Monday, October 29, 2007

LVEDC's Urban Opportunities Tour shows investment opportunities in Lehigh Valley's downtowns

New York architect Kathy Sekowski was impressed. The urban designer making her first visit to the Lehigh Valley expected to find its urban zones just starting to move out of the post-industrial malaise and instead found three cities far along the path to revitalization.

“There’s a huge disproportion between the image and the reality,” she said after a lunch break on the 2007 Urban Opportunities Tour conducted Oct. 18 by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.

The goal of this year’s tour was to reach out to developers and real estate professionals across the Valley and beyond to introduce them to the potential for redevelopment in the urban areas, and the tour attracted almost 30 of those professionals from as far away as New York City and Connecticut. For some, it reinforced what they already knew and provided further insight on the efforts the city’s have been putting forth to rebuild their tax base. For others, such as Sekowski, it was an eye-opening day.

“I never realized how much development was going on, how much architectural wealth there is, and how much charm there is in these cities,” she said after listing to Easton Mayor Phil Mitman’s luncheon presentation on his city’s four-year effort to prioritize cleanliness, economic development, public safety and residential and investor confidence. “I will definitely come back.”

The third annual Urban Tour gives the developers and real estate professionals a chance to interact with city Community and Economic Development leaders and visit a variety of sites that display the potential of urban properties. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and Easton Mayor Phil Mitman will give presentations on their cities as the tour visits each municipality, and the developers will have the opportunity for follow-up meetings with the mayors and city officials on Friday to learn more about specific sites of interest.

“The revitalization of our cities has been and remains one of our top priorities,” said Robert Weed, interim President and Chief Executive Officer for LVEDC. “By providing the opportunities for developers to learn more about the cities and the potential these sites offer for creative and substantial use or re-use, we encourage increased investment and the continued restoration of an important economic platform for the Lehigh Valley.”

The tour began at the Banana Factory in Bethlehem at 8:30 a.m. Thursday with a presentation by Mayor Callahan, followed by a bus tour of selected sites in that city.

Callahan outlined the $1.6 billion in redevelopment already underway in the Christmas City and explained the committed urban planning process that has guided the city as it sets the pace for redevelopment across the Valley.

“While Bethlehem has see a tremendous amount of growth and good things, there are still a lot of opportunities here,” Callahan said before the group began its tour of his city. “You are going to see some projects that will take some vision, but we are here to help.”

Mayor Mitman said Easton has seen a resurgence in residential investment over the past four years, and that has helped spur increased commercial and office development interest. Referring to the Bank Street Annex where the group stopped for lunch, Mitman explained its reuse over the years.

“We are going to see several buildings in Easton that offer the same potential,” he said as the group prepared to board the bus for the post-luncheon tour.

Mayor Pawlowski told the professionals that while Center City has seen some strong projects brought to fruition over the past several years, they are only a small portion of a renaissance going on across the Valley’s largest municipality. The focus now is on rebuilding the residential neighborhoods surrounding the downtown to provide a stable platform for continued growth, he said.

“We have some great potential. This is a place for opportunity,” he said during a presentation at the Baum School of Art. “Allentown is at the tipping point (of a solid revival).”

Sites visited in each city included a mix of office, retail/commercial and industrial buildings and developable sites without existing structures, such as the Calo building on Front Street and the former Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 5 office on Lehigh Street in Allentown; the Miller Wholesale/Christmas City Bottling facility on Monocacy Street and the former D’Huy Engineering building on Main Street in Bethlehem; and the former Lipkin’s Furniture store at 3rd and Ferry Streets and a vacant manufacturing building on Lincoln Street in Easton.

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