Economic development leaders have scored several monumental victories in Lehigh Valley history.

In 1881, they lured a giant silk company from New Jersey by building a factory for the company and naming it after the owner's wife, Adelaide. At the time, it helped the region become the silk textile capital of the world.

And around 1944, an Allentown dentist learned from a patient that Western Electric in New York wanted to move its location. The Allentown Chamber of Commerce ended up wooing Western Electric, subsequently known as AT&T, Lucent Technologies and now Agere Systems. The company has provided high-tech jobs since.

Now comes another contender for the list of most significant economic development projects of all time in the Lehigh Valley. This time, it's not the recruitment of a single large employer. Rather, it's a plan for a gigantic industrial park on former Bethlehem Steel land in the southeast corner of Bethlehem. The area makes up a quarter of the city's taxable property.

Bethlehem Commerce Center has been dubbed the biggest economic development project in Lehigh Valley history by politicians and economic development leaders.

Biggest in land area, at 1,600 acres, or 21/2 square miles, is true enough, but is it the most significant?

The short answer might also be yes. In fact, it may well be the largest reuse of a privately owned industrial site in the United States.

And if two proposed developments on the site are successful over the next decade, it will close a chapter on the 125-year evolution of the Lehigh Valley economy — one that relied on mega-manufacturers such as the Adelaide silk mill, Western Electric and Bethlehem Steel.

Plans call for creating thousands of jobs at scores of companies on the land once controlled by the single-biggest manufacturing giant in Lehigh Valley history, Bethlehem Steel. The plans are a microcosm of what's happened to the local economy in recent decades: the decline of big factories and the rise of more and smaller employers.

And maybe, officials hope, this project will help usher in an era of lasting prosperity, less vulnerable to the tempestuous ups and downs of large goods-producing industries. Even nearby Lehigh County officials are interested. Indeed, it could be a prosperity not just for the city of Bethlehem and for Northampton County but for the entire Lehigh Valley and beyond.

Ready to roll

This project is different from the dreamy plans for an elaborate entertainment and retail complex called Bethlehem Works, which was proposed with great fanfare in 1997 and has yet to happen.

This huge industrial park is adjacent to Bethlehem Works, but 10 times larger. It is land unfamiliar to passers-by because much of it is invisible from nearby Route 412 and Interstate 78.

The main developer is Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Inc., a nonprofit group that has been around for 45 years and developed six successful industrial and office parks in the Lehigh Valley, under the names LVIP.

Today, some 17,000 people work in LVIP parks.

And unlike other snail-paced projects in the region, LVIP officials are ready for action. They announced plans in January to redevelop 1,000 acres and hope to have a shovel in the ground by April for the first phase of the project covering about a quarter of the land.

Just last week, LVIP announced the first tenant on that parcel, United States Cold Storage, which will build a $14 million refrigerated warehouse.

Ghosts of developers past

For those in local economic development circles, an irony stems from LVIP's involvement.