Lehigh Valley

Northampton County says no but yes to Da Vinci Science City

$10 million grant repealed

EASTON, Pa. - Northampton County Council says it’s still on board for the Da Vinci Science City project in Easton even as members repealed a 40-year, $10 million grant to the project.

Council members said they did not think the grant should have been approved in December before the new board was sworn in, largely agreeing that the 40-year term was too long and too costly.

In a 7-2 vote, council repealed a December ordinance that portioned out 12.5 percent of Northampton County hotel room tax revenue to the Easton Da Vinci Science City project.

The repealed ordinance designated $250,000 annually from hotel tax revenue to the science center over 40 years.

Pennsylvania committed $20 million to the project, conditional on the Science Center getting rid of its aquarium plans. Easton has committed $30 million.

Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. and Da Vinci board member Jane Ervin urged council to reconsider ahead of the vote.

Panto said the Da Vinci Science Center was vital to the city and the county’s regional leadership.

He asked council members not to cancel grant funding but to join in ongoing project meetings.

Ervin urged council to take time to learn about how the science center would affect the county.

“It really is unprecedented in scope,” she said.

Ervin said she and other board members were strongly committed to the project and had personally contributed more than $400,000 to the project.

“We believe in this project,” she said. “Be bold. Think big.”

Council member John Cusick said he was troubled that the plans had changed just six weeks after the county approved the grant. He suggested that County Council should be fiscally prudent, not bold, when reviewing the project.

Council president Ken Kraft agreed that the county needed to see a business plan — not concept designs — before promising a grant.

The county had provided ArtsQuest with a shorter-term $1 million grant to build the SteelStacks with great effect, he said.

Council member Ronald Heckman said the science center had undergone a major change that required a new cost analysis. While he does want a project in Easton, Heckman said he didn’t understand how the change would affect overall project pricing.

Council member Lori Vargo Heffner said she didn’t want to hold the county’s funds hostage for 40 years

The repeal passed 7-2 with Margaret Ferraro and Robert Werner voting against. The $250,000 already budgeted to Da Vinci for 2018 was not affected by the vote.

A final master plan is due out by the end of February. Da Vinci will present the plan at an Easton council meeting in February and at the county’s next economic development meeting in March.

Other business

The county approved a Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) program for the city of Bethlehem in a 9-0 vote.

Under the LERTA, blighted properties in designated neighborhoods are provided a 10-year tax exemption on physical improvements.

Also, West Easton council member Matthew Dees called on the county to fix its West Easton work release center.

Dees said individuals with violent and drug offenses were on-site, though they’d been promised it wouldn’t be the case. Some had even escaped custody and were at large, he said.

Calling the people in question “walk-aways,” County Executive Lamont McClure said he is looking into the situation. The good news, he said, was that the individuals weren’t sticking around West Easton.

“They go to work, and then they don’t come back,” he said.

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