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Pat Browne, Allentown's longtime power broker, prepares for life after Senate

Senator Browne Allentown Arts Museum
Jay Bradley
Former state Sen. Pat Browne announces $700,000 in state funding towards improvements to the Allentown Art Museum Nov. 3, 2022.

ALLENTOWN, PA. – Few individuals in recent decades have shaped Allentown and the Lehigh Valley as much as Pat Browne. But for the first time in 28 years, the former Lehigh Valley state senator who describes himself as “an extreme moderate” finds himself out of office.

In an interview with LehighValleyNews.com, Browne said he intends to focus on his private practice as an accountant and attorney.

Local municipal officials, business leaders and nonprofit organizations could be forgiven for confusing Browne for Santa Claus in recent months. In his final weeks in office, Browne presented millions of dollars in state grants and awards to Lehigh Valley causes.

  • For the first time in 28 years, Pat Browne will not represent Allentown or the Lehigh Valley in Harrisburg
  • Browne created the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which has generated more than $1 billion in investments in Allentown
  • He says the Lehigh Valley's bipartisan culture is a boon for the region

In a sense, it was business as usual for Browne.
As chairman of the powerful state Senate Appropriations Committee, he held enormous clout in how Pennsylvania funds were parceled out. He did this directly, such as when he used state money to plug a seven-figure gap in the Allentown School District’s budget, and indirectly, like when he urged PennDOT to construct a planned interchange at Adams Road and Interstate 78 in Upper Macungie Township.

“I had the ability to produce for our region an amount that was probably more significant than most. I was proud to do it,” he said.

Center City Allentown transformed

Browne’s legacy may be most closely associated with the creation of Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone. Enacted as part of a 2012 law, the NIZ created special tax districts exclusively for parts of Center City. Developers who renovated existing buildings or built new ones could pay off their debts using state taxes and local earned income taxes generated inside the 127-acre zone.

Over more than a decade, the NIZ has remade downtown Allentown. Developers, largely led by the firm City Center, have invested over a $1 billion into the zone. The PPL Center, home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, has drawn the most attention, but development on a larger tract of land along the Lehigh River’s western bank has begun to see development after years of remediation.

When it was first introduced, critics argued the NIZ swallowed up resources that Allentown and other communities could have used to improve services to residents. The construction of luxury apartments displaced many of the poor residents who once called Center City home. Browne did not dispute that development came with trade-offs, but said the city has benefitted overall. The NIZ didn’t touch local property taxes, which funneled millions of dollars into city and school district coffers that didn’t exist prior to the program. It also created new business opportunities that have transformed the city, he said.

“From where we were 10 years ago compared to where we are now? It’s really met my expectations, and I know it’s going to continue for at least the next 10 years,” said Browne, 59.

Reaching across party lines

Browne brought the NIZ and other initiatives across the finish line as a Republican who exclusively represented Democratic-majority districts, he said. In fact, he credited that majority with his long career in politics -- had the seat been friendlier to Republicans, he likely would have faced a conservative challenge in a primary before this year.

“For the near future, I see no one who can deliver for Allentown as Pat did.”
Glenn Eckhart, member of the Lehigh County's delegation to the State Republican Committee

Glenn Eckhart, a member of the Lehigh County delegation to the State Republican Committee, likened Browne to former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent and outgoing U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey as Republicans who were willing to reach across the aisle to get results. Because Browne did not seek federal office, his influence within the region may have been greater, Eckhart said.

“Pat is going to be missed,” Eckhart said. “For the near future, I see no one who can deliver for Allentown as Pat did.”

That opinion isn’t exclusive to Republicans. Lori McFarlane, chair of the Lehigh County Democratic Committee, wondered if Republicans will second-guess supporting Sen. Jarrett Coleman over Browne, considering the power Browne wielded in Harrisburg. While Democrats differed from him on many points of legislation, Browne always went to bat for the region and provided for Allentown, she said.

“He understands urban issues better than most Republicans. He got that if you want to represent the people, you need to play nice with both sides,” she said. “He’s a brilliant man.”

Among those urban issues is school funding. Browne chaired the commission that created a new formula to fund Pennsylvania schools. The state now directs additional dollars to poor school districts, usually in small, rural communities and crowded urban centers.

Browne said he relished finding compromises like that, even in an era that’s become dominated by partisanship. The rise of social media and the splintering of media outlets has made it more difficult to bring people together because they get caught in their own echo chambers, he said. Pennsylvania is extremely diverse, Browne noted, making it essential to find common ground for leaders to get anything done.

Pat Browne
Tom Shortell
Pat Browne, Lehigh County's former state senator, reflects on his 28 years in office Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2022.

“As long as you’re pulling people together and as long as your intentions are to work together toward common interests and try to find a way where everyone can agree, governing on the most important issues can still happen,” he said.

Modern politics has seen politicians and voters move further to the extremes, he said. People are more concerned with ideology than when he first took office – a time before widespread use of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle. But if people view governing through the prism of everyday life, he said, they’re more likely to be satisfied with finding the middle ground.

“The average day doesn’t involve anybody getting everything they want,” Browne said. “You give and take to get things done.”

It’s an insight the new cohort of state lawmakers will get to follow or ignore on their own. The next session of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Senate begins Tuesday. For the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House, Browne won’t be among them.

But Browne was optimistic his viewpoint is one shared by the Lehigh Valley’s state House delegation. The region has thrived in recent years because it's unusually good at working together, according to Browne. He pointed to what’s now the Wind Creek Casino in Bethlehem as an example. In a deal he helped broker, Allentown, Bethlehem and Lehigh and Northampton counties agreed to share tax revenue generated by the casino rather than submit competing bids.

Everyone has benefited from the end result.

“That is a function of what the Lehigh Valley is politically,” he said. “This is a very common element here, and I think we’re better off for it.”