Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sands BethWorks to build concert hall, not ArtsQuest

Festival Hall was to be the Lehigh Valley's answer to the Hollywood Bowl or Red Rocks amphitheater near Denver. It was to be a place where the world's best music acts would come, not to play before stadium crowds, but for the privilege of performing at the foot of the massive Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces.

Yet even before the first brick in the SteelStax cultural complex is laid in south Bethlehem, the concept for the $50 million concert arena is on the cutting room floor because Sands BethWorks is about to build its own concert venue, near its slots casino.

Sands BethWorks is to begin demolition this week to make way for its casino, hotel and retail shop complex that is scheduled to begin opening by the end of next year. A key element of that is the events center, which would attract the kind of large trade shows, conventions and concerts the Lehigh Valley has not been able to host.

Currently, the Holiday Inn at Fogelsville has the largest room in the Valley, but its 12,000-square-foot facility seats no more than 800 people. Stabler Arena in Bethlehem seats 6,500 people, but it's an outdated building with no kitchen facilities and isn't near any hotel.

''We turn down requests for meetings and conventions on a weekly basis,'' said Michael Stershic, president of the Lehigh Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. ''That doesn't even include the business we're not going after. We simply have no place to put them.''

Mayor John Callahan said while he was excited about the possibilities of Festival Hall, the Sands BethWorks center is a better deal for the Valley. Because ArtsQuest is in the middle of a capital campaign for Phase 1, it probably couldn't begin raising money for Festival Hall until at least 2009, putting construction at least four years off.

''Festival Hall was going to be a very ambitious undertaking that was going to require millions and millions of dollars of public money,'' Callahan said. ''This way we get it sooner, and it's entirely privately funded.''

Bonnie Brosious, marketing director of the Allentown Fair who has booked acts for 25 years, noted the challenge Festival Hall would face. ''The investment must be worth the risk, and right now, it's tough out there,'' she said. ''We struggle. It's not an easy business; it can be a losing business.''

Tony Hanna, Bethlehem's director of community and economic development, said no one should think the city is settling for less. ''The success of [Las Vegas Sands] was built on their expertise in the convention business,'' he said.

Las Vegas Sands is spending $2 billion to make its Las Vegas hotel and convention center the largest privately operated convention center in the world.

''This is not an afterthought,'' Sands BethWorks President Robert DeSalvio said. ''This is the backbone of our company.''

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