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Sale of casino could mean redevelopment of more former Steel land

PHOTO/STEVE WILLIAMS, FLIGHT QUEST AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY With the iconic blast furnaces overlooking the Lehigh River (left), properties at the former Bethlehem Steel plant offer prime redevelopment prospects.

New owner.

New chance for more redevelopment.

That’s the mindset of economic development officials for the 120-acre site in South Bethlehem that is home to Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.

Wind Creek Hospitality’s plan to buy the casino and much of the land for $1.3 billion is an investment that may kick-start a stalled redevelopment plan for the surrounding vacant buildings of the sprawling complex, once Bethlehem Steel property.

The site includes a hotel connected to the casino, shopping mall and event center, along with a number of large, undeveloped buildings.

“There’s almost infinite possibilities for development,” said Tony Hanna, executive director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority. “We are hoping that the potential sale of the casino will jump-start development of the site.”

The new owner, if the deal goes through, is noncommittal.

Magi Thomley Williams, public relations manager for Wind Creek Hospitality, said the Alabama company is not in a position to make plans for surrounding land or buildings until Wind Creek and Las Vegas Sands finalize the sale, possibly a year from now. She did not respond to requests for further comment.

But there are loads of options for the site, including retail, restaurants, entertainment, apartments, a parking garage and a hotel.

“I think it’s an amazing opportunity,” said Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. “It’s got some of the best potential of the Lehigh Valley.”


Las Vegas Sands Corp. is the majority owner of Sands Bethworks Gaming LLC, the casino and about 56 acres of the surrounding land, according to a city map.

Sands Bethworks Retail LLC, which owns almost 61 acres at the site, is equally owned by Las Vegas Sands and Bethworks Now, an investor group which has as principals Bethlehem attorney and developer Michael Perrucci, New York City real estate developer Barry Gosin and three others.

Sands Bethworks Retail’s holdings include the outlet mall, blast furnaces, No. 2 Machine Shop, Bethlehem Steel Corp. office building and several parking lots.

The Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority owns three other parcels, while ArtsQuest, a nonprofit, owns two.

Once the casino, owned by Las Vegas Sands, opened in 2009, other projects moved forward, including the hotel, shopping mall, ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks and PBS39.

They were followed by the event center, Bethlehem Visitors Center and the National Museum of Industrial History, helping solidify the SteelStacks site and nearby casino as an attraction that draws millions each year.


Nevertheless, almost nine years since the casino welcomed its first guest, many of the surrounding parcels west of the casino sit vacant and crumbling, with further redevelopment at a halt. The acres of undeveloped land represent millions of dollars in untapped revenue for business and a big boost in tax revenue for the city and Bethlehem Area School District.

Wind Creek Hospitality and Las Vegas Sands announced the transaction would not close until possibly later this year or in 2019, when Wind Creek would gain an ownership stake in many of the undeveloped parcels, in addition to the casino and hotel – but not the properties owned by the redevelopment authority, ArtsQuest and PBS39.

Hanna, whose redevelopment authority owns three of the parcels, including the Hoover Mason Trestle, said he has not had any conversations with Wind Creek.


Machine Shop No. 2, owned by Sands Bethworks Retail, is the closest building to the casino and the largest vacant structure on the land at more than 300,000 square feet. Once slated for a Bass Pro Shops retail store, the massive parcel has drawn interest from developers.

“I think it’s probably going to happen after the sale,” Hanna said of plans for the building. “It is in very bad shape. I think the sooner something gets done with it, the better.”

He envisioned some type of retail use, geared more toward entertainment/restaurant users.

“The Machine Shop we thought was the next logical step for development of the site because it’s connected to the Sands complex and connects all the way to the SteelStacks site,” said Darlene Heller, planning director for the city. “So that’s the next logical phase.”

The Machine Shop is open to many different uses and could be a mixed use, Heller said. So far, she has not seen any significant plans come forth for the parcel.


Other parcels offering opportunities for redevelopment include the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. office building, also owned by Sands Bethworks Retail, at the corner of East Third Street and Founders Way. It could be for residential tenants or a hotel, Hanna said.

The Sands Bethworks land also has several large, vacant surface parking lots that could become residential buildings and options for mixed use, Hanna said.

At Third and Polk streets, the city seeks to build a parking garage but Sands Bethworks Retail owns the property, Heller said.

She said the city is interested in cooperating with the new owners, as the parking garage would benefit a lot of the development occurring on the South Side.


ArtsQuest owns the Turn and Grind building, once used by Bethlehem Steel, as well as the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, an entertainment facility built in 2011, facing the shuttered blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel. ArtsQuest has plans to create additional meeting and public space in the Turn and Grind building, Hanna said.

Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest, said the organization is in talks with its trustees and other board members about developing a capital campaign, that would include redeveloping that building, which is west of the blast furnaces and north of the Bethlehem Visitors Center.

ArtsQuest needs more space to host events and to house educational exhibits and 3-D sculptures, Hilgert said.

Another nonprofit, PBS-39 WLTV, owns its media and education center, adjacent to ArtsQuest, which opened in 2011.


Tax incentives could be a draw for investment in the site, since the undeveloped parcels are in the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone.

Through the CRIZ program, developers use a portion of state and local taxes collected in CRIZ zones to repay their debt from building the projects. The hope is the CRIZ money stimulates economic development projects.

The land also has another incentive, tax increment financing, which offers a developer tax breaks to encourage development. However, that incentive will expire in 2020.


The parcels surrounding the casino offer prime redevelopment land and offer lots of opportunities for connecting arts, culture and recreation, Bradley said.

Because the site already has these amenities built in, including access to the Lehigh River, it can attract businesses, she added.

So far, development at the site has been sensitive to the history and culture of the area while also allowing the city to evolve and change over time, she said.


The redevelopment of the land is very important to the city, community and businesses, Heller noted.

“That’s certainly more attractive than having the buildings lie vacant with no attention,” she said.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez said if the deal were to go through with Wind Creek, he would hope it would develop the site. If it does not, Donchez would encourage Wind Creek to sell off parcels of the site to interested developers, he said.

“There have been proposals over the past few years that haven’t moved forward with the Sands,” Donchez said. “I’m certainly hoping that if the new ownership is approved by the regulatory agencies, that we would see some development at that site.”

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