Archive for category Bob Donchez

How’s Bethlehem’s public parking? Sound off in city survey

The Bethlehem Parking Authority’s consultant is holding two upcoming public meetings Oct. 24.

Bethlehem wants you to share all your gripes and kudos for the city’s public parking system.

The Bethlehem Parking Authority and the city have hired Desman Design Management to perform a comprehensive review and evaluation of the Christmas City’s public parking.

As part of the study, the city wants the public to weigh in on the state of the city’s parking system via an online survey found here.

“The authority will be incorporating your thoughts and comments into the analyses, which will assist them in making informed future decisions on managing and operating public parking in the city of Bethlehem,” Mayor Bob Donchez said in a press release.

Desman will be holding two public presentations on Tuesday, Oct. 24 to provide an update on the status of the study, initial findings from the data collection, outreach and a laying out a timeline.

Why Bethlehem might seize land from the Sands casino

The first meeting will be held at noon at Northampton Community College’s Fowler campus, 511 E. Third St., in room 623. Then at 6 p.m., Desman will make the same presentation in Bethlehem Town Hall. 

The authority is expected to wrap up construction of a 626-space new parking deck at Third and New Streets next month. The garage was controversial because some opponents argued there was plenty of parking in South Bethlehem already. Critics advocated for a comprehensive parking study.

Authority Executive Director Kevin Livingston was out of the office Wednesday afternoon and did not immediately respond to an email seeking details of the study.

The authority wants to build another garage at Third and Polk streets, which is seen as critical to the ongoing redevelopment of the Third Street corridor. The authority last month threatened the Sands casino with eminent domain if it does not consider selling the land to the authority.

It is also currently studying the future of its Walnut Street parking garage, which needs extensive repairs.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

What’s next for Bethlehem’s municipal golf course

A meeting on the course’s future drew a crowd Tuesday night.

It was a packed house Tuesday night to discuss the future of Bethlehem’s public golf course.

The Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course has lost almost $1 million since 2009 causing council to schedule the committee meeting to discuss how to reverse the losses.

More than 75 residents and golfers turned out to hear council lay out five options for the 18-hole and 9-hole courses and the driving range on Illick’s Mill Road.

Parks and Recreation Committee Chairman Eric Evans favors the city putting out a request-for-proposal to privatize the course and requiring the leasee to make needed improvements.

After about an hour-and-a-half of debate and public comment, the informational meeting ended without council taking any action.

Mayor Bob Donchez and his administration are expected to review the options and return with an update at the Nov. 16 parks and rec budget meeting. Evans hopes there will be a plan in motion by the first quarter of next year, he said.

But Council President J. William Reynolds, an avid golfer, argued for a much slower approach, developing a five to 10 year plan for the course. Nothing is going to happen to the golf course in the short term, he said.

Witha $74 million general fund budget, losing $50,000 a year on the golf course is  not a budget breaker, Reynolds said. That may be the cost of the asset, he said.

“There’s very few things in our city that make money,” he said.

Council Vice President Adam Waldron said he thinks the course is a great city asset. But the course must get its expenses under control or the city must weigh privatization, he said. He’s open to either option.

“I don’t think it is acceptable to lose money every year,” Waldron said.

City financial documents show the course has operated from $35,105 in the red in 2009 to a high of $203,913 in 2014. It lost $122,064 in 2016 and is on track for a similar 2017.

Should Bethlehem privatize its money-losing golf course?

City Business Manager David Brong said the losses at this point are an “irritant,” not a “boat anchor” for the city. The course’s losses are getting more attention now because the city has dug itself out of a major deficit and improved its finances, he said.

The course is supposed to pay the city about $150,000 annually for various services, like attorneys and human resources, determined via an third-party cost study. Since 2011, the course has paid about $171,000 and $700,000 is outstanding, Brong said.

Evans laid out five options: sell the course, maintain the status quo, create an independent authority to operate it, close the 9-hole course or lease it.

None of the solutions are easy and there may not be the political will to enact them, Reynolds said.

“I have serious concerns about privatization,” he said, adding if someone invests hundreds of thousands into the course they’ll want a long term lease.

Golfers who spoke Tuesday night were mixed on whether privatization is the answer. The majority praised the course conditions and offered suggestions to make the course more attractive to play on.

Resident Al Bernotas said one of the reasons he moved to Bethlehem in 1983 was for the course and privatization is the way to go.

Others questioned why the city can’t find a way to make money if a private operator could make the course profitable.

An outside operator would likely be able to slash the courses labor costs. Currently, the course employs eight full-time workers and spends about $919,000 on salaries for its full-time and seasonal employees. 

Bethlehem’s municipal course is one of the busiest in the region with 34,000 to 36,000 rounds played annually. But nationally interest in golf is down and so is revenue, Evans said. 

Golfing is weather dependent and a soggy summer can quickly sink operations.

Its budget holes make it impossible to take on needed infrastructures repairs, like its sand traps, bathrooms, cartpaths and parking lots, Evans said.

Golfer Bruce Gardener shared ways his brother-in-law helped turn around the municipal golf course he operates in Conneticut. The course now has an $850,000 surplus and is willing to share what its done, he said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

Should Bethlehem privatize its money-losing golf course?

Bethlehem City Council is holding at 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday to discuss the future of the courses.

$35M Hotel Bethlehem expansion aims to bring 70K people to city

Mayor Bob Donchez recommended including the project in the city’s lucrative CRIZ.

Historic Hotel Bethlehem’s $35 million planned expansion brings so much to Bethlehem, Mayor Bob Donchez wants to add it into the city’s lucrative tax incentive zone.

Donchez announced Wednesday afternoon he backs adding the Main Street hotel’s massive project to the City Revitalization Improvement Zone. 

The expansion would make Hotel Bethlehem the largest conference center in the Lehigh Valley by doubling its meeting and events space and adding 73 guest rooms and suites.

“Our goal here is to make downtown Bethlehem the epicenter for meetings and conferences in the Lehigh Valley,” said Bruce A. Haines, Hotel Bethlehem managing partner.

The project would take the hotel from 110,000-square-feet to 213,695-square-feet, doubling its size. It is expected to draw 70,000 new visitors to the Christmas City and create 100 new jobs.

The hotel’s existing, private 100-spot parking deck would be razed to make way for a new 460-space parking garage with a four-story addition atop it. The new building would connect to the third floor of the hotel via a skywalk.

“The goal here is to really solidify Main Street with a bigger stronger anchor than we’ve been,” Haines said. “And to hopefully make it more attractive for other businesses to want to come to Main Street.”

Pa. hotel tax hike ‘puts entire industry at risk,’ official says

The mayor called it a wonderful project for the city.

“I view the hotel as the anchor of Main Street,” Donchez said.

Last November, the city put out a call for developers to submit new projects for inclusion in the zone after the Bethlehem Parking Authority asked to remove the CRIZ status from 1.3 acres of land it owned because its plans were no longer feasible.

This marks the third new project that Donchez has backed for inclusion into the 130-acre zone. The Bethlehem Revitalization and Improvement Authority last month approved two he’s already recommended, but set time limits for work to begin.

The authority will be asked to consider the hotel at its next meeting Oct. 19. Then the state must sign off on all CRIZ changes.

Bethlehem won the designation four years ago, but progress has been slow, leading the city and authority to push for shovel-ready projects. 

Big projects at 2 Bethlehem intersections get CRIZ boost

The mayor said he hopes Hotel Bethlehem could break ground within 18 months of approval. The hotel hopes to do so by the end of 2019 and open by the end of 2021, Haines said.

The CRIZ allows allows property owners to use certain future state and local taxes — including sales and liquor– created by CRIZ projects to pay off construction loans. For Hotel Bethlehem, it could slice its mortgage payment in half if business is strong, Haines said.

“(The CRIZ) helps to reduce the risk of a massive project like this,” he said.

The hotel has been planning the project since early 2016, Haines said, but without the CRIZ it wouldn’t happen.

The project is welcome news to Main Street merchants, who are eager to see more feet on the street and take advantage of the public parking the hotel promises to make available in its new parking deck. Many attended the press conference to support the hotel.

Hotel B has pledged to keep the garage open for paid, public parking at least 300 days a year, Haines said. The garage will exit onto Old York Road to minimize traffic onto Main Street and also include a walkway that will drop folks by the visitor’s center.

The addition will preserve the historic charm of the hotel inside and out with the same historic finishes down to the marble bathrooms, Haines pledged. Spillman Farmer is designing the project so it blends in with the existing Art Deco features.

The new large ballroom will be two-stories like the existing grand ballroom, but it will accomodate up to 400 wedding guests as opposed to the 200 now.

The design includes a new two-story terrace room with palladium windows modeled off of 1741 on the Terrace, so the hotel’s restaurant will not need to close for private events.

The hotel hopes the larger meeting space allows it to attract large conferences from New Jersey that currently bypass Bethlehem.

A proposal in Harrisburg to nearly double the state hotel tax to balance the state budget could complicate matters, Haines said.

“It could make it more difficult for us to attract that business,” Haines said.

Haines see the rise of Airbnb as an unregulated competitor to the hotel industry as a much bigger challenge on the horizon, he said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

How Bethlehem finished 2016 $3.2M in the black

The city’s draft 2016 audit tells the story of Bethlehem’s financial turn around.

The city of Bethlehem finished 2016 with a $3.2 million surplus, completing a financial turn around that’s been years in the works.

That’s according to its draft audit, which was presented to city council on Tuesday night. 

The strong financial year helped push the city’s unassigned fund balance — a key indicator of a government’s fiscal health — to $12.5 million or about 18 percent of the $74 million general fund. That’s just slightly higher than the 17 percent recommended. 

“I think we have turned the fiscal ship in the right direction,” Mayor Bob Donchez said.

It’s a pivotal point for a city that seven years ago ended 2010 with a $14.2 million deficit, prompting officials to enact a financial turnaround plan that included staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures. 

“From a financial standpoint, it is nothing short of a turn around and I think it needed to be,” said David Brong, city business administrator.

City Councilman Eric Evans said the city had some very tough years financially, but things are changing.

“It’s a real nice trend,” he said Wednesday.

Why Bethlehem schools are owed almost $500K from the state

Then on Wednesday, Donchez announced that the city received the good news that Standard & Poor’s had again upgraded its credit rating from A to A+ with a stable outlook. Its the third rating increase in the last two years.

The administration had feared the uncertainty surrounding the city’s $9.8 million casino host fee might hurt its credit rating, but the 2016 audit actually helped it.

“The unprecedented improvement is an indication of my team’s focus on the task of improving the city’s financial stability,” Donchez said.

S&P pointed to the city’s healthy fund balance, strong budget performance and adoption of a long-term financial plan as reasons for the upgrade.

“The stable outlook reflects our opinion that the city will maintain its very strong budgetary flexibility and liquidity as well as sustain its strong budgetary performance,” according to the rating.

Donchez praised Brong and Mark Sivak, city director of budget and finance, and his department heads for their hard work. 

“We made some very difficult decisions with the cooperation and great working relationship of city council,” Donchez said.

In 2016, Bethlehem raised taxes by just over 2 percent to bring in $865,000 more in property tax, and raised the recycling fee by $10, generating an additional $292,070, Brong said the draft audit found.

The city saw more income and mercantile taxes coming in thanks to an improving economy and collecting more delinquent taxes, Bron said.

He noted 10 years ago the city collected at most $1.4 million a year in business privilege tax. Now, it is bringing in $2.5 million annually.

“The reason for that is we weren’t that good at it and we’ve been improved that,” Brong said. “People are not flying under the radar screen.”

In 2016 and prior years, Bethlehem’s focused on improving its revenues and cutting expenses everywhere it could, including an internal reorganization, Brong said.

“Our staffing has been consistently being driven down,” he said.

Employees have agreed to new medical plans that include higher premium cost sharing and added deductibles.

“Our bargaining units ratified packages where they’ve acknowledged the city has big financial challenges,” Brong said.

All of this contributed to the city’s improved financial health.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve done an awful lot,” Brong said. “We’ve asked an awful lot of all parties and at this point in time they have really responded to the challenge.”

The administration is working to craft the 2018 budget, which is sure to be complicated since Harrisburg has not solved the casino host fee legislation.

An upcoming refinancing will net the city substantial savings and the administration is working on major cuts to city energy costs, Brong said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

Why Bethlehem might seize land from the Sands casino

The Bethlehem Parking Authority is frustrated that the Sands casino is not negotiating to sell a crucial piece of land slated for a parking deck.

The Bethlehem Parking Authority&…

No more gifts in the Christmas City

Bethlehem City Council passed a gift ban unanimously Tuesday night.

There are no more gifts in the Christmas City when it comes to city government.
Tuesday night Bethlehem City C…

Bethlehem honors MIA soldier whose helicopter went down in Vietnam War

Army Specialist Robert Allen Nickol, 20, of Bethlehem, has been missing in action since Oct. 26, 1971.

After two years in Vietnam, Bethlehem native Army Specialist Robert Allen N…

Sands Bethlehem $90M expansion seen as stalled, city says

Discussions on selling the casino property have delayed the schedule for the expansion, officials confirmed.

Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem had hoped to begin construction …

Bethlehem continues blight fight with call for developers

The city wants to create a pool of developers that can step up when blighted properties become available.

Bethlehem’s mayor is continuing his fight against blighted properti…