Bethlehem eyes South Side convention center

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A host of regional officials gathered Thursday afternoon to announce their intentions to seek funding for a much-needed convention center Bethlehem. They believe that a new large convention/exposition center should be built somewhere on the Sands Bethworks site.

City officials revealed plans today for Northampton County to award a $50,000 grant to the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority to fund a feasibility study to determine the potential site and size for the facility.

Using the county's hotel room rental tax funds, the redevelopment authority will seek proposals from consultants to complete the analysis through a request for proposals document. Officials estimate the privately-owned center to be between 100,000 to 200,000 square feet.

At the press conference in front of the Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Northampton County Executive John Stoffa questioned why large-scale conventions are hosted in places like Hershey, but not the Lehigh Valley.

“Why can't it be in the Lehigh Valley? Well it can't be in the Lehigh Valley because we can't handle the numbers,” said Stoffa.

Hotel tax funds are a growing source of revenue, he added. “Everything else is stagnant.”

With 650 additional hotel rooms added to the city over the last five years, including the Homewood Suites, Holiday Inn Express, Sands Hotel and Hyatt Place, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan said this demonstrates a clear need for this type of facility.

“If that does not speak to the demand, I don't know what does,” said Callahan.

Hosting state-wide conferences is a challenge in the Lehigh Valley due to the lack of a facility that's large enough to handle the amount of people it would require, Callahan added.

“We have lost a great deal of business over the last eight years because of a lack of a convention/expo facility,” said Michael Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley.

As an example, he said when the Greater Lehigh Valley Auto Dealers Association conducts its annual auto show at Stabler Arena, it cannot accommodate the demand.

The city needs to develop a facility that's large enough to accommodate these shows, but flexible enough to offer breakout rooms and other space options, said Stershic.

He said there are a lot of Pennsylvania associations looking for places to meet, but Discover Lehigh Valley does not even bid on those requests because there's no facility in the valley that meets the space requirements.

“We could be looking at mid-Atlantic associations as well,” he added.

The redevelopment authority is seeking responses to the request for proposals by Dec. 13. Tony Hanna, executive director of the redevelopment authority, said the study should be complete by end of the first quarter of 2013.

“It's the worst-kept secret that we need a convention center,” said Jeff Parks, president of ArtsQuest at SteelStacks. “In the first year, a convention center will have a $100 million impact to the Lehigh Valley and it will grow from there.”

Between the SteelStacks site and the Sands Casino, about 8.5 million people visit the city annually, said Callahan.

Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it. Brian also has a strong interest in health and fitness. He works part-time as a personal trainer at Steel Fitness Riverport in Bethlehem and earned his personal fitness trainer certification from World Instructor Training Schools. He loves to run and will be competing in his first half-marathon on Nov. 23 to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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