ArtsQuest President Jeff Parks admits he's not very sentimental and he's not easily impressed. Yet in 2002, as he stood three stories up on a brightly lit former steel mill in Duisburg, Germany, his jaw hung open in amazement as he realized just how wrong he had been.
"Oh, we've got to have one of these in Bethlehem," he said, awestruck, standing on a performance stage embedded in the 110-year-old former Thyssen steel mill.
In that instant, for Parks, the former Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces went from being rusted relics he thought should be demolished to becoming the centerpiece of the newest attraction he was planning for the barren Steel land.
In that instant, his vision for SteelStacks came rushing in.
It wasn't the first time Parks says he was wrong. He was wrong when as a child he decided a law degree would lead him to his life's work. He was wrong again when he decided he had to leave his little town of Bethlehem for the big city to make his mark.
He was even wrong when, in 1983, he assumed city leaders would embrace his idea to bring a 10-day music festival to the downtown. Turns out, had then-Mayor Paul Marcincin not defied trusted advisers who said it would bankrupt the city, Musikfest -- now a festival that draws more than a million visitors a year -- never would have happened.
Somehow, Parks, 62, turned all those wrongs into magnificent rights: He hasn't practiced law in more than a decade, he's become one of the area's most influential figures and he's done it all in Bethlehem.
Yet, somewhere along the way, while he was running the nation's largest free music festival, or building a cultural arts center that serves thousands of kids and artists a year, or planning a Christmas shopping village that has become an annual pilgrimage for thousands, he's also become one of the city's more polarizing figures.
"It's true. You either love him or hate him," said Councilman Gordon Mowrer, a former city mayor. "But isn't that the way it is with most geniuses? Isn't that how it is with most people who bring about the kind of change Jeff has? You have to understand Jeff to realize why he is one of the most important people to come to Bethlehem in the past century."
And that's the interesting thing, Mowrer says. While lots of people seem to love Parks for helping to put Bethlehem back on the map, and others despise him for the hordes of people he's brought to their quaint little city, few people really know the face of Musikfest.
Parks' latest vision will crystallize Friday, when the SteelStacks concert, arts and community events complex opens to the public. Like Musikfest, the Banana Factory and Christkindlmarkt before it, SteelStacks is very much a leap of faith. But this time, the stakes are much higher. This time, Parks is betting $53 million that more than 800,000 people a year will flock to south Bethlehem to see concerts, watch art films, attend antiques or farmers markets or just drink coffee while reading a book.
Modeled in part after World Cafe Live in Philadelphia and Landschaftspark in Germany, SteelStacks will be the Lehigh Valley's new town square, Parks says. But it is like nothing the Valley has seen before -- and therein lies the risk. While ArtsQuest has done its best to take the pulse of the Valley entertainment community through focus groups and other studies, there is no similar venue as evidence that people will come. Parks has only his instincts to guide him.
"We'll find out fast, won't we?" Parks said. "Here it is Lehigh Valley, use it or lose it."
While his son, Jonathan, 34, has built a career running a music library in Los Angeles, music has never been Parks' vocation, or even hobby.
So, all you aspiring musicians can stop sending him your CDs, as Parks says routinely happens. Parks doesn't listen to any of them, he doesn't pick the performers for the festival and he rarely goes to concerts. It's never been about the music, or even the crowds of people he entices to visit Bethlehem.
"My passion isn't music, my passion is urban revitalization," said Parks, his eyes widening behind his trademark dark-rimmed glasses that top off his 5-foot-9-inch frame. "It just so happens that music and the arts are a great way to revitalize."
Jeffrey A. Parks grew up in the Bayard Park section of Bethlehem, a middle-class neighborhood that sits a stone's throw from the city's largest public housing development. Outside of his wife of 38 years, Susan, he says his best friend is his 14-year-old border collie, Sammy. It's Sammy he jokingly credits with giving him his best ideas during their daily walks through the downtown. It's on those walks when Parks says he dreams.
"Jeff's an introvert. He prefers an empty room with a good book or a quiet walk with Sammy," Susan Parks said. "I know people won't believe this, but he doesn't even like crowds. He likes the quiet."
A birth defect that stunted the growth of his left leg meant he spent his youth walking with a 4-inch balsa wood lift on his shoe, and going in and out of hospitals for operations to remove 4 inches of bone to shorten his healthy right leg.
Still displaying a pronounced limp as he walks Sammy each day, Parks chooses not to blame the doctors who didn't catch the defect when it could have been easily fixed. Instead, he credits the experience of being a school-age outsider who couldn't play sports with giving him a thick skin and a deep appreciation for people who are "different."
At age 11, he earned 25 cents an hour working at the office supply store his parents, Albert and Marilyn, owned on the South Side. Watching his parents struggle to make their shop successful, he knew he wanted a career that paid well, and he decided he wanted to do it in one of the nation's largest cities.
"I was looking for a ticket out of the lower middle class," Parks said. "Perry Mason seemed like a good role model."
So, the Liberty High School and Lehigh University graduate got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973 and began practicing law in Philadelphia. But two years there gave him new appreciation for his hometown. With his new wife, Susan, a social work major he met at Penn, Parks moved back to Bethlehem.
Practicing and real estate law and preparing wills didn't exactly rise to the excitement level of one of those courtroom interrogations he'd seen on TV, so Parks plunged into community service. That's when, in 1982, as he was about to end his term as chairman of the Tourism Committee of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, business leaders asked him to lead one last project. The city was reeling from thousands of layoffs at Bethlehem Steel, and his task was to devise an annual event that could attract people for more than just Christmas.
Chamber leaders were thinking of perhaps a summer weekend event, or maybe a cleverly themed street fair. Parks was thinking much bigger. He'd visited SummerFest in Milwaukee, Wis., years earlier and thought something similar could work in Bethlehem.
"When the plants closed, we realized there was no easy solution," Parks said from his Banana Factory office, where the handmade African drums and abstract paintings bracketing his desk are offset by the SteelStacks floor plans sprawled across the floor and a framed newspaper page from The Morning Call with the headline "Bethlehem Wins Casino" on the wall. "You don't want to be a city with a past and no future. We had to think of something to keep the city on the map. Thinking small wasn't going to do that."
'Something to feel good about'
Musikfest, he proposed, would feature 10 days of mostly free music -- bolstered by food, drink and merchandise sales Musikfest would take a cut from -- that could attract people from across the country. But he'd need the downtown streets closed, he'd need city help for setup and cleanup, he'd need a new state law allowing people to carry alcohol through the streets, and he'd need hundreds of volunteers.
What he got was widespread disapproval. Who would pay for all that free music? some asked. Others predicted closing downtown streets for so long would be a traffic and business district disaster. The setup and cleanup costs alone would bankrupt the city, Marcincin's top advisers warned.
During a closed-door meeting in 1983, Marcincin asked for a vote. One by one his department directors voted no. The vote had reached 8-0 against starting Musikfest when it got to the mayor's executive assistant, Barbara Caldwell.
"I say we give it a try," Caldwell recalled saying. "People need something to feel good about."
"I agree," Marcincin said, to his stunned directors. "We'll give it a year."
Now in its 28th year, Musikfest is a nearly $8 million operation that features 500 performances on 13 stages.
Parks faced similar naysayers a decade later. Some questioned why anyone would travel to Bethlehem to pay for the privilege of buying merchandise in his proposed Christkindlmarkt tent. The five-week Christmas season arts and crafts show, started in 1994, drew nearly 60,000 people in 2010.
Ditto for the Banana Factory, a shuttered South Side banana distribution warehouse for which Parks raised $5.5 million to turn it into a cultural arts facility where artists and youths learn everything from acting and sculpting to painting and photography.
Any facility designed to give free programs to hundreds of low-income youths could never pay the mortgage, his critics said. Parks said he knew they were right, but that's what Musikfest and Christkindlmarkt were for. When someone buys a beer at the festival or a pricey craft at the Christmas village, they're helping to replace the $150,000 the Banana Factory loses per year as part of the ArtsQuest nonprofit organization.
With a single-minded focus and a track record of bringing even the most ambitious projects to fruition, Parks has recruited an army of prominent allies. Air Products, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem and PPL Corp. have sponsored his projects. Lehigh Valley philanthropists such as Frank Banko, who owned Banko Beverage, and Linny Fowler, who has sprinkled millions of dollars around the Lehigh Valley, also have put millions behind his ideas.
"He's a visionary and a motivator," Fowler said. "I'm honored to help because I believe in his vision."
When Neville Gardner opened his Donegal Square Celtic merchandise shop in a tiny storefront in the Sun Inn courtyard in February 1985, there were days when not a single customer came through his door. Then, during Musikfest, he did more business in 10 days than the previous six months combined.
"I immediately began looking for a bigger space on Main Street," said Gardner, now in his 27th year in business. "Had Musikfest not come, I probably wouldn't have made it."
But along the way, the kind of hard-driven tactics that had supporters praising Parks' ability to get things done also made him some enemies. Some business owners, arguing their customers can't find parking downtown during Musikfest, close their doors every year for the entire festival.
By 1998, Parks had long criticized then-Bethlehem Parking Authority Director Michael Spitzer for tripling parking fees during Musikfest. That year, Musikfest's electronic sign noted the $69,000 in parking fines festival patrons paid the previous year.
Angered by the jab, Spitzer pulled his enforcement officers off the streets, allowing one free day of parking lawlessness at Musikfest. Even today, Spitzer prefers not to rehash his battles with Parks.
"I've always believed that if you don't have anything nice to say about someone, you should just say nothing," Spitzer said. "I have nothing to say about Jeff Parks."
Others have complained that Musikfest has scarred their historic downtown. In 1998, when a frustrated Parks suggested it would be easier to move the festival to an open field in some township where he could charge people to enter, one city resident had a very simple reply.
"Does he need any help loading the truck?" T. Scott Curt asked in a letter to the editor.
Parks takes the criticism in stride, never allowing it to divert his energy from the task at hand.
"I don't spend a lot of time worrying about critics," he said. "If you get discouraged that easily, nothing gets done."
The current task at hand is getting SteelStacks open and making it one of the biggest tourist attractions the Lehigh Valley has seen. Eventually, he may spend some time advising other cities that are intrigued by his theories on using the arts to revitalize, and his belief that the location of a city is less important than the ideas of its leaders.
"What if Bill Gates had been born in Allentown?" he likes to ask to drive his point home.
But after that -- and it could take years -- Parks says he'll probably retire to his Historic Bethlehem home and look for someplace warm to spend each winter. There's no next big thing on the horizon, no new concept to develop. SteelStacks is his last vision.
Of course, he admits, that could all change on his next walk with Sammy.
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