Non-profit group makes another attempt to be friends with commssioners

Posted: 11:33 PM EDT Apr 01, 2013

A non-profit group hoping to restore a historic mansion is making another attempt to build trust with Bethlehem Township commissioners.

Dana Grubb and Donald "Rusty" Sillivan Jr., who are part of the recently formed Friends of Johnston, spoke with commissioners Monday night about working together to staunch the damage being done by the elements to the 90-year-old home of Archibald Johnston, the Bethlehem Steel magnate who was Bethlehem's first mayor.
The township inherited the home -- and the 55-acre tract along Christian Spring Road where it is located -- from Johnston's granddaughter, Janet Johnston Housenick, along with a $2 million trust to maintain it.

The commissioners seemed more willing to accept help from the group than they did six weeks ago, when they rebuffed group members who spent a half-hour trying to sway the board with an eight-page booklet detailing a plan to raise $1.2 million and turn the deteriorating mansion into an environmental and education center.

Grubb and Sillivan were careful to be deferential in explaining how the Friends of Johnston can help the township raise money "in the short term and in the long term," as Grubb put it, and take care of the most pressing need -- "stabilizing the property."

Sillivan said the group could assess what needs to be done, so that the $1.2 million to $1.5 million estimate to restore the mansion doesn't balloon to $3 million or $4 million in five years. "Saving the building is the most important thing at this point," Sillivan stressed.

The three commissioners who spurned the group's help in February were more receptive Monday night. President Paul Weiss said he agreed that making the mansion "water tight" is the top priority. Vice president Michael Hudak told Grubb and Sillivan he "wouldn't be opposed to you guys putting together [specifications] for [fixing] the roof and walls." Commissioner D. Martin Zawarski suggested Hudak and Grubb send the commissioners an email with "an organizational flow chart … showing how you fit in with these things getting done."

But when Grubb suggested the township take the steps to get the Johnston home on the National Register, because it would "open up a lot of different avenues to get funding," Hudak immediately began raising objections.

"As long as we don't take [the federal government's] money, we are free to do what we choose," he said. If the township takes federal funding, "our hands are going to be tied with public bids and prevailing wage rules."

Hudak then made a suggestion for money raised by the Friends: "Why not just give it right to the trust and let them dole it out? That way, all the money is in a central bank … and the only ones managing that is the trust and the township. … My only issue [with the Friends raising funds] is, who controls the money?"

Barry Ruth, president of the township's Park and Recreation Board, said his group "feels like we're being left out" of the discussion of how the Johnston mansion and estate are going to be developed.

The board has been charged with following the township's master plan to develop the land. "But to us it [seems] like, 'Here's the grounds, they're going to get the mansion,' " he told the commissioners. "We would like to be kept in the loop. … This is our chance to shine, and we feel like we're getting the rug pulled out from under us."

Weiss said he rejected the idea that because the commissioners are talking with the Friends of Johnston, the Park and Recreation Board is being ignored. "Let's give it a chance," he said. "We haven't even started yet."