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Nature center closes amid investigation

By Meghan Packer, Reporter, MPacker@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 24 2014 05:05:49 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 24 2014 10:32:24 PM CDT

Nature center closes amid investigation

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

A Bethlehem nature center is shutting its doors.

The Gertrude B. Fox Environmental Center at Illick's Mill in Bethlehem is closing within days.

"Today we announce the closure of a nature center that opened against the odds," said founder Karen Dolan, while speaking at a podium in the nature center Thursday in front of a group of supporters.

At times it became emotional for Dolan, who is also a member of the Bethlehem City Council.

"You don't let go of something like this so easily. So we did fight, we really tried to keep this all together," she said with tears in her eyes.

Dolan said the nature center will likely close Sunday.

"It's closing because for the last several months we have been the subject of some very negative publicity and in addition, a lack of support from our city," she told 69 News.

"Because of the aggressive lease negotiations and the district attorney's grand jury investigation, we have not been able to raise money," Dolan added.

Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez told 69 News he has been fair and flexible negotiating a lease and said if the center finds a partner, he would willing to negotiate a longer lease.

Dolan said, "We do have a lease that extends until the 13th of February 2015 to accommodate the rentals that we've already booked because we want to make sure that we honor those."

Donchez said the center is paying $200 a month in rent, $100 cheaper than the original proposal. He also said rent and utilities were waived for January, February and March of this year. He said he is not responsible for the grand jury investigation or a decrease in contributions.

Dolan said she doesn't know why a Northampton County grand jury is investigating. According to the Express-Times, it's investigating why the center had received free rent and services from the city.

"We paid utilities, all utilities, for the first, I don't know, ten to 12 years of our time here and then once the center opened to the public, the last mayor, John Callahan, made a decision to waive the paying of utilies since the building is a city-owned building and we had opened it to the public," said Dolan. "There really was no wrongdoing in the mayor's decision to put heat and electricity into a city-owned building."

Mayor Donchez said the Bethlehem Authority owns the building, which leases it to the city and the city subleases it to the environmental center.

A call to the district's attorney's office Thursday was not returned.