A rusted and decaying steel plant casts a stark contrast against a blue cloudless sky.
Such a massive and deteriorating structure, once home to thousands of steel workers, might be perceived as a painful symbol of what was. However in Bethlehem, Pa., the former Bethlehem Steel plant has become a symbol of revitalization and transformation.
And it’s also a pretty cool place to rock, dance, dine and enjoy the arts.
Part of the former Bethlehem Steel plant property is now ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, a facility with multiple venues that attract crowds each year. It’s home to some 10 festivals including Musikfest, which last August showcased musical greats such as Sheryl Crow, Joe Cocker, the Goo Goo Dolls and even Tibetan Monks.
I had an opportunity to see one of my favorite artists, legendary jazz singer Al Jarreau, in ArtsQuest’s Musikfest Café in October. The café, which can accommodate 450-1,000 with no seat more than 60 feet from the stage, was ideal, creating an intimate setting. The two-level venue took on an even more dramatic feel as dusk turned to night with the blast furnaces illuminated in blue and visible through the wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. Jarreau, 72, performed a riveting and rocking 90-minute, no-intermission show backed up by a five-piece band. The acoustics were fantastic.
In addition to Jarreau, the October lineup of artists includes Bootsy Collins (of Parliament Funkadelic), Jars of Clay, Los Lonely Boys, Keb Mo and Lee DeWyze. And ticket prices are in a most reasonable range of $20 to $50, depending on the artist.
The indoor café, with two bars and pre-show dinner service, is just one of several performance spaces within the ArtsQuest Center building. There’s also a cinema where independent films are shown, two outdoor performance spaces and a community center. The four-story facility opened 18 months ago, hosts 150 performances a year.
However, the revitalization has been a long time coming.
The Bethlehem Steel plant, which employed 30,000 workers at its peak of productivity, operated for 138 years and was at one time one of the largest steel producers in the United States. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, New York City’s Empire State Building and two-thirds of the steel for World War II are just a few of its beneficiaries. The company went bankrupt and closed in 1995, devastating the city as thousands lost their jobs and the city lost a good portion of its tax base.
For years, officials struggled trying to figure out what should be done with the 1,600-acre site. Arsenic and lead are two of the known contaminants in the five blast furnaces that remain as dramatic icons of the industrial age. One study projected it would cost $7.5 million to clean it up.
In 2009, the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem opened on part of the property and with the addition in 2010 of live table games such as roulette and poker, crowds kept coming. The casino, with its 300-room hotel, seven restaurants and 3,000 slot machines, is now considered to be one of the state’s best success stories.
The Sands also gifted a portion of their property to ArtsQuest. In 2011 SteelStacks was launched by ArtsQuest, along with the city of Bethlehem, Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority and several other public and private partners.
And they are not finished. A visitors’ center will soon open in another renovated building on the plant site.
“This is the only development of its kind in the country,” said Kassie Hilgert, senior vice president of marketing and advancement for ArtsQuest.