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Commissioners rebuff non-profit's offer to help restore deteriorating historic mansion

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Feb 18 2013 10:35:28 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 19 2013 04:17:49 AM CST

Monday night Bethlehem Township Supervisors did not approve the creation of a foundation that wants to restore an iconic home.

BETHLEHEM TWP., Pa. -

A non-profit group hoping to raise $1.2 million to restore a deteriorating historic mansion was given the cold shoulder by Bethlehem Township commissioners.

Only two of the five commissioners were willing to back a resolution Monday night in support of the newly formed Friends of Johnston, a group that includes several Bethlehem and Northampton County officials.

The group wants to restore the 90-year-old home of Bethlehem Steel magnate Archibald Johnston, who was Bethlehem's first mayor, and turn it into an environmental and education center on a 55-acre tract along Christian Spring Road, near Route 191, at no cost to the township.

Eleven people -- including several members of the Friends of Johnston -- spent a half-hour trying to sway the commissioners, who were also presented with an eight-page booklet detailing the group's plan. The group also had a slide show ready to show to the commissioners, but the board declined to watch it.

Along with a handful of township residents, those urging the commissioners to back the resolution included Bethlehem city council member Karen Dolan, who is CEO and Executive Director of The Gertrude B. Fox Environmental Center; Dana Grubb, president of the South Bethlehem Historical Society and Lehigh Valley area historian Lance Metz.

Only commissioners Thomas Nolan and Phil Barnard offered any support.

At the time of the vote, the commissioners who voted no -- president Paul Weiss, vice president Michael Hudak and D. Martin Zawarski -- gave no rationale for their opposition.

But later in the meeting and afterward, it became apparent that they were put off because the group had several members who were not township residents, and were unhappy that the group did not consult with the commissioners, the township manager and other officials before asking for support.

Weiss and Hudak said the Park and Recreation Board is following the township's master plan to develop the land it inherited from Johnston's granddaughter, Janet Johnston Housenick, along with $2 million to maintain it.

And Zawarski said it was more prudent to proceed cautiously, rather than get caught up in the group's enthusiasm to refurbish the mansion. "If you rush everything, we're going to regret it," he noted.

Hudak, quoting from Housenick's will and a 2006 township resolution accepting the land from her, said the property was intended for use as only as a park, and the group's ideas were "inconsistent" with that.

Hudak said he had reservations about "getting in bed" with a group that has more than a half-dozen committees "that would add to the bureaucracy of developing the park" and leaders "none of them township residents, I might add."

Weiss said after the meeting, "You have an organization [the Friends of Johnston] coming in, and they've already decided what to call the mansion [the Archibald Johnston Community Center] and what to do with the property. They never talked to the board [of commissioners] or the township manager or staff. That's not a good thing."

Weiss called the Friends of Johnston "an awesome group of people that could do a lot of good in the right environment."

His comment echoed earlier statements by Hudak and Zawarski, who said some time in the future the township may be able to use the group.

After the meeting, Victoria Bastidas, a Bethlehem resident who was instrumental in organizing the Friends of Johnston, said she was "absolutely confused" as to why the commissioners voted the way they did.

She pointed out that repairing the Johnston mansion would cost substantially more in the future, because it continues to deteriorate. "Perhaps a referendum may be the way to go." she said.