The decision to cancel a $100 million science center slated for downtown Easton is being taken in stride by city boosters, who say it should not halt economic development in the city.
“I don’t hear anyone saying ‘oh no what do we do now?’” said Kim Kmetz, main street manager for the Easton Main Street Initiative.
The Da Vinci Science Center of Allentown, which was planning the Science City project, has vowed to build the center elsewhere in the Lehigh Valley. But downtown Easton businesses are largely saying that the loss of the center won’t dash their plans.
Still, the news came as a surprise to Mark Nutting, president of the Easton Business Association and owner of Jiva Fitness on Ferry Street in Easton.
The center was slated to arise on a former hotel property on Third Street.
“It’s been on the docket for so long now. We were looking forward to having that many people downtown,” he said.
Still, he said, some questioned whether those people would benefit neighboring businesses.
“I always thought it was an interesting project,” he said. “But from a business perspective, one thing that concerned many businesses was that it would not increase foot traffic, that it would be self-contained.”
Many downtown professionals wondered whether the science center property would be better served by housing additional Class A office space or some sort of residential properties where workers could live, Nutting said.
Kmetz said opinions ran for and against the science center, and while surely many will be disappointed that the large project won’t be coming to the city, officials now have the opportunity to go back to the table and reexamine what is best for the former hotel property and the city.
“Most were somewhat supportive of the Da Vinci project. But, this is a very important piece of land to the community,” she said, noting that there are other positive developments under way. Hearst Magazine, for example, is reportedly moving 150 workers into the city.
Kmetz said she feels the change for the science center is an opportunity to look at what is best for the day-time economy of Easton, which she said is currently the biggest weakness.
The city has a vibrant restaurant scene in the evenings and on weekends, but without a large number of people working downtown, she said, there is a void.
Lin Erickson, executive director of the Da Vinci Science Center, isn’t looking back, either. She noted that the center had looked at many locations around the Lehigh Valley before settling on downtown Easton.
“Some of the sites evaluated at that time remain available. Other sites have been brought to our attention more recently,” she said.
Erickson said several sites will be looked at and she hopes to announce a new location this summer.
Da Vinci estimated that the center would draw around 600,000 people to the city each year.
Erickson said talks with Easton over the property had been disintegrating for a couple of weeks and that it had become clear that “Easton intended to rescind its previous financial commitment to support the project and to provide the Easton-owned site on Third Street.”
The city had been offering the property and about $30 million in funding.
In several published reports, however, Easton Mayor Sal Panto, said he intended to move the project from the former hotel property, which that the city had purchased for $5.9 million, to another parcel. Panto did not return calls for comment.