July 16, 2008

ArtsQuest Updates SteelStax, Musikfest Plans

By Daryl Nerl, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

Jul. 16--A "music park" with a permanent stage will emerge on 3 acres that was once the site of the Bethlehem Steel iron foundry, ArtsQuest President Jeffrey Parks told City Council on Tuesday night.

The park, framed by remnants of the foundry -- two unattached U-shaped walls with giant arch glassless windows -- will be one of several venues that will host music, art and cultural festivals that are expected to attract thousands of people on weekends from April through October beginning in 2011.

The park is part of the SteelStax project, a plan to turn the space immediately surrounding the Steel's old blast furnaces into what Parks is calling a "21st century town square."

Today, ArtsQuest plans to announce the public fundraising team that hopes to raise a portion of the $53 million needed for the project.

The project will include a 350-seat theater; a two-screen art-house cinema; new offices and studios for WLVT-TV, PBS-39; and the Musikfest Cafe, a 450-seat restaurant and year-round performance venue modeled on the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.

Parks said that ArtsQuest, which in addition to presenting Musikfest and First Night, also provides arts education and opportunities for local artists, generates about $39 million for the local economy. When the SteelStax project is completed, that amount is expected to double to $78 million, he said.

Parks was invited to speak before City Council to provide an update on SteelStax as well as Musikfest, which will take over the historic downtown for the 25th time on Aug. 1. The presentation concluded with the first public airing of a five-minute film ArtsQuest plans to use to attract contributions.

The film, with a locally produced musical score, stars Parks; PBS-39 executive director Pat Simon; Mayor John Callahan; John Eureyecko, president and chief executive officer of Belhaven Capital Group Inc.; recently retired Just Born Inc. President Sam Torrence; and Morning Call publisher Tim Kennedy.

The project has already received significant government support, including a $5 million grant delivered personally by Gov. Ed Rendell in December 2006 and $2 million from Northampton County out of its proceeds from the hotel tax. Parks said he is hopeful that public help for the project will continue to arrive.

After the presentation before City Council's Committee of the Whole, Parks would not say how much he is seeking in private donations -- only that the ultimate goal is $53 million.

Parks said the project is on schedule, and he hopes to have ground broken by July 2009 with completion by December 2010.

The plan also calls for several venues capable of supporting live music, including the music park; a public square in the shadow of the blast furnaces; and the Festival Center, an indoor venue in the Steel's former turn and grind shop which will be capable of seating 1,200 people.

The multiple sites would be used to host a number of festivals that are expected to become annual occurrences in 2011 -- a multi-arts fringe festival in April; an international festival in May; the South Mountain Folk Festival on Memorial Day weekend; a culinary festival in June; the Blast Furnace Blues Festival on July 4 weekend; a jam band festival in July; the River Jazz Festival during Labor Day weekend; and in October, an Oktoberfest during the first two weekends and a glassmaking festival during the last two weekends.

An international photography exhibit is also planned for September; Borinquenfest, the existing celebration of Puerto Rican culture, would move to that site each June; and the SteelStax would also become a significant part of Musikfest.

ArtsQuest plans to move Musikfest's main ticketed venue -- now known as Riverplace -- to what will be a parking lot across the street from the festival center, which will serve as DankePlatz, the hospitality center for festival donors.

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