fee hasn't been determined, but it will be under $10, Donches said.

''We want to give people a hands-on experience of what it was like,'' Donches said. ''Our focus will be on the companies and innovations that helped build, transport and defend America.''

There is a long list of reasons why the museum — after years of stalled fundraising and virtually no construction — can open next year, Donches argues. The more-than $700 million development, anchored by a Las Vegas Sands casino and hotel complex, is certainly the linchpin. Before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board awarded the casino license to Sands BethWorks Gaming on Dec. 20, there was no guarantee anything would be built on the 124 acres of former Steel property anytime soon.

The clear ownership of the land is another. Since Bethlehem Steel filed bankruptcy in 2001, the land has been through three owners, and several other investors have kicked the tires. The uncertainty hamstrung the museum's ability to raise money, Donches said. Its long-term ownership wasn't settled until the gambling license was awarded last month.

The arrival of CCS Fundraising only adds to what museum officials believe is a confluence of encouraging signs. The New York City-based company not only is one of the largest and most successful in the field, but it knows the Lehigh Valley. Among a portfolio that includes $3.5 billion a year in fundraising is the $50 million it has helped Lehigh Valley Hospital raise the past two years for programs and capital projects and the $55 million it helped raise for the Allentown Catholic Diocese from 2003 to 2005.

Its international portfolio includes raising $146 million for Lions Club International to combat preventable blindness, $593 million for Habitat for Humanity to build more than 100,000 homes over the past five years, $240 million for Rotary International to help stamp out polio, $126 million for the Nashville Symphony to build a new concert hall and $70 million to expand the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

Happy said CCS Fundraising exceeds its fundraising goal more than 90 percent of the time, but he also knows CCS Fundraising will have to overcome some obstacles with the industrial history museum. For one, it will have to regain the credibility lost from years of missing deadlines. The museum is seven years past its original opening date, it has raised barely enough money to pay Donches' $202,000 salary and benefit in some years, and cost escalations mean it is actually further away from having enough money to build than it was in 1999.

Elmer Gates, a prominent Lehigh Valley businessman who sat on the museum's original advisory committee, is not won over by the latest campaign.

''The market has spoken. The fact that no one has donated tells you that they don't want a museum,'' Gates said. ''Even if they build it, they will have to keep coming to the public to keep it running. Give it up and move on.''

Happy says the market has not spoken because it hasn't been properly tapped. Unlike past campaigns that focused on local fundraising, phase one of the CCS Fundraising plan — already under way — is a national search for companies willing to sponsor exhibits. From there, CCS will begin a regional campaign designed to get five- and six-figure donations, and phase three will include a membership campaign in which they will seek money from the public.

The goal is to raise $12 million to begin construction of the museum by March and build a $3 million endowment that would help maintain the museum after it opens.

But Donches knows from experience that setting the goal is the easy part.

''It takes a long time and a lot of effort to get a new museum off the ground,'' Donches said. ''We knew that if people were patient, we'd get this thing in the air.''

Whether the museum takes flight will be known in the next few months, but Donches is convinced the wheels actually left the tarmac on Dec. 20, the moment Bethlehem was awarded a gambling license.

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