Iconic Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces at stake in $1.3 billion Sands casino deal
Nicole Radzievich | The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) | March 12, 2018 3:43pm
March 10--The blast furnaces in Bethlehem are as much a part of the city's skyline as the Empire State Building is to New York City.
Once the engine to Bethlehem Steel's vast hometown plant, the furnaces have been dubbed the industrial cathedral to a town that has converted its steelmaking heritage into a tourism destination.
Now, those aging furnaces along with other important Steel relics are about to come under new ownership as part of a $1.3 billion deal that would turn the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem over to Wind Creek Hospitality, a gaming arm of the Poarch (pronounced porch) Band of Creek Indians in Alabama.
Wind Creek would take control not only of the casino, but 120 acres of the former Bethlehem Steel plant that stretches from the casino near Minsi Trail Bridge to the blast furnaces.
And local leaders want the soon-to-be owners to know what the furnaces -- and other steelmaking structures -- mean to Bethlehem as the operator's vision for the site becomes clear.
"The blast furnaces are an extremely important backdrop to SteelStacks and the city. They are a tourist attraction. They are not only part of Bethlehem's history but also U.S. history," Mayor Robert Donchez said. "When the time comes, I want to impress upon them the historical importance."
So critical to the city's identity, in fact, that last August the city sought structural reports from the Sands so that an endowment might be created to make sure the furnaces are always maintained and, perhaps, turned over to a public-private partnership or nonprofit.
Sands and Wind Creek officials did not return requests for comment. In a statement about the transaction, Wind Creek said Friday it hopes the venture will have a positive impact in the community and create "important and lasting bonds between communities that may be miles apart, but still share the same values and dreams for the future."
Wind Creek added in a statement that communication would be "limited" until it met with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, community leaders and others.
Chloe Taft, an urban studies scholar and author of "From Steel to Slots," said the Bethlehem site has become a model of how cities can integrate the industrial past with new development, casinos in particular.
The pending sale, she said, is an opportunity to amplify that model. Many old Steel buildings on the site have been left untouched by the Sands but are still standing, Taft pointed out. She said there is still room to develop, among other things, housing and provide more historic interpretation of the site.
"What's unique about Bethlehem is size -- the number of structures left there," she said. "It's not just a single building or furnace, which is the case at a number of old steel plants. It has the potential to be a community campus in the heart of the city."
But it almost wasn't that way. After the Steel plant shut down and the company declared bankruptcy, there was much uncertainty as to the future of the plant -- especially the acreage surrounding the blast furnaces. In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Steel plant on its most-endangered list.
But then the Sands entered the city in 2007. As part of its quest to win a gambling license, the company made written promises to the city leaders that it would, among other things, redevelop the property beyond the gaming aspects.
The Sands donated the 9.5 acres that nonprofits and government agencies turned into the $98 million SteelStacks, an arts and cultural campus wrapped around industrial buildings.
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The campus draws more than 800,000 people a year for concerts, festivals, tours and other community events. SteelStacks includes the ArtsQuest Center, PBS39, Bethlehem Landing visitor's center, the National Museum of Industrial History, public plazas and the Hoover-Mason Trestle, the elevated walkway that provides closeup views of the furnaces.The furnaces are lit up at night, a colorful monument to the city's steelmaking past.
"There is no SteelStacks without the blast furnaces. Without them the Hoover-Mason Trestle is just another elevated walkway," said Tony Hanna, director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority. "The blast furnaces are a significant architectural aspect of the city."
By 2015, SteelStacks campus received the Urban Land Institute's prestigious Global Award for Excellence.
But the redevelopment seemed to have slowed down outside SteelStacks. Plans to put Bass Pro Shops in No. 2 Machine Shop never materialized, even as portions of the site landed a powerful tax incentive, the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone.
Sands had begun developing a new master plan for the site, and the following year began the permit process for a $90 million expansion. That was halted while, behind the scenes, the Sands was negotiating a sale with MGM International Resorts. That deal fell apart last spring. While many in the industry speculated the Sands was courting other buyers, there was little movement in redeveloping the rest of the site.
Many of the old buildings-- the No. 2 Machine Shop, High House, the Iron Foundry and Riggers Welfare buildings -- are still empty and subject to the elements.
Bethlehem, a city that takes pride in its historic restoration, has limited oversight over the privately owned buildings.
There is no ordinance to protect the historic integrity of the buildings as there is for the city's other treasured sites, like the Colonial Industrial Quarter or the downtown that grew up around the Steel plant.
Tim Fallon, CEO of PBS39, said he was optimistic about the site's future. While Sands was a great partner, he said, Wind Creek also sounds promising.
"What I've heard in a short period of time is that this group is active in philanthropic activities in other markets, and we are looking forward to engaging them as they move in and take over this incredible property," he said.
ArtsQuest President and CEO Kassie Hilgert said her nonprofit had a great relationship with the Sands, and she hopes Wind Creek will get involved in the community and embrace the overall vision for the site, including structures as important as blast furnaces.
"I think it's more than just a backdrop for SteelStacks," Hilgert. "It's the city's skyline."