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Southside Vision continues to plan urban improvements in Bethlehem

By Tom De Martini, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 12 2013 08:51:04 PM CST
Southside Vision
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Outgoing Bethlehem Mayor, John Callahan, used a sports analogy to describe the work of the Southside Vision Plan, an ongoing project that's served to improve the urban landscape of the city since 2002.

"We've done targeted investment," Callahan said. "We've hit a lot of singles and doubles, but not a lot of home runs. But, you win a lot of games with singles and doubles."

Callahan presided over a look back on 10 years of urban improvement in South Bethlehem during a Thursday presentation to the Bethlehem Planning Commission.

The Southside Vision Plan was initially started in 2002 as a collaboration between the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem and the city.

A decade later, with the help of funds from corporations, the Southside boasts a skate plaza, a splash park, Greenway and many streetscape improvements.

Four corporations -- M&T Bank, PP&L, JustBorn and Lehigh Valley Hospital -- provided $1,942,602 in funds which directly resulted in more than $8 million of programs, projects and physical improvements for South Side residents.

M&T Bank provided $1 million to the Southside Vision Plan, a total of $100,000 for 10 years, according to Callahan.

Callahan said the city also received more than $265 million in federal, state, city and school district money poured into the Southside since 2006. 

"It's an enormous amount of public dollars," Callahan said. What separated this master plan from others was that there was a steering committee which broke down everything into a digestible plan. In six months, there was a noticeable change and there was a lot of community input.

The world-class skate park was built with $167,210 from Southside Vision money and improvements were made to 232 homes.

A total of $304,440 in commercial improvements were made in a stretch dubbed Four Blocks International. Callahan said 71 percent of the total investment came from building owners. The vacancy rate in the neighborhood dropped to 14 percent from 41 percent between 2002 and 2013.

A 29 percent increase in commercial units, equal to an additional 19 to 25 residential units, were added. 

Still, as Callahan leaves office at the end of the year, there is more work on the horizon.

The city will use another $325,000 --  $100,000 of which will come from Southside Vision -- to upgrade the urban landscape in the vicinity of East Fourth and William streets. The remainder of the money comes from city funds, HUD grants and a Pa. Keystone Community grant. 

Callahan said that what was once the "back door" of the city will now become the "front door," as the city now boasts the Sands Casino Resort, Steel Stacks and Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII on the Southside.

"We want to entice people to go past the Sands and SteelStacks down Fourth Street," Callahan said.

Streetscape projects at what is being called the Eastern Gateway will also include shade structures, concessions, restrooms, bike racks and public art at the skate park.

"There's still plenty of work to be done in South Bethlehem," he said.