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Bethlehem Advances Effort to Include Moravian Settlement in World Heritage Site

By Colin McEvoy on September 20, 2021

During a Sept. 15 announcement, Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez holds a joint application to feature the city’s Moravian settlement on an application for a World Heritage Site. (photo courtesy Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites)

A crucial step has been taken in the efforts to have the city of Bethlehem’s Moravian church settlement included as part of a World Heritage Site.

The city has announced that the federal government has authorized Bethlehem’s Moravian district to participate in a planned multi-country nomination to the World Heritage List of historic Moravian Church settlements in Europe and North America.

Although it could take years before a final decision is made, this authorization is an important step in advancing an application that would include Bethlehem’s Moravian settlement along with other Moravian communities in Germany, Northern Ireland, and Denmark.

“It’s a tremendous honor that we’re being considered for a World Heritage Site,” said Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez. “If we are selected in this joint transnational application, we will see an increase in tourism not just in Bethlehem, but all across the Lehigh Valley. It’s an exciting time for the city and for the Moravian community.”

Don Cunningham, President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), also serves as treasurer for the Bethlehem World Heritage Commission, which has been working to advance this nomination.

“In addition to boosting tourism and highlighting an important aspect of Bethlehem and Lehigh Valley history, this designation would be good for the region from an economic development perspective,” Cunningham said. “The more extensive branding and asset awareness comes with this designation would help attract further development to the Lehigh Valley, particularly in the area of foreign direct investment.”

In addition to Cunningham, several other members of the LVEDC Board of Directors are active on the Bethlehem World Heritage Commission. Donchez, Northampton County Executive Lamont McClure, and Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong serve on both, and LVEDC Board Secretary Dan McCarthy is also secretary of the Bethlehem World Heritage Commission.

World Heritage Sites are designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for having cultural, historical, scientific, or some other form of significance. There are only 24 World Heritage Sites in the United States, including the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and Independence Hall.

“There are only a little over 1,000 World Heritage sites in the whole world,” said Charlene Donchez Mowers, President of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites. “All of us working together with our colleagues is just fabulous.”

Alex Michaels, President & CEO of Discover Lehigh Valley, said if the designation is approved, his organization anticipates working closely with Philadelphia and New York to market other World Heritage Sites like Independence Hall and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater along with Bethlehem’s as part of a “heritage triangle.”

“This distinction not only complements our tremendous quality of life assets, but exposes them on a global scale,” Michaels said. “This distinction will boost our tourism economy and place us as an international destination.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior has authorized the Historic Moravian Bethlehem National Historic Landmark District to participate in the multi-country nomination. Representatives from Germany, Northern Ireland, and Denmark were in Bethlehem on Sept. 15 to sign a joint application to be World Heritage sites.

The final decision on inclusion on the World Heritage list will be made by the World Heritage Committee, which includes representatives from 21 nations elected from members of the World Heritage Convention and advised by the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

The date of the actual submission of a nomination will depend on when the detailed documentation package is completed, Donchez said. A final decision will likely not be reached until 2024.

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