Posted by Lehigh Valley Ramblings.

Pearly Baker’s Jonathan Davis

Like buzzards who circle a carcass while jackals and hyenas predators rip off the larger chunks of meat, DaVinci Science Center representatives watched and waited patiently last night at last night’s final NorCo Council budget gearing. As Council members hacked into next year’s $400 million budget, Executive Director Lin Erickson waited her turn. She has proposed a $130 million aquarium project in Easton’s flood plain, and has her hand out for every public dollar she can get. She’s been at more meetings over the past year than the Express Times. Though Council is scheduled to consider an ordinance tonight that helps to fund the aquarium with $1 million in hotel taxes ($100,000 per year over ten years), she wants  even more. $15 million, to be exact. Last night, for reasons that baffle me, Peg Ferraro pitched a $500,000 grant in 2005 hotel taxes to DaVinci. This is in addition to an amendment she’ll be proposing to tonight’s ordinance, giving DaVinci even more than the $1 million proposed.

Ferraro first said she would be offering an amendment two weeks ago. But in a remarkable display of secrecy, she has refused to say how much. She hoped to spring it on everyone at the last minute, keeping the public in the dark about their own money

“We have this money, we’ve been accumulating this money,” was Ferraro’s justification for giving DaVinci a “shot in the arm.”

“I don’t know what your rush is to give money,” objected Ken Kraft, saying this is a decision that can be addressed by the incoming Council and Executive-elect Lamont McClure.

“It’s time to move forward and do something,” countered Ferraro, who called for a vote.

Fortunately, Council President John Cusick decided instead to recognize a member of the public who wanted to address the subject.

Jonathan Davis owns Easton’s popular Pearly Baker’s, Bank Street Annex and Mueller’s General Store. He has been operating small businesses for the past 25 years after his graduation from Lafayette College. Claiming to be speaking on behalf of a large number of downtown Easton businesses, he said they are “very much opposed to the Science Center as it now stands.”

Plans for DaVinci include a 250-seat restaurant as well as cafes. “The restaurant community cannot have that happen to its downtown,” he argued. He noted that four Easton restaurants have closed this year, and only two have re-opened. “This quasi government kind of manipulation that has happened, with good intentions, has ransacked the business community.” He said the food court at Crayola has negatively impacted lunch business. He added that the publicly subsidized Public Market is no public market. “It’s a food court. That cut our business in half.”

He called the DaVinci Science Center a “killer for the restaurant business.” He said his 50 or so employees are suffering from lost tips already, and that DaVinci will be a “vacuum that sucks away any benefit it is supposed to have.”

“This is our money, this is public funds, and it should be going for the benefit of downtown Easton.”

“Destroy the restaurant community that established the downtown, and you will have larger issues than you ever expect,” he warned.

He added that Erickson told him that the restaurant would be used as a profit source to offset future expenses.

“Maybe we could have an event center with a caterer and a liquor license,” suggested Ferraro.

“Why? Why? What’s the mission? The mission is science and education. Where is it coming that we’re serving cocktails?”

Erickson admitted that current plans do call for a 250-seat restaurant, a liquor license and an operator.

Mat Benol thanked Davis for his visit, saying it prevented him from a “huge mistake.” Matt Dietz said he had enough concerns before last night, but now considers the plan too indefinite to justify any public spending. Hayden Phillips added that he was concerned that a publicly subsidized aquarium would compete unfairly against a private venture like a proposed Ripley aquarium, located 60 miles away. But the competition against small businesses in Easton is much more immediate and serious. Public tax dollars would enable DaVinci to steal business from restaurants just blocks away.

Kraft moved to table Ferraro’s grant, and it passed 7-2. Glenn Geissinger and Seth Vaughn voted No without explanation.

“We can visit it next year,” said Kraft, who told Erickson that the incoming Council will work with DaVinci.

Later this evening, Council will consider the $1 million grant, which Ferraro wants to increase without bothering to say how much until the public hearing.