With announcements nearly every week of new companies moving or expanding in the Greater Lehigh Valley, it seemed only fitting that a group of international economic development professionals could discover how one city transformed into a revitalized hub for business.
That’s exactly what about a 25 people from various economic development organizations around the world did recently when they toured Bethlehem, including its South Side revival of brownfields that became a casino, hotel and the SteelStacks arts and entertainment campus.
Don Cunningham, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., wrote a proposal to the organizers of the 2013 Annual International Economic Development Conference, which was Oct. 5-9 in Philadelphia.
His goal – to encourage key economic development personnel from across the nation and around the world to take a special tour of Bethlehem and see how the shutdown of the Bethlehem Steel Manufacturing Co. in the late 1990s led to an economic rebirth 15 years later.
From the development of the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem to the bustling, major industrial sites sprouting up on former Bethlehem Steel land, the city is seeing a renewal of economic growth.
Cunningham said the brownfield site that once had been active with Bethlehem Steel operations spans 1,800 acres, starting east from the Fahy Bridge, through the industrial parcels off Route 412 and touching the interchange with Interstate 78 in Hellertown. It was this roughly 4½-mile stretch of land that the group saw as a massive undertaking for redevelopment.
“That 1,800 acres was the largest single-owner brownfield site east of the Mississippi,” Cunningham said. “Now, pretty much all that land is spoken for.”
Land that once was used solely for a steel manufacturing company has been repurposed for multifaceted uses, Cunningham said. These include entertainment centers and conference venues near the iconic blast furnaces and offices and distribution centers near an active intermodal center.
This year’s Philadelphia conference, “Transformation, Innovation, Reinvention: Creating Tomorrow’s Economy Today,” hosted by the International Economic Development Council, focused on the obstacles that face economic developers and targeted existing trends in the economy.
Cunningham said he served on the steering committee for the conference, as did Donald Bernhard from PPL Corp., and both lobbied along to get the group to visit Bethlehem.
On Oct. 5, about 25 economic professionals from across the U.S. and the world bused from Philadelphia to tour several spots in Bethlehem and learn about the city’s successful redevelopment efforts. The group represented people from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Virgin Islands, as well as other U.S. states.
The group organizing the conference paid for the bus ride, and LVEDC paid for the group’s lunch, Cunningham said.
The group started at Banko Theater inside ArtsQuest Center and then visited two technology facilities in South Bethlehem and the technology incubator at Ben Franklin TechVentures on Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Campus.
The tour finished at Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, where resort President Robert DeSalvio spoke to the group about the Sands development. Other local speakers included Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan and Jeff Parks, ArtsQuest president and founder.
“The response was amazing,” Cunningham said. “It was a coupe for us because it was the only tour outside Philadelphia [from that conference]. Now we are going to follow up on the process.”
The group had extensive discussions on tax increment financing, brownfield cleanup laws, the importance of public/private partnerships and other ways to effectively and efficiently redevelop industrial sites.
Since the tour, LVEDC and other local officials are getting a lot of follow-up interest about how they revived the city, particularly from Australia and the Virgin Islands, Cunningham said.
“Without a doubt, the redevelopment of Bethlehem Steel land is a best practices case study for the economic development industry,” Cunningham said. “We couldn’t afford to bring that level of marketing and advertising for the region.”