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Steel landmark, museum site may fall
The developer negotiating to buy former Bethlehem Steel land probably will tear down the massive building coveted by preservationists for a National Museum of Industrial History.
The No. 2 Machine Shop, where steelworkers finished the battleship guns used in two world wars, does not figure into the developer's plans, state Rep. T.J. Rooney said this week.
The Delaware Valley Real Estate Investment Fund, the Philadelphia group trying to buy the South Side land and develop it into a museum and entertainment district, is committed to saving two to five of the former Steel blast furnaces, said Rooney. But it is unrealistic to expect Delaware Valley to preserve most of the former Steel buildings, he said.
Like many of the vacant buildings on the 120-acre property, the No. 2 is simply in the way of the kind of job-creating, tax- generating development Delaware Valley wants to do, Rooney said.
Delaware Valley officials have refrained from comment while they negotiate to buy the land from International Steel Group, which bought bankrupt Bethlehem Steel in May. But Rooney has had several meetings with the company, and in recent months has served as a conduit between Delaware Valley and the city.
Such demolition would fly in the face of a plan developed seven years ago to transform the Steel lands into a $450 million museum, entertainment and shopping district, said Stephen Donches, a former Bethlehem Steel executive who has championed the Bethlehem Works project since its inception.
"Demolishing that building would be a big mistake," Donches said. "It not only represents the history of steelmaking in Bethlehem, but as a museum it has the capacity to bring in 1 million people a year. Once it's gone, we've lost that opportunity."
Rooney, D-Northampton, questions whether the opportunity ever existed.
"The No. 2 Machine Shop is a perfect building for a museum -- and I'd like to be able to comb my hair into a pompadour," said Rooney, who's thinning a bit on top. "There has to be a time when you ask yourself "Is this possible, or are we dreaming?' How long should the taxpayers of Bethlehem be expected to wait for this site to start producing jobs and tax revenues?"
That doesn't mean Delaware Valley plans to gut the Steel property of its history, he said.
The company -- if it can close its deal to buy the South Side land --- plans to retain at least two, and possibly five, of the blast furnaces that provide a majestic backdrop for the property, Rooney said. Delaware Valley also discussed saving some smaller Steel buildings for a museum, Rooney said.
But the No. 2 probably has to go, he said.
Rooney's comments come even as museum officials work to raise money to build a museum preview center by next year, and lobby the National Park Service to designate the Steel property as a national landmark that should be protected from demolition.
The loss of the building that Bethlehem Steel once touted as the largest industrial building in the world would be a crushing blow to plans for the National Museum of Industrial History. The No. 2 -- which at 330,000 square feet is about the size of six football fields -- was to be transformed into a $250 million museum that would tell the story of America's Industrial Revolution. The museum would be affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and was to anchor Bethlehem Works, the name for the museum and entertainment district.
But the very thing that makes No. 2 so impressive -- its massive size -- also makes it expensive to redevelop and puts it in the way of other development.
"It's smack dab in the middle of the property," Rooney said. "Leaving it there would irreparably hinder the ability to redevelop that property."
That's a matter of opinion, says Donches.
He said the highest development for that land includes a world- class museum that would draw 1 million people a year, who would eat at the restaurants, shop at the stores and stay at the hotels built on the property.
"No other place in America has this setting," Donches said. "We need to build on it, not take it away forever. It would be terribly shortsighted not to give this a chance."
And there's the rub. Rooney says Donches has had seven years to get the project off the ground. That was seven years in which he could have sought federal or state historic designation that would have protected it. Instead he chose not to because, ironically, Bethlehem Steel wanted to develop Bethlehem Works without restrictions.
With the benefit of hindsight, Donches now wishes he had sought historic protection for the land, but said, like many, he was blindsided by Bethlehem Steel's bankruptcy filing in November 2001.
Now he says he just wants two years to rally support, raise money and draft a new business plan for the museum.
While Rooney said he didn't want to put words in Delaware Valley's mouth, he said Donches probably will get some of that time. There is no estimate on how soon the purchase will be completed, and Delaware Valley will need time to develop its own plan once the deal is done.
"I'd expect no demolition to happen over there for a year-plus," Rooney said. "If he can blow everyone away and show real evidence that the project can happen, then I'm sure Delaware Valley would welcome it. But let's be honest, we'll be closing in on a decade of trying to advance that plan. Just as our industrial past is important, so too is our economic future."
Donches' time of proving that the museum is part of that future appears to be running out.
"We will be running at 110 [percent] to prove that this project can work," Donches said. "A plaque on Third Street that says "Here once stood Bethlehem Steel' just won't cut it. This museum not only represents America's industrial past, but Bethlehem's economic future."