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HE HAD A VISION Advocate Donald Bernhard saw Allentown’s revival years before it occurred

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It’s been decades since Downtown Allentown has truly prospered, and the initiatives of the private and public entities behind its renaissance are giving the city a long-awaited vibrant rebound.

One advocate for the city’s revitalization has spent his entire career working to rebuild the city.

He is 62-year-old Donald Bernhard, director of community affairs at PPL Corp., where he manages a staff of seven and is responsible for community affairs throughout the company’s Pennsylvania footprint.

The fruit of his three decades of hard work finally is ripening.

Recently recognized with a Daddona Award from the Allentown Chamber of Commerce for his dedication, Bernhard was at the forefront of efforts to revive a city that now has hundreds of millions of dollars in construction projects underway – bringing jobs and an economic engine to what was once a dormant downtown.

“What I’m seeing now exceeds any expectation I’ve ever had,” said Bernhard, speaking like a proud father.

The award recognizes Bernhard’s long-term commitment and long-term results in making the downtown a better place. He had a role in bringing the PPL Plaza, Butz Corporate Center and the hotel now known as the Holiday Inn to Allentown’s center city.

“He has been a great asset to Allentown and PPL,” said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. “He understands the issues of the city and he’s worked well with us creatively and constructively to make the downtown a better place.

“And there’s still much more development to come.”

Bernhard noted that the award is named after the late Joe Daddona, the former mayor of Allentown.

“I worked with [Daddona] for a long time, and it’s nice to receive that recognition in what’s my home community,” Bernhard said.

Growing up in the heart of Allentown before pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh and a graduate degree from Brown, Bernhard has been tackling projects throughout the city since as far back as he can remember.

The downtown has been bleak for many years, yet Bernhard never gave up.

“There were always positive projects planned or underway, and good people working on reinventing Allentown’s business district and making it an appealing option for business and for young people seeking an urban location,” said Bernhard, who lives in the city near Muhlenberg College. “I always thought Allentown’s growing diversity should be a strength.”

He began his career in 1975 with the City of Allentown, where he was for 20 years – serving 15 years as community development director. He moved to PPL in 1995 in his present position, a role that manages community relationships, community and economic development and corporate citizenship, including philanthropy.

He has spent 33 years as an officer of the Allentown Economic Development Corp. and has worked his entire career on Hamilton Street in the city’s downtown.

“When I worked for the city, I had to live in the city,” Bernhard said. “When I changed jobs in ’95, people asked me when I was going to move.

“I said that I wasn’t going to because I love my neighborhood. I’ve lived here my whole life and worked in Allentown during my entire professional career. I raised my kids here and sent them to city schools.”

Two City Center, the ice hockey arena and the waterfront development are being built, and Bernhard is excited to see what the downtown is becoming.

“The numbers are incredible. There’s $600 million in done deals with all of the things that are under construction, or will be soon,” said Bernhard, noting that “1,600 employees are on their way to downtown Allentown. … And I know there is a lot more in the pipeline.”

Two City Center will be National Penn Bank’s new headquarters. The hockey arena, named PPL Center, will be home to the minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers – the Lehigh Valley Phantoms – and host concerts.

The waterfront development, along the Lehigh River, is expected to include three office buildings and a residential building with 65 one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Next spring signals a big moment for the downtown, when National Penn Bank will open its new headquarters at Two City Center. But the results of Bernhard’s efforts to help Allentown go back decades.

In the late 1970s, while still working for the city, Bernhard was part of the team that wrote the grant proposal that brought what was then a Hilton hotel – now a Holiday Inn – to Ninth and Hamilton streets, across from PPL headquarters.

After helping to write the grant, Bernhard obtained the designation of Certified Economic Developer from the International Economic Development Corp. There are only 14 CEDs in Pennsylvania, and the designation has helped Bernhard to lead and mentor staff at various economic development groups such as the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., AEDC and Focus Central Pennsylvania.

While with the city, Bernhard took on a beautification mission that will have benefits for years to come.

As a refurbishment project for Hamilton Street in the downtown, Bernhard was responsible for lining the streets with Zelkova trees that now he can see from his office window at PPL.

The trees were part of a renovation project that he supervised for the city.

“I directed that this particular kind of tree be planted because they are elegant,” Bernhard said.

Bernhard was instrumental in PPL locating its PPL Plaza office building across the street from the company’s headquarters. Not only did he lobby the company to build on the site, but he also negotiated a deal with the AEDC for PPL to buy the property. PPL Plaza opened in 2003.

The money that PPL paid for the site was used to establish a development endowment that – more than a decade later – AEDC still relies on to make new deals.

The Butz Corporate Center opened in center city in 2006 after Bernhard, he said, had lobbied the Alvin H. Butz Inc. construction company to relocate its corporate offices in the downtown. Earlier, when Bernhard worked for the city, he spearheaded an effort to buy various smaller properties – consolidating them as one – and that land in the 800 block of Hamilton Street eventually became the home of the Butz Corporate Center.

Critical to both the PPL Plaza and Butz Corporate Center was Downtown Allentown’s Keystone Opportunity Zone designation, which offered tax incentives to businesses that located in the zone.

The Neighborhood Improvement Zone took the KOZ concept one step further, offering even more tax incentives. And it was Bernhard, as then chairman of the LVEDC board, who endorsed the creation of the NIZ. He also had a role in drawing the all-important boundaries for the NIZ.

All of these projects opened doors of opportunity for the city.

“I think once people see the transformation that’s going on downtown right now, they are generally pretty amazed,” said Bernhard, who for PPL manages seven regional affairs directors, each with a multicounty territory. “The state is going to use this as part of their marketing push to show what’s happening here. …

“It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing more corporate headquarters moving into the area.”

A lot of other big companies are going to see the downtown as a place they want to be, Bernhard said, particularly combined with the real estate deals that the NIZ can produce.

There are going to be more “bigger tenants” coming from elsewhere, he said.

And expect Bernhard to continue to push for many of these initiatives, as he shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

“There’s much more to come,” he said. “Younger people want to be part of an exciting downtown, and that’s exactly what’s going on. Allentown is going to be the place where people want to be.”

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Christopher Holland

Christopher Holland

Christopher Holland is a researcher for Lehigh Valley Business and blogs on arts and entertainment in the region.

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