Bethlehem and Northampton County officials are hoping to bring a convention center – perhaps one as large as 3½ NFL football fields – as a new neighbor for the Sands Casino Resort complex and the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks.
County and city officials announced last week that they will hire a consultant to conduct an analysis to determine the appropriate size and configuration of a center, the proper placement of such a facility on the former Bethlehem Steel site and the financial feasibility of the project.
There seems to be little doubt about the answer the third part of the analysis will yield.
“We believe there is a market for a major exposition and convention facility in the Lehigh Valley and we believe we have the perfect location,” said Mayor John Callahan, who led a news conference in front of the Sands Bethlehem Event Center Thursday afternoon.
“It is the worst kept secret in the area that we need a convention center,” said ArtsQuest President Jeff Parks. “This will bring $100 million in economic impact to this region in its first year and it will grow from there. It is a huge opportunity.”
Michael Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley – the region’s tourism promotion agency -- said the Lehigh Valley misses out on conventions and trade shows every year because it lacks a large enough venue to host.
There are some events that move around Pennsylvania or the mid-Atlantic region that he won’t even bid on for that reason, he said. The feasibility study calls on the consultant to study a center that is between 100,000 and 200,000 square feet.
Northampton County is providing a $50,000 grant – culled from the county’s hotel rental tax fund – to the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority to finance the convention center study.
“We have made a wise investment in the redevelopment of the former Bethlehem Steel properties through our support of the Tax Increment Financing district,” said Northampton County Executive John Stoffa.
“This additional investment will lead to more investment in the redevelopment area and provide a stimulus for more hotel development and other related economic development on the site.”
Callahan said though no formal plans have been made, it would not be hard to imagine the Sands building more hotel rooms and expanding its retail outlet center if a convention center is built nearby.
The Sands alone attracts 7½ million visitors a year to the city, Callahan said. The ArtsQuest Center – opened in May 2011 – brings in another 1 million. Even during the difficult economic conditions of the last five years, Bethlehem has seen its hotel room inventory expand by 650 rooms, the mayor said.
“This is a natural progression for our hospitality and meeting plans for the site,” Callahan said. “We believe that we have the potential to draw even more meeting, trade show and conference business to the city with all of the amenities available at the Sands, SteelStacks and the surrounding business areas on our SouthSide and North Side.”
The Bethlehem Works Redevelopment Area, which the feasibility study would analyze, includes the yet undeveloped parts of 120 acres at the far western end of the former Bethlehem Steel complex, which at more than 2,000 acres total is the largest brownfield redevelopment project in U.S. history.
That redevelopment area already includes the Sands complex, SteelStacks and the new headquarters of PBS39.
Bob DeSalvio, president of the Sands, said a convention center would be a positive development for his business and the community as a whole. Convention visitors typically stay longer, spend more money and partake in more of what the community has to offer, he said.
It does not necessarily follow, however, that the Sands will be the developer or owner of a new convention center.
In any case, if it is built, the convention center will be privately owned and operated and be a tax generator for the city, county and school district, Callahan said. The developer may be able to utilize some TIF financing to pay for public infrastructure improvements for the site, parking and other eligible expenses.
The Redevelopment Authority is seeking responses for its request for proposals to perform the study by Dec. 13.