Life in the City of Steel
In Bethlehem, a Casino Opens and a Museum Takes Root.
By Krista Walton | Online Only | June 22, 2009
Bethlehem, Pa., has been synonymous with steel since 1857, when the city's first iron company was founded. Even today, many of the city's 72,000 residents say that they, or their relatives, once worked at Bethlehem Steel on the south bank of the Lehigh River.
But in 1998, after years of declining revenues, the famous plant went cold, and the site became one of the largest abandoned industrial sites in the nation. Over the years, with no tenants and with no protection from the city, buildings deteriorated or were vandalized. The industrial complex faced such an uncertain future that in 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Bethlehem Steel on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
That same year, Pennsylvania authorized the opening of 14 casinos to bolster local economies. After fielding proposals from several developers, officials sold the Bethlehem Steel site to the Las Vegas Sands Corp., which proposed the construction of a multi-use facility with housing, retail, events venues, and a casino. The corporation promised to respect Bethlehem's history by preserving many of the old steel buildings on the site and by designing new buildings that would honor Bethlehem's industrial heritage.
In 2007, Las Vegas Sands Corp. bought the 124-acre site and two years later broke ground on the $743 million project. A few months later, citing the growing The casino opened on May 22.
"We're all hopeful that the launch of the casino will be a shot in the arm economically for Bethlehem," says Adrian Fine, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's director for the Center for State and Local Policy. He says that locals hope the casino owners will honor Bethlehem's history as a steel city, "but do it in a way that is respectful, and not turn it into some Disneyfied site."
Earlier this month, the National Museum of Industrial History, partnering with the Smithsonian Institution, began renovating the 1913 Electric Shop for its exhibit hall, which is scheduled to open next year. In the fall, a nonprofit will break ground on a performing arts center, a new building that will be part of the new SteelStacks, a 4.5-acre campus on the Bethlehem Steel site. The plant's oldest remaining building, known as the Stock House, will be converted to a visitors center next year. (Bethlehem Steel's Waterworks building, a National Historic Landmark, received a grant for its restoration in 2006 from Save America's Treasures.) Other than that, none of the other 17 historic mill buildings on the site have been renovated or restored, and all of the historic buildings are closed to the public.
"We're glad [the casino] open because this is the first step towards what we're really hoping to see, in the later phases, which will be the actual rehabilitation and reuse of the historic buildings," says Amey Senape, co-founder of Save Our Steel, an organization that advocates for the reuse of the Bethlehem Steel buildings. Senape adds that in order for the Bethlehem Sands resort to draw more than just gamblers, the Sands Casino Corp. will have to emphasize the site's history. "In order to make the casino a world-class resort, they have to get the historic buildings rehabbed and reused. Rehab of that site as a whole will draw people beyond the casino."
The new casino, designed to blend in with surrounding Bethlehem Steel structures, has matte black ceiling beams and orange lights, meant to evoke glowing pieces of steel. The building boasts 3,000 gaming machines on a 139,000-square-foot gaming floor. Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan told USA Today that the casino should create 1,000 permanent jobs, bring five million visitors a year, and generate $10 million dollars annually for Bethlehem.
"I would say we're cautiously optimistic right now," Senape says. "We've been waiting for a long time, and we have to wait more."
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