Lehigh Valley

NorCo Council OKs $10 million for proposed Easton Da Vinci Science City

The hotel tax would be committed over 40 years

EASTON, Pa. - By a narrow 5-4 vote, Northampton County Council on Thursday agreed to raise its original $1 million allotment of county hotel taxes for the proposed Da Vinci Science City in Easton to $10 million.

The county agreed to provide the $10 million over the next 40 years to support the development of the proposed science center and aquarium by 2020 on the site of the Days Inn hotel at South Third and Washington streets in the city's Downtown. Northampton County collects a tax on hotel stays in the county.

Although it could change in the future, Councilwoman Peg Ferraro, who strongly supported the funding increase, said the additional allotment would provide the much needed leverage to ensure the project's overall success by making it even more attractive to future investors.

"This is insane," Councilman Ken Kraft said. "Who will be here in 40 years?"

Kraft, along with council President John Cusick, introduced the original bill calling for the $1 million allocation. On Thursday, Kraft withdrew his name from the amendment in protest to the increase.  

Cusick, Kraft and Councilmen Matt Dietz and Hayden Phillips voted against the $10 million hike. Council members Seth Vaughn, Glenn Geissinger, Matt Benol, Robert Werner and Ferraro voted in favor of the increase.

Along with the county hotel tax allotment that will come primarily from Hotel Bethlehem, the non-profit Da Vinci Center will receive $30 million from Easton and another $20 million from the state.

Council recalled its previous support of Bethlehem's SteelStacks and Easton's Crayola projects to which it contributed $2 million and $1.5 million, respectively.

Pen Argyl resident Jeff Fox voiced his concerns about the Easton Da Vinci project, arguing the organization is not even headquartered in Northampton County, but rather in west Allentown in Lehigh County. He also pointed out the $100,000 loss in real estate taxes for the county as a result of the science center's nonprofit status.

Da Vinci CEO Lin Erickson addressed Fox's concerns saying she would set up a Northampton County headquarters for her group in addition to the expected recoupment of $100,000 in county taxes as the science center attempts to bring 600,000 visitors annually through its doors.

Da Vinci is already making changes to the project as it agreed Wednesday after a meeting with downtown Easton restaurateurs to dramatically scale back its proposed 250-seat restaurant to a coffee and snack bar. It also may change the originally planned aquarium to a science and nature center should Ripley's Entertainment of Orlando, Fla., proceed with an aquarium in the Pocono Mountains area.

Erickson said she recently met with Ripley representatives in Florida, who she said were open to the idea of a collaborative effort between the two properties.

Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said the Days Inn property will be purchased on Jan. 4 and demolished soon thereafter to make way for Da Vinci's new endeavor. He expressed his hope the council would support what he said is multi-level joint effort between the city, county, state and local and regional businesses contributing to downtown Easton's renewal efforts.

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