Allentown is abuzz thanks to NIZ and other efforts

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Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone is receiving more attention than perhaps any other topic in recent local history. And with good reason: The NIZ is driving the development of a major arena, a 185-room hotel and several high-rise commercial buildings downtown.

It also has prompted proposals to reverse decades of decline at the city’s Lehigh River waterfront — and even one to build the Lehigh Valley’s tallest tower in Downtown Allentown.

Yet many people in the Lehigh Valley continue to ask me to explain what the NIZ is and how it works. Let me take this opportunity to present “The NIZ 101” and also share some of the other urban revitalization efforts that are underway in Allentown.

Created by a state law in 2011, the NIZ is a special taxing district that encourages development and revitalization in Allentown. The NIZ consists of approximately 128 acres in center city Allentown and along the western side of the Lehigh River.

Under the law, certain state and local tax revenues generated by new and existing businesses within the NIZ can be used to pay debt on bonds and loans that are issued for qualifying capital improvements in the zone. Those improvements include the public-private arena complex at Seventh and Hamilton streets as well as other private commercial, retail, residential, hospitality, conference and exhibition projects of approved applicants.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT TOOL

The NIZ was created as an economic development tool to spur the transformation of downtown Allentown, beginning with the construction of the arena that will be home to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the professional minor-league hockey team affiliated with the Philadelphia Flyers, along with a privately owned Class A office and retail complex and a full-service hotel.

The economic activity the NIZ is generating will spill over into additional investments that revitalize the downtown as well as the waterfront, creating a dynamic, healthy and more successful urban core.

Overseen and managed by the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Authority, the NIZ benefits Allentown in countless ways, from new companies, new commerce and new jobs to helping create a distinctive, attractive, vibrant city.

While projects within the NIZ have been grabbing headlines, the NIZ is just one of many success stories helping to revitalize and strengthen the city overall.

Earlier this month, the City of Allentown committed an initial $50,000 to complete fašade-improvement projects along 19th Street from Liberty Street to Tilghman Street. The current 19th Street streetscape project and its subsequent phases represent a $1.5 million investment from the city, $1.5 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds from the state and a $100,000 pledge from the Allentown Fairgrounds.

The fašade projects will restore or repair historic and architecturally significant features, enhance lighting, upgrade signage and, in some cases, ensure the long-term integrity of the buildings along 19th Street.

WALK-TO-WORK OPPORTUNITIES

The city recently announced another significant public-private partnership designed to renew the appearance of the 1000 and 1100 blocks of Hamilton Street. By making extensive fašade improvements to these downtown districts, the city hopes to build confidence in Allentown, igniting further business investment.

Additionally, the city is putting a $523,000 Housing and Urban Development grant to work in developing a strategy to strengthen Allentown’s industrial employment base with emphasis on the Little Lehigh Industrial Corridor. The project is designed to create more walk-to-work opportunities for residents of the city.

Elsewhere in Allentown, the city has overseen extensive environmental cleanup in order to ready brownfield sites for new investment — not just at the waterfront. A new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified car dealership stands on Lehigh Street where a polluted site that housed the former Exide Battery Plant had been.

The dealership now is looking to expand its facility, proving that the city’s redevelopment efforts are paying off.

All of Allentown’s urban revitalization initiatives share a few common themes: they are designed to make the city more inviting in order to attract more investment from business, residents and visitors; they value smart growth that encourages multiple land-uses while preserving open space and historic buildings; and they seek to build a stronger, more collaborative community.

Our goal is to make Allentown a center of excellence for commerce, entertainment, culture, urban living and more. I welcome you to contact me to learn more about how you or your business can play a role in the bright future of this great city.

Sara Hailstone has served as Allentown’s Director of Community and Economic Development since March 2010, directing the city’s Bureaus of Health, Building Standards and Safety, Planning and Zoning, and Economic Development. She can be reached at sara.hailstone@allentownpa.gov.

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