Bethlehem plans to seek state funding to make streetscape improvements along both Main and Fourth streets -- and may become the new owner of a former federal armory across from Lehigh Valley International Airport.
The inconspicuous, one-level, red brick building is at the intersection of Airport Road and Avenue A, just north of the Pennsylvania State Police barracks.
It is in the northwestern tip of the city.
The words “U.S. Army Reserve” are on the front wall of the building and a sign near the flagpole identifies it as “99th Regional Readiness Command, Wilson-Kramer USAR Center.”
On Tuesday night, Mayor Robert Donchez encouraged Bethlehem City Council to arrange to take a tour through the Wilson-Kramer building with Police Chief Mark Diluzio.
Donchez said the city has wanted the building for the last eight or nine years and the federal government should be ready to turn it over to Bethlehem in October.
But the mayor wants input from City Council before Bethlehem seals the deal.
He said the city has gone through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to get this far in the process to become the new owner of the building. He indicated the transfer is basically free, adding it might cost the city one dollar.
In the past, city officials often talked about the possibility of the building being used for public safety, including storage of records, training and training, according to Donchez. He indicated it has numerous classrooms and even a firing range.
Donchez later added that “the federal government’s main point was the building would have to be used for public safety.”
When the mayor and his cabinet toured the building two weeks ago with a federal government representative, they learned millions of dollars will have to be spent to get it into shape.
“It is in need of major, major work,” Donchez told council.
He said his administration is developing a rough proposal of what it will cost the city to renovate the building and bring it up to code.
"It’s a much larger building than I thought it was,” said the mayor.
He added it is setting on “seven and a half acres of prime real estate. It’s a large tract of land.”
Donchez wants council to look at the property so he can get opinions from its members about obtaining the building.
“I want council to go through the building,” said the mayor. “I want their input.
“We have to decide by October if we want to pursue this or if we want to turn it back to the federal government.
“If we decide to keep it, we may have to at least stabilize it. It needs a new roof, number one. That’s probably close to $400,000. And the boiler is old.”
He indicated if the city decides it does not want to accept the building, the federal government it will sell it and it will go back on the tax rolls “but we will lose that opportunity for such a facility for storage, etc.”
Main Street improvements
During Tuesday’s meeting, City Council unanimously approved the administration submitting identical applications to both the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Commonwealth Financing Authority in an effort to win one $250,000 state grant.
That grant would help the city pay for phase II of planned streetscape improvements on both sides of Main Street, between Market and Walnut streets.
If the city wins a grant, it plans to do the project in the spring of 2015.
Michael Alkhal, Bethlehem’s public works director, told council the $500,000 project involves replacing sidewalks and “completely refurbishing” the streetscape, but offered no additional details.