The sale of the Mack South fire training grounds ultimately will bring 150-200 new jobs to Allentown, City Council learned Wednesday.
That sale, which unanimously was approved by council, will allow Health Network Laboratories to expand its operation along Lehigh Street in south Allentown and at least double the 150 people who now work there.
“We’re not talking about the proverbial McJobs that so many people need to take in this economy,” said Francis Dougherty, Allentown’s managing director. “These are family sustaining jobs.”
“These are good paying jobs,” confirmed City Council member Peter Schweyer. He praised the deal as “a very real, significant success story” in bringing more jobs to the city.
The 2.4-acre property to be sold, known as the fire training academy, is behind the Mack South fire station at Vultee and Lehigh streets. The sale also includes a 14,633-square-foot parking lot on the west side of the property. That lot now is leased to Health Network Laboratories, which is next to the fire station.
The purchase price is $978,000.
In a memo prepared for council, Dougherty said Health Network Laboratories must expand its facilities at 2024 Lehigh St. due to the volume of work. If it could not purchase the city-owned property, he said, “It will have no other recourse than to relocate its facility outside the city.”
“This has turned into a win/win for all,” Dougherty told council. “I was hoping I would not have to come before you and say that we were losing Health Network Laboratories to a location outside the city.”
The city faced a July 1 deadline, imposed by Health Network Laboratories, to approve the sale before the company looked to expanding outside Allentown.
The sale will not impact the Mack South fire station, according to Dougherty, but it does give Health Network Laboratories the right to purchase the fire station property if the city decides to sell it and/or relocate the station within the next 10 years.
Health Network Laboratories will pay the city $10,000 for that “right of first refusal.”
“There is no downside to this agreement as it would only be activated should the city decide to sell the property,” explained Dougherty in his memo.
In uppercase letters, he stressed: “There are no immediate or future plans to close or relocate the Mack South Fire Station.”
Council also approved that aspect of the sale Wednesday, without comment.
The sale of the property was approved last week by the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority. The authority’s approval was needed even though Allentown owns the property. Dougherty called it the lynchpin vote.
The sale still must be approved by the U.S. Justice Department, according to Charles Everett, the airport authority's executive director, because the Justice Department was involved in a 2000 settlement agreement in which Allentown transferred ownership of Queen City Airport to the airport authority.
Everett said that 2000 agreement was negotiated by the Justice Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport authority and the city.
He explained that although the city owns the parcel that will be sold, it needed approval from the others to sell it. He said all those other parties have approved it.
Dougherty’s memo to council states the FAA “in essence” has approved the sale but still must formally issue its opinion, “including what is considered a perfunctory review” by the Justice Department. He explained the FAA will make a recommendation to the Justice Department that the sale be approved, based on the airport authority voting for approval.
Although Dougherty said the most important vote was the one taken by the airport authority, he said the FAA also will want to know that City Council approved the sale.
Dougherty told council Mayor Ed Pawlowski took the proposed sale “all the way up to the White House” because City Council and the mayor thought it was important for job creation “and to demonstrate to the rest of the country that Allentown is open for business.”
In addition to jobs, Dougherty said the sale puts more property back on the city’s tax rolls.
To make room for the expanding business, Dougherty said the city is taking the “extraordinary step of relocating our much-respected fire training academy.”
He said doing that will be “an arduous task” but noted the fire training grounds will be vacated within 90 days to accommodate the expanding business.
Dougherty said the city will enhance its police academy, located in Lehigh Parkway, while building the new fire training academy on the grounds. “We are going to create a center of public safety training excellence.”
He informed council the city’s firefighters also will use a newly-constructed fire tower in Emmaus for training.
Health Network Laboratories is owned by Lehigh Valley Health Network and Good Shepherd Rehabilitation.