The Story Behind Steel Stacks

By Carole Gorney

The concept of one door closing and another opening is perfectly epitomized by the development of SteelStacks, a comprehensive arts and performance campus conceived and operated by ArtsQuest and located in the shadow of the former Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces.  It was the closing of Bethlehem Steel’s sprawling industrial complex in 1995 that provided the catalyst for SteelStacks, which features the ArtsQuest Center that opened this past April, and when fully operational will include a Festival Center, the Levitt Pavilion for free outdoor concerts, and the PNC Plaza, a 150,000 square foot open-air space for farmers, arts and antique markets.

Right from the time of Bethlehem Steel’s closing, ArtsQuest started exploring ways that it could be involved in the development of the vacant steel plant and grounds, according to President and COO Jeff Parks, the man who started it all with Musikfest back in the 1980s. The inspiration for SteelStacks was Germany’s Landschasts Park in the Ruhr Valley, which Parks and his staff visited in 2002. Not unlike the Lehigh Valley, Landschasts Park had been developed when major industries abandoned the Ruhr Valley for Southern Germany. The park featured beautiful residential buildings along the river, an educational facility, a lighted steel mill, and recreational and music venues. Parks says it was the concert venues that struck him the most.

For the next two years after visiting Germany, ArtsQuest reached out to local businessmen and residents to determine what programs would best benefit the community. In the planning of SteelStacks, Parks says content drove the nature of the buildings. “We have been able to incorporate almost everything we wanted.” “Everything” includes a broad spectrum of indoor and outdoor facilities providing 365-day-a-year events and performances.

The ArtsQuest Center is the heart of SteelStacks. After seven years of planning and 14 months of construction, the Center provides contemporary facilities for enjoying music, films, art, dining, and socializing. It hosts the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema, the Musikfest Café, meeting and small banquet rooms, and art exhibit space. Besides a plethora of musical offerings, the Center holds comedy improvisations on Sunday nights and weekly shows on Wednesday nights showcasing the talents of comedians who have appeared in New York comedy clubs and on national television. “Comedy was definitely something people wanted,” Parks explained, adding that ArtsQuest began incorporating it into Musikfest two years ago.

The PNC Plaza will also host a variety of arts and music events throughout the year in the form of five new festivals, a farmers’ market, and an arts and antique market. Besides those already held this summer, the SteelJam Festival is scheduled for Sept. 2-5, the Blast Furnace Blues Festival is on Sept. 16-18, and Oktoberfest will be held for two weekends on Sept. 29-Oct. 2 and Oct. 6-9.  Later this year, visitors can round out their holiday activities by visiting Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem and the PEEPS Fest family festival, which will relocate from the North side of Bethlehem to South side’s PNC Plaza.

The Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks on First Street in front of the blast furnaces will offer 33 free concerts this year and 50 next year from May through August on a 47-foot wide stage covered by a 36-foot high metal canopy. The pavilion, which is only the sixth of its kind in the U.S., is made possible by the Mortimer Levitt Foundation and the national Levitt Pavilions organization. The pavilion has space for 2,500 concert-goers, who will be able to relax on the lawn on blankets or chairs while listening to an eclectic mixture of music presented by local, regional, and national performers.

As if all this weren’t enough, there is still SteelStacks Phase 2, which is expected to be completed sometime next year. This $5-million project focuses on transforming the former Bethlehem Steel Turn and Grind Shop into the Festival Center, with 20,000 square feet of open space for exhibitions, performances, concerts, and family and youth programs.

To pull all this off, Parks and ArtsQuest had to raise an impressive amount of donations and grants. The Phase One ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks garnered $26.6 million from foundations, businesses and individual residents. Among those was a $900,000 matching grant from the Kresge Foundation. The $5-million Phase 2 Capital Campaign now underway to restore the Festival Center recently was awarded a $2 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Programs (RACP) grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Beyond the obvious economic and entertainment impacts SteelStacks is expected to have, how is the endeavor expected to benefit the Lehigh Valley?  One answer can be found in the ArtsQuest newsletter: “Programming is designed to appeal to all tastes, bringing people from all ages and backgrounds together to share an evening of great music and a true feeling of community.”

Parks says it is also about the way the community feels about itself. “Within five years, the image that people have of the Lehigh Valley will change drastically. The perception that there is nothing to do here won’t exist anymore.” If Parks has his way, though, it won’t be just about having something to do. It will be about making the Lehigh Valley a preeminent cultural center.

There are signs that may not be too far-fetched. Parks says that what is already beginning to happen is that ideas for programming and requests to participate are coming from influential people and organizations outside of ArtsQuest. “We are becoming a magnet for creativity, which is what we are about. Creativity and innovation are what will drive the economy of the 21st Century and beyond, and we want to be a part of what drives innovative and creative people to the Lehigh Valley.”

Arts Quest
25 W. Third Street
Bethlehem, PA 18015

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