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South Side Vision seeks additional investment

By - Last modified: December 13, 2013 at 11:42 AM
PHOTO COURTESY/COMMUNITY ACTION DEVELOPMENT CORP. OF BETHLEHEM

The South Side Vision 2014 façade program provided renovated store fronts for many businesses in South Side Bethlehem. This property at 807 E. Fourth St. shows a before and after image. The building is owned by Santiago Rivera and his wife Margarita. They have a business- SoBeCoWorks -in the first floor commercial space.
PHOTO COURTESY/COMMUNITY ACTION DEVELOPMENT CORP. OF BETHLEHEM The South Side Vision 2014 façade program provided renovated store fronts for many businesses in South Side Bethlehem. This property at 807 E. Fourth St. shows a before and after image. The building is owned by Santiago Rivera and his wife Margarita. They have a business- SoBeCoWorks -in the first floor commercial space.

While four corporations gave nearly $2 million to fuel more than $8 million of improvements to South Side Bethlehem as part of a 12-year master plan, the organizers behind the plan are looking for more private investment as they set future goals.

Coupled with this master plan is the city's goal for a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone designation. If Bethlehem earns CRIZ approval from the state, a bunch of projects, including seven in the city's South Side, could get a boost in private investment and offer the city an opportunity to bring in a new, specialized workforce.

If the city earned the CRIZ – which allows certain state and local taxes generated by businesses in the zone to be used to finance construction and development of a variety of buildings – it could bring $109 million worth in projects that include a hotel, convention center and Bass Pro Shops retailer at the SteelStacks site, said Mayor John Callahan.

The city should know by the end of the year if it earned the CRIZ designation.

"There's going to be another great wave of private investment in South Side Bethlehem," Callahan said. "Those are all jobs within walking distance."

Besides talking about the CRIZ, Callahan spoke – at a Bethlehem Planning Commission meeting Thursday – about the accomplishments of South Side Vision 2014, a plan adopted in 2002. (Originally a 10-year plan, it was extended by two years.)

Since that time, city officials, business owners and numerous volunteers completed a host of projects, programs and physical improvements designed to enhance the quality of life in the city's South Side.

Callahan presented a summary of what South Side Vision 2014 achieved so far and outlined future goals. The Community Action Development Corp. of Bethlehem, a nonprofit that promotes business and economic opportunities in South Side, also worked intensively on the plan and administered the money that funded the initiatives from private companies.

The corporations included M&T Bank, Just Born Inc., PPL and Lehigh Valley Health Network. Callahan said these companies provide personnel to participate on South Side Vision's steering committee, which guides where the dollars are directed.

"Any new business can participate," said Ellen Larmer, director of CADCB. "We're hopeful that we'll have another decade of improvements."

The program ends with the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Larmer said any business can participate in the Neighborhood Partnership Program. A tax credit program administered through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, it helps to fund the plan's initiatives and allows businesses a tax credit with the state on its corporate taxes.

Funding for South Side Vision 2014 also came from the state DCED and by a grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The first corporation to join was M&T Bank, which donated $100,000 each year for 10 years as seed money to implement the plan, Callahan said. Within six months of publishing the plan, changes could be seen throughout the community, he said.

PPL and Just Born are the two sole corporate sponsors for 2013-2014, and CADCB has $150,000 available in the program, Larmer said.

"That money has already been decided upon for the final year," Larmer said.

CADCB will apply for another round of the Neighborhood Partnership Program and will be working on a submission to the state in January and February, Larmer said. If approved, the new program would start in July 2014.

Over the course of a decade, the South Side Vision plan accomplished several objectives, including the Bethlehem Greenway project, a more than $6 million project that renovated an abandoned railway into a pedestrian walkway that offers residents and visitors new access routes to businesses.

"It really started like any good effort with a lot of community input and setting good priorities," Callahan said.

The plan's funds also renovated aging storefronts, improved the housing stock in South Side and built recreation opportunities for youth.

Since 2006, Callahan said, the city invested more than $265 million in public investment in South Side Bethlehem, which includes federal, county and school district funds.

The plan revitalized commercial districts and helped organize and launch the Bethlehem Farmers Market, Callahan said.

Eight commercial properties received façade improvements, resulting in 10 new storefronts over a stretch of four blocks.

Twice a year, CADCB conducted 18-week business training seminars that led to the opening of many new businesses.

Over the 12 years, of the 85 businesses that opened in South Side Bethlehem, 35 are still open and 57 businesses opened in other parts of the city, which Callahan said was a good track record.

Looking ahead, Callahan said the plan calls for the construction of a third part of the skate park across from Sands Bethlehem Casino, continued revitalization of the Eastern Greenway, and additional neighborhood and economic improvements. Through the plan, the city also wants to do streetscape improvements along East Fourth Street.

Challenges include getting more corporations to apply for tax credits and creating more jobs for nearby residents.

He remained hopeful that the expansion of Route 412 would bring more businesses into South Side but said employer-assisted housing is a goal that would allow residents to work close to home.

This program could take the form of employers providing dollars toward an employee's closing costs on a property to promote home ownership and stability in South Side Bethlehem, Callahan said.

"There's clearly a bit of a breakdown between the jobs that are there and the ability or accessibility," Callahan said. "If we can provide that structure for these small to medium- sized employees to plug in to that, I think that could go a long way. That would be something I'd like to see going forward."

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.

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