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ArtsQuest earns tax credits that could fuel investment for new cultural center

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(Courtesy MKSD architects) An updated image of ArtsQuest's proposal for a cultural community center. ArtsQuest plans to demolish the aging buildings at its Banana Factory visual arts center in Bethlehem and build a new, expanded center.
(Courtesy MKSD architects) An updated image of ArtsQuest's proposal for a cultural community center. ArtsQuest plans to demolish the aging buildings at its Banana Factory visual arts center in Bethlehem and build a new, expanded center.

Monday, ArtsQuest said it earned tax credits from a state program that could help the nonprofit advance its plan to build a community cultural center in Bethlehem as part of a larger initiative to eliminate blight.

The state Department of Community and Economic Development awarded $150,000 in tax credits through the Neighborhood Improvement Assistance program to ArtsQuest and a major component of that grant will go toward supporting the construction of the center. ArtsQuest said it would receive the funding in 2019.

In 1998, ArtsQuest opened the Banana Factory, a visual arts center on the site of a former banana distribution warehouse in a complex of historic buildings. The nonprofit plans to create a new center on the existing footprint, which would be between 80,000 and 85,000 square feet. ArtsQuest proposed to keep the auto parts dealership, which is currently its Crayola Gallery on Third Street, and the Theodoredis building, which houses most of ArtsQuest’s resident artist studios and space for Pennsylvania Youth Theatre and Pediatric Cancer Foundation. The project is a combination of new construction and adaptive reuse of the current buildings. ArtsQuest first introduced the project in September and presented it to the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission.

ArtsQuest presented the proposal to the commission again Monday night.

The expansion and renovation of the Banana Factory could help eliminate and address blight in three census tracts neighboring the arts center.

“Investment in these areas helps spread investment in those blighted properties,” said Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest. “As we finalize the drawings of the building and we go out and request donations from private donors, this gives those donors the confidence that the public sector is in favor of this project and sees it as a key project for the further revitalization of the arts district.”

Right now, ArtsQuest is going through the process of reviewing the project with the historic commission. Once that process is complete and it receives city approvals, the organization can seek donations to fund the project, she said.

“We have spoken with a number of entities we would partner with, including some private individual donors,” Hilgert said.

The project, tentatively titled ArtsQuest Cultural Center, still requires city approvals and Hilgert estimated it could cost between $15 million and $18 million.

MKSD architects of South Whitehall Township is the architect.

The project could bring up to 225 construction jobs during construction of the center along with 60 new full and part-time jobs once the center opens, according to a project description.

Furthermore, the new center would be 30 percent larger than the current one. Programming at the new center would include retail food and beverage service and catered events as well as a STEAM-driven, (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) MakerSpace open to the public. Other highlights include an arts-based prekindergarten program, hot glass, ceramics and jewelry making studios along with new digital, print and video studios.

The center could also include galleries, classroom and meeting spaces and a 150-seat comedy theater.

The funds from this program will support the first part of the project that would include schematic design, design development and construction documents. Potentially, ArtsQuest could bid on the project in the fourth quarter of 2019, according to a project description.

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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. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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