State Program Provides Incentives
When Don Williams passes the sprawling site on the shores of Lake Erie, he still feels a twinge of loss. The loss of thousands of jobs when Bethlehem Steel's furnaces went cold in Lackawanna. The loss of the region's industrial might.
And the loss of all those sights, sounds and smells - for better or worse - that came with being a steel town.
When Williams joined Bethlehem as a young attorney in 1967, the Lackawanna facility was among the largest steel plants in the world, employing 22,000 people.
Those who were born anytime after the early 1980s - the plant closed in 1983 - can't grasp the magnitude of what went on there, Williams said.
"They didn't have the privilege of driving through Lackawanna when the plant was in operation, seeing the fire in the sky when the slag pots were dumped, or hearing the clang of the scrap being handled, or the cold saws running during the night," he lamented.
But there's cautious optimism that the old Bethlehem site is on the verge of a rebirth and could one day be home to companies that offer thousands of good-paying jobs in a variety of industrial sectors.
A nationally recognized brownfields expert who has spent three decades working on projects in 20 regions across 10 states said he's convinced more businesses will be lured to the site in part because of lucrative state incentives that are easy to obtain. It's not pie in the sky to speculate that a large swath of the gargantuan site could be home to thousands of jobs over a period of years, said Evans Paull, who managed the city of Baltimore's Brownfields Initiative for 10 years.
"If there's a really good strategic effort, combined with very aggressive incentives, it's absolutely possible," said Paull, who has been working on an economic impact analysis of brownfields incentives that the state offers.
Paull and others are quick to point to one early success story. A Canadian steel pipe company opened a factory on more than 40 acres of long-dormant land last summer.
Welded Tube transforms flat steel into round tubing for numerous customers, including natural gas drillers. Welded Tube has plotted a three-phase expansion plan that is projected to create 121 jobs over the next several years.
"We're ramping up production far faster than we thought," said Robert Pike, a Welded Tube vice president.
The company recently added a second shift at the Lackawanna site.
When Welded Tube was granted about $7.7 million in tax breaks through the Erie County Industrial Development Agency in 2012, company officials said future phases would see two new buildings constructed to house pipe-testing facilities and other operations. The company's expansion plans remain on track, Pike said.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz believes Welded Tube's presence is a powerful sign that large tracts of land on this brownfield that includes about 1,000 acres eventually will make a manufacturing comeback.
"I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg," Poloncarz said.
"A lot of people thought it was silly. I heard lot of people say, 'Why are you wasting any time and effort on the old Bethlehem Steel site? No one is ever going to move there,' " he recalled. "Well, now we have a $40 million industry on 40 acres."
The man who heads an organization that markets the region to businesses looking to expand or relocate said there are strong indications that other companies will follow in Welded Tube's path.
Thomas A. Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said that while confidentiality agreements bar him from discussing specifics, he's cautiously hopeful that other industrial tenants will be lured to the site. Kucharski said his decades of experience in the economic development arena have helped him to develop a knack for recognizing inquiries from businesses that are more speculative than serious.
"They're not tire-kickers. They're sharing important information with us," Kucharski said of some companies that have expressed an interest in the Lackawanna site and other brownfields in the region. …