Should South Bethlehem get a new community center? A study will find out
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Bethlehem City Council on Tuesday voted to allocate $87,855 in American Rescue Plan money to a feasibility study regarding the potential for a community center on the Southside.
The vote was 6-1, with Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith opposing.
Such a facility could offer somewhere for kids to play sports and take part in after-school programs, be a community gathering space for special events and a central location for health services, officials have said.
In a post-meeting interview, Councilwoman Rachel Leon, who’s been active among the resident discussions surrounding the proposed community center, said people are looking for a place to gather to fill the “void.”
Leon said residents are in limbo following the closures of a number of former South Bethlehem neighborhood hubs, including St. John’s Windish Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Southside Neighborhood Center and the relocated Boys & Girls Club now in the northeastern part of town.
5 steps total, 7- to 8-month 1st step
According to the city administration, the road leading to a potential community center contains five steps: needs assessment, site analysis, financial analysis, community engagement period and a final plan and public report.
Laura Collins, city director of community and economic development, said the consulting firm has estimated a seven- to eight-month timeline for the study following the contracting process.
Twelve firms submitted proposals to take a shot at the study. And after vetting periods from both internal review and community review committees, those involved agreed to award the project to Atkins Olshin Schade Architects + MASS Design Group of Philadelphia.
Tiffany Wismer, business manager within the city’s community and economic development department, sent a letter regarding the project in November to city council and its solicitor.
“As the project executive architect, AOS will focus on comparative site analysis, conceptual designs and preparation of the final feasibility study report,” the document reads. “MASS will provide the needs assessment and a unique community engagement strategy as well as supporting the concept design work and final report.”
AOS has worked in the past with Lehigh University, playing roles in the development of the SouthSide Commons residence hall and the campus police department.
Mayor J. William Reynolds said the feasibility study phase was something that the community partners had agreed with the city to be the next best move.
“This firm has a lot of success with actually building these things and finding a way to make them sustainable,” Reynolds said. “And if this was to be built, it’s probably going to cost millions and millions of dollars, and we need to be able to start with a plan about how to be able to get there.”
Reynolds added that this kind of planning is “about building confidence.” And that confidence is something that’s also led to other city developments such as the SteelStacks, South Bethlehem Greenway and a number of acquired grants aimed at bettering the community’s quality of life through neighborhood revitalization and park improvements, he said.
“This firm has a lot of success with actually building these things and finding a way to make them sustainable. And if this was to be built, it’s probably going to cost millions and millions of dollars, and we need to be able to start with a plan about how to be able to get there.”Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds
Reynolds announced the desire for a new community center and plans for a feasibility study in October 2022.
Reynolds said then that the project has the potential to cost anywhere from $20-25 million and utilize public and private partnerships, though project cost estimates would be further clarified through the feasibility study.
Figuring out a potential location of the community center also comes with the study, as the city would need to possibly acquire land for the facility. Whether a separate group or the city would oversee the operations of the community center would also be considered in the analysis, Collins said.
Bethlehem firms Taggart Associates and Allied Building Corp. will serve the study as community outreach consultant and project cost estimator, respectively.
Thoughts from council
Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith said she felt the consulting money could be better spent elsewhere within the timeline of the proposal.
“I see the $90,000 here that could be used for the direct down payment on a building or rehab of a building,” Smith said. “And I know that the people of the city, the employees, may be stretched as far as completing tasks, but there’s other ways to do it."
She suggested the possibility of deploying the knowledge of graduate and doctoral students from local universities to conduct the required analyses.
Smith added that the potential for the city to raise its property taxes soon had her concerned with remaining “fiscally frugal.”
“I see the $90,000 here that could be used for the direct down payment on a building or rehab of a building. And I know that the people of the city, the employees, may be stretched as far as completing tasks, but there’s other ways to do it."Bethlehem City Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith
Collins said the people of South Bethlehem deserve a qualified team to take a look at all the ins and outs of a project of this magnitude.
“Building a community center — if that’s where we land after this, if it’s financially feasible — it’s something that we should be doing in a way that demonstrates the commitment to the community,” Collins said. “And this proposal in particular has top-notch talent.”
Collins noted that this kind of investment planning also bodes well for acquiring grants, as those processes are competitive and the city has to set itself apart from the competition.
“It’s an investment in our city; it’s an investment in the Southside,” Councilwoman Hillary Kwiatek said. “And if it turns out that the decision is, you know what, actually building a community center isn’t the right call, then we have put good money into discovering that before we go down the road of acquiring property and just rushing into something and spending what would be millions of dollars.”
Council President Michael Colón said the city had set aside $3 million of American Rescue Plan funding last year for the 2023 budget and its Community Recovery Fund — an amount specifically earmarked for initiatives like the feasibility study.
“In my time on council, I’ve heard a lot of things that I’ve been supportive of until we kind of get into the nuts and bolts about what certain things look like,” Colón said. “And then it’s really just to determine is it feasible, the whole point of it.
“So I will be supporting this, and I think that it’s a good jumping-off point to see where the conversation goes moving forward.”