Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bethlehem rail-to-trail project builds steam

Bethlehem City Council got the ball rolling Tuesday to free up $1.8 million in grants to pay for the greenway, a 3 1/2-mile rails-to-trails park.

But before they cast their final vote and the deal closes later this month, council members want to see exactly what the agreement calls for.

City officials have done some last-minute negotiating with the owners, Norfolk Southern, and cut the deal from 44 acres to 28.

Two adjacent property owners are buying the balance, and all of that must be addressed in the agreement of sale. But the document was not ready in time for council's vote.

Councilman Joseph Leeson Jr. was reluctant to vote on the funding ordinance on first reading, but after questioning the city solicitor, he said council members will still have time in two weeks to derail the project if they don't get copies of the new agreement of sale or approve of what's in it.

''It's a little unorthodox to proceed in this matter, but it is a worthwhile project,'' he said.

Council is expected to decide whether to authorize the sale by Dec. 18.

The park, which has been seven years in the making, meanders through the South Side Business District from Union Station to Saucon Park. City officials have heralded it as a trail to link the community with businesses, residences, parks and institutions such as Lehigh University, drawing people and priming the pump for more economic development.

Community leaders envision the path eventually featuring everything from decorative street lights to a community plaza. It would also be home to a skate park.

The park would hook into existing paths. That would form a continuous trail from the Monocacy Park recreation complex, through the Nature Trail, into the Burnside Plantation, through Monocacy Way, through Johnston Park and onto the Sand Island recreation complex.

After using the Fahy Bridge to cross the Lehigh River, a walker would be able to pick up the greenway and go into Saucon Park.

Mayor John Callahan estimated that developing the park will cost $4 million in total. The city will try to soften the financial punch by doing the project in phases.

The first phase will center on a half-mile that cuts through the heart of the South Side downtown. From New Street to Lynn Avenue, the land will be graded, seeded and planted with trees.

In July, the city struck an agreement to buy 44 acres for $2.5 million. About 10 acres of it was to be resold to adjacent landowners, but since then, the contract was changed, with Norfolk Southern now selling the property directly to the landowners.

The paperwork is being completed before the Dec. 21 settlement.

Callahan said he was especially proud of the city acquiring the property solely through grants: $200,000 from Transportation Enhancement funds, $600,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and nearly $1.1 million from Northampton County.

Religion can help Allentown, mayor says

The souls of the city find sanctuary in Allentown's 140 houses of worship, but Mayor Ed Pawlowski and a broad coalition of clergy say the community of faith can offer something else: a united front against gangs, guns, drugs, despair and untold other problems afflicting the urban core.

Faith leaders have always been involved in such efforts, but in sometimes fragmentary fashion unaided by city government, Pawlowski said at a news conference Wednesday in announcing the formation of Allentown's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

While individual congregations serve as forces of good in their own neighborhoods, ''the goal of this new office is to link them together,'' said Pawlowski, painting the office as a clearinghouse where ministers, rabbis, priests and imams can share resources and ideas, and learn how to pursue federal and state grants for social programs. ''We want the city to be there, not as a hindrance but a resource.''

The mayor, a former pastor and social worker, began reaching out to religious leaders more than a year ago, inspired by similar programs in Philadelphia and elsewhere. He said he made a special effort to involve Latino clergy, because 37 of the city's houses of worship are Latino.

He held three meetings with representatives of 46 churches and synagogues, and said the effort has already borne fruit: In May, when 4-year-old Daviay Legrand was killed by a police cruiser in center city, several clergy responded to the mayor's call for help to calm simmering street tensions that threatened to erupt into a riot.

Religious leaders also have given a boost to a program called Chec Mate, which enlists residents to alert police to crime and suspicious activity. Pawlowski said ''enormous numbers'' of people have signed on after hearing their pastors promote the program.

Indeed, after the news conference, Gus Al-Kahl, a minister at Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church and several Arabic churches in east Allentown, handed the mayor two dozen Chec Mate cards filled out by his congregants and said he would deliver 17 more later.

Al-Kahl and other clergy praised the mayor for recognizing the potential strength congregations can bring to the fight against gangs, broken families, and other causes and symptoms of municipal decay.

''Our mayor is a person of great vision and he is providing moral leadership in a time when there is a vacuum in moral leadership,'' said Rabbi Robert Lennick of Congregation Keneseth Israel, characterizing Allentown as a city of ''two universes'' -- the relatively well-to-do west and the poorer, more troubled east. The office can help bridge that gap, he said.

''The congregations can no longer afford to hide behind the doors of their sanctuaries,'' Lennick added.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, an Allentown native who lives in San Diego and heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said the promise of Allentown ''can be realized only when all shareholders coalesce around that purpose.''

He added that many Latino congregations in the city will soon begin a program called Generation Fuerza. Translated as ''Generation Strength,'' it dovetails with the city's aims by targeting Latino dropout rates and promoting gang prevention, Rodriguez said.

The new city office will be overseen by Ismael Arcelay, the mayor's special assistant, and won't require the addition of city employees or space, Pawlowski said. An office Web site, to be launched next year, will display all faith- and community-based institutions with an outline of their resources.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A quiet night in Allentown

Last week my husband and I headed over to the Ten Thousand Villages sale at Muhlenberg College. Afterwards we shopped at the Allentown Farmers Market to pick up dinner and a few other items. To my surprise, the market was not busy on Thursday, and we were able to shop at a leisurely pace because the market stays open until 8 p.m.

There's something wonderful about the market that you just don't get at your grocery chain store. The vendors there are friendly and more than willing to have a chat with you. They also are happy to give out samples, which my husband was especially pleased about. There are a variety of vendors there so we were able to pick up some meat and cheese, fresh vegetables, Mediterranean cuisine, and delicious hot American dishes for dinner.

Many prepared items are available for your holiday gatherings. So check out the Allentown Farmers Market this winter. You never know what you might find.

Vanessa Williams