A large chunk of land in the City of Lackawanna where the former Bethlehem Steel plant once stood is now the property of Erie County. After infrastructure updates, the county will pursue companies to help convert the space into a business park that will include renewable energy-powered advanced manufacturing.
The $5.5 million dollar transaction, which shifts ownership of approximately 150 acres from Tecumseh Redevelopment, Inc. to the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, was closed just moments before the start of a ceremony on the grounds just off Fuhrmann Boulevard. The IDA's affiliate, the Industrial Land Development Corporation, worked with New York State resources including the State Department of Transportation to complete the agreement.
"This is a great morning for Lackawanna, the kind of morning many of us have been waiting for, for a long time," said the city's mayor, Geoffrey Szymanski, who recalled being eight years old when Bethlehem Steel closed in 1982. "Today's the kind of day we can break from the past and look to the future, remembering what this site meant to us and what's ahead of us."
What's coming first will be the second phase of a rail relocation project. Four years ago, the county completed the first phase, moving an estimated two miles of track while removing additional rails that hindered access to the site.
"We will be removing the rail lines along Route 5 that had barred vehicular access to the parcel, moving them deeper into the site and aligning them in a way that is more conducive to efficient rail service," said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
The first 60 acres of land acquired are expected to be under the county's control by the end of this month. The vision is to eventually open an advanced manufacturing building that will be powered by "Net Zero Energy," utilizing solar, geothermal and wind sources to produce as much energy as the building consumes.
"This building will put Erie County on the forefront of a movement, with a demonstrable facility showing advances in renewable energy technology," Poloncarz said.
"The smokestacks and blast furnaces of the past may be gone, but the new business technologies and processes of today are ready to replace them."
The former Bethlehem Steel property was held by Tecumseh Redevelopment since 2003, when its parent company ArcelorMittal USA took over the land as part the purchase of all Bethlehem Steel assets. The company then spent $20 million to clean up the parcel of land to ready it for sale.
"Even though we were not responsible for the previous manufacturing and environmental impacts left behind by Bethlehem Steel, we are proud of our accomplishments," said Paul Werthman of ArcelorMittal USA. "The purchase of this land by ILDC is very timely, as ArcelorMittal USA is not a real estate development business."
Not owning the land, Poloncarz explained, made it difficult for Erie County to secure commitments from parties interested in development.
"We could market the site but we really couldn't do anything because we didn't own it. It's as simple as that," he said. "We have talked to businesses and the response was 'we don't own this' so they said 'we shouldn't be talking to you.' But we're the economic development arm of our community."
Several Bethlehem Steel workers were among the guests, including Poloncarz's own father, Charles.