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NIZ authority questioned about jobs during and after budget vote

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Mar 06 2013 10:23:22 PM CST
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

The authority overseeing the building of a hockey arena in Allentown adopted its first-ever budget Wednesday afternoon.

But before and after the unanimous vote on the $1,055,000 spending plan, authority members had to handle a few slap shots from two members of the public who want to make sure the arena and other projects in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone will benefit nearby residents.

The Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority's budget was explained briefly by executive director Sara Hailstone.

Bond proceeds will account for $400,000 of the revenue, and will be used for the development of the arena, she said. The rest of the revenue will come from developer fees ($305,000) and a pre-opening payments from the arena operator ($350,000), she added.

On the spending side, Hailstone said the authority will reimburse the city of Allentown $350,000 for her work and that of other city staff salaries as well as  office-related expenses.

Hailstone pointed out that her work with ANIZDA accounts for 85 percent of her time. Hailstone is also Allentown's director of community and economic development.

Solicitor fees will total $100,000, an expenditure Hailstone said was necessary to help authority staff interpret the "new and complicated [state] legislation" that created the Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

Another $100,000 will be spent marketing the NIZ to businesses outside the region and luring area businesses to the zone.

A similar amount will go toward developing design standards so the authority can better judge whether projects near the NIZ border on Linden, Walnut and Turner streets would fit into the downtown plan, Hailstone said.

Another $100,000 is earmarked for employment development programs, which Hailstone said could be used to connect people to jobs by partnering with  non-profits, having a jobs center or using on-line methods.

Questions about whether the authority would be a part of a so-called "community benefits agreement" that would help poor people living in or near the NIZ get jobs were raised by Ce-Ce Gerlach, an Allentown School Board member who was speaking as a private citizen, and Al Blunt, chairman of the NCAAP of Allentown.

Authority chairman Seymour Traub said the authority's main mission is to "facilitate" job creation, not make sure which people get jobs. 

"Our most important job is to help create jobs of all kinds, and those jobs will be filled by the people of Allentown," Traub said.

Authority member Alan Jennings said the authority can "encourage businesses [to hire local people], make people as employable as possible by setting up an employment development center ... and bug [businesses] 'til they cry uncle, but we don't have the legal power to tell anybody who they have to hire."

"The consensus here," Jennings noted, "is that a rising tide raises all boats, and this budget starts the process."

Blunt said he would have liked "to have something more definite. The ship could sail without anyone from Allentown."

"Not while I'm on this board," Jennings replied.

In other business, the authority hired Public Financial Management as its investments advisor, as recommended by the finance committee.

The committee interviewed PFM and and City Group on Tuesday and chose PFM because of its "presentation, fees and the degree they had looked at our specific situation," said committee chairman Robert Lovett.

Traub said he approved the recommendation because "managing public money seems to be [PFM's] niche."