After polling more than 400 Lehigh Valley residents over the past couple of months, graduate students in Judith Lasker’s “Urban Communities” sociology classes found that most interviewed are conflicted about the proposed $879 million proposal to turn the site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant into a tourist attraction.
Despite the fact that 61 percent of the Lehigh Valley residents polled (and nearly 70 percent of Bethlehem residents polled) support the proposal either strongly or somewhat, there are still concerns.
Some are wary of having casinos on the South Side. Others worry about issues such as crime, increased traffic and inadequate housing. Still others are concerned that developers might not be fully committed to preserving the city’s history and heritage, or that the proposed developments wouldn’t contribute to the cultural community.
But there is one thing they all seem to agree on: Any development of the brownfields along the Lehigh River would be better than none.
“People want to see something happen,” said Carlos Tavares, a graduate student in sociology who summarized the presentation. “They may not be as sure about the role of gaming in this development, but they don’t want to see the former Bethlehem Steel plant just sit there for another decade.”
The findings of the students were presented in mid-May at a public meeting on the Lehigh campus attended by more than 50 students and concerned community members. During the presentation, Tavares was joined by several other students who provided background on the graduate class project.
Carli Toliver, a 2004 graduate of Lehigh and current grad student in sociology provided an overview of the project proposed by Bethlehem attorney/developer Michael Perucci and the BethWorks Partnership, which calls for the construction of commercial, residential and gaming facilities on the 124-acre complex sandwiched between the Lehigh River and the university.
Weighing the pros and cons
She noted that the developers estimate that the new development will bring in $10 million annually to the host city and county, between 5,500 to 9,600 new jobs, an additional $4.6 million in tax revenue to the city, and an anticipated increase in property values.
Anticipated negative effects to the community, as seen in studies of other communities with casinos, include an increase in compulsive gambling, unmanageable traffic, increase in the number of working poor, public intoxication, increase in consumer debt, and a variety of social ills that could not be adequately managed by the existing social framework.
Interviews with area residents and “stakeholders” such as business and government leaders and community representatives were completed in-person and by phone over a six-week period this past spring, and coordinated with Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion.
Overall, the 15 graduate sociology students involved with the project noted that Bethlehem and greater Lehigh Valley residents are aware of the proposed project, if not personally engaged in public debates on it.
“Almost nine in 10 have heard something about it,” said Sarah Niebler, a political science graduate student. “Most of them – about 71 percent – got most of their information from the newspapers, and about 53 percent from conversations with others. But very few – only about two percent – participated in public meetings about the project.”
Rekindling the spirit of the neighborhood
When asked by the students what local residents hope for in the proposed development, the general consensus supported a mix of commercial and residential structures designed to “rekindle the spirit of a neighborhood,” affordable housing for people employed in the service sector, and an array of cultural offerings that celebrate the city’s colorful history.
“There is strong desire to preserve what is there,” Tavares said. “There is clearly a strong public affinity for Bethlehem’s history and heritage.”
Every time she teaches the Urban Communities course, Lasker said, students in this graduate-level class focus on some aspect of South Bethlehem in an effort to apply different sociological patterns and theories regarding urban life and policy and to provide research results of use to the community.
“This year, when they heard about the new development being proposed, they were very eager to find out more about it and to research how much people in the community know and what they think about the proposal’s potential impact on their lives,” said Lasker. “It’s been a very challenging but also a very informative project, combining reading about similar projects elsewhere, a tour of the site, experience with both interviews and phone surveys, and data analysis and write-up. It was great to be able to present our results to the community.”