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Bethlehem CRIZ Could Be a “Game-Changer,” Officials Say

By Colin McEvoy on December 12, 2014

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez and state Sen. Lisa Boscola discuss the CRIZ during LVEDC's Conversations and Cocktails event.

Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez and state Sen. Lisa Boscola discuss the CRIZ during LVEDC’s Conversations and Cocktails event.

Within the next 5 to 7 years, Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez estimates the city could see up to $800 million in new investment and between 4,000 and 5,000 new jobs.

That’s thanks to the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ), a new economic development tool that will allow state and local non-property taxes from newly-established businesses to be diverted to help finance development within the non-contiguous 130-acre zone.

More than 80 people attended a Conversations and Cocktails event hosted Thursday by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC) at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, in which Donchez and state Sen. Lisa Boscola touted the potential benefits of Bethlehem’s CRIZ.

Modeled after neighboring Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, Bethlehem is one of two cities in the state to receive a CRIZ designation, along with Lancaster. Donchez believes it could be key in revitalizing Bethlehem’s brownfields, undeveloped and underutilized properties, and urban infill properties.

“This could be a game-changer for South Bethlehem especially,” Donchez said. “I grew up two blocks from this building, so I’ve seen the good times and the worst of times in South Bethlehem, and the key to bringing back life there is we need foot traffic. We need people, and some of these projects will bring that.”

The biggest impact could come from Sands Bethworks Retail’s plans to convert Machine Shop No. 2 into a $106.5 million shopping complex anchored by a Bass Pro Shops. That store alone is expected to draw 2 million visitors annually, which Donchez said could result in the construction of another hotel and convention center.

“Practically every third-class city in the state and a lot of municipalities want a CRIZ badly, and I can’t stress enough that all eyes are on Bethlehem,” Boscola said. “I’m almost convinced once we have Bass Pro Shops in a couple months, that will be the big project that will show this CRIZ does work.”

A map of the 130 non-contiguous acres that make up the Community Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) in Bethlehem.

A map of the 130 non-contiguous acres that make up the Community Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) in Bethlehem.

Also as part of the CRIZ, Martin Tower and its 52-acre campus could be developed in a $175 million office, retail, commercial and residential project. Additionally, a $13 million industrial facility is planned for Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII land, and Majestic Realty Co.’s Bethlehem Technology Center is planned for vacant land across from the LVIP, a $180 million project.

Getting the CRIZ wasn’t an easy road for Bethlehem. The original legislation called for cities of between 30,000 and 70,000 residents, which would have left Bethlehem ineligible, before Boscola, LVEDC’s board of directors, and other government officials lobbied the state for a change.

“That was just politics,” said Boscola, who said some felt Bethlehem should not have been eligible since the Lehigh Valley was already benefiting from Allentown’s NIZ. “Bethlehem is a very successful city on its own, so some thought places like Reading and Erie needed that kind of economic development tool more.”

Boscola was asked Wednesday how she felt the CRIZ would be received by new administration of Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, particularly because he has no real ownership in the legislation, faces a $3 billion budget deficit, and comes from the city of York, which unsuccessfully sought a CRIZ designation itself.

But Boscola expressed optimism that Wolf would embrace it because he knows the importance of private sector initiatives in creating jobs. She also hopes he will restore funding to economic development programs that previously sustained cuts, like Ben Franklin Technology Partners, industrial resource centers and small business development centers.

Don Cunningham, LVEDC president and CEO, agreed with the importance of such programs: “There’s not a prospect we deal with where we’re not competing with New York and New Jersey. There was a time when we could bring pretty robust incentives to the table to attract manufacturers and good job creation. Those days have really slipped away as budget cuts have taken affect.”

In response to a question from the audience, Donchez noted there are opportunities for projects not currently located in the CRIZ to become re-designated into it. New guidelines for such a process. For more information, contact the Bethlehem Department of Community and Economic Development at 610-865-7085.

This event was made possible by the generous support of our sponsors.

Conversation & Cocktail Series Presenting Sponsor:

Air Products & Chemicals

Conversation & Cocktails Silver Sponsor:Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A.

Shifting Earnings to Workers Will Strengthen Overall Economy

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in Lehigh Valley Business on Dec. 8, 2014. Each news cycle seems to offer commentary on [...]

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