On a spring day in 2011, a few dozen people made their way to a brand-new arts center located amid the ruins of the former Bethlehem Steel plant on Bethlehem’s SouthSide. It was a sleek, new building made of concrete, steel and glass that stood in stark contrast to the towering, old steel blast furnaces across the street that reminded people more of the city’s rich history than its bright future.
Built on the former Bethlehem Steel site in Bethlehem, the ArtsQuest Center marked the first step in the launch of an ambitious redevelopment project called “SteelStacks,” a public-private partnership that would help transform one of the largest privately-owned Brownfields in the nation into a dynamic destination for music, arts and entertainment. Fast forward five years as SteelStacks gets set to celebrate its 5th Anniversary April 15, and more than 800,000 people annually now visit the site to enjoy concerts, festivals and cultural events, having a huge impact on tourism and the economy in the city and the region.
“The ArtsQuest Center and our SteelStacks programming have an annual economic impact of more than $48 million,” says ArtsQuest President and CEO Kassie Hilgert. “But the real story is not the numbers, as impressive as they are. The real story is how the public sector, the private sector and the entire community came together to create an arts and cultural district that is truly unique and literally couldn’t have been built anywhere else because no other place has our community’s legacy of innovation, our community’s unique physical assets and our community’s rich history of arts and cultural activities. Each year, more and more visitors from both the region and the nation flock to SteelStacks and discover just how special Bethlehem, and the Lehigh Valley, truly is.”
On April 15, the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks – the first building opened on the SteelStacks campus – turns 5, highlighting a major milestone in the site’s redevelopment. Once the home of the industrial giant that made steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, much of the Manhattan skyline and the ships and artillery of the two World Wars, today the former Bethlehem Steel site hosts a dozen music and arts festivals, three indoor and outdoor stages and more than 800 concerts, 2,000 cinema screenings and 250 comedy shows annually. In addition to the ArtsQuest Center, SteelStacks serves as the home of the Levitt Pavilion, which offers 50 free outdoor concerts for the community every summer; the Visitor Center at SteelStacks, housed in the oldest building on the former steel site; public television station PBS39’s PPL Public Media Center; and the Hoover Mason Trestle, an elevated walkway that provides visitors with an opportunity to get up close to the site’s old rail line, blast furnaces and other buildings.
Partners working together to bring new life to the former steel mill over the past decade include the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, City of Bethlehem, Bethlehem Area School District, Northampton County, PBS39, Sands Resort Bethlehem and ArtsQuest. Over the past 10 years, nearly $100 million has been invested in the SteelStacks campus by the Redevelopment Authority, ArtsQuest, PBS39 and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, an especially noteworthy accomplishment considering SteelStacks was developed during one of the biggest recessions in the nation’s history.
“SteelStacks is the culmination of years of hard work, public and private investment, and the vision to create an arts and entertainment destination on the former Bethlehem Steel land,” says Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez. “The result has been astounding as the number of events taking place each year support Bethlehem as being a destination for arts, entertainment and cultural activities.”
As the major programming provider at SteelStacks, the nonprofit ArtsQuest has greatly expanded its arts and educational offerings for the region over the past five years, thanks in large part to the support of its sponsors, supporting members, donors, volunteers and community partners. Today, ArtsQuest presents more than 2,200 programs and events annually, with more than 65 percent of these free for the region to attend. Since 2011, ArtsQuest has invested an average of $1.5 million annually, not including the Musikfest main stage, in music and arts programming at the SteelStacks site, while at the same time adding eight new festivals for the region including the free Oktoberfest presented by Yuengling, the free Sabor Latin Festival, Blast Furnace Blues presented by Highmark Blue Shield and RiverJazz presented by Concannon Miller.
“The success of SteelStacks and ArtsQuest is a great example of how public-private partnerships can work and create solutions that neither the government nor private sector could do alone,” says Northampton County Executive John A. Brown. “I congratulate ArtsQuest and the visionary government and community leaders that were willing to be proactive in solving one of the most difficult challenges our region has faced in decades. The future of ArtsQuest, the City of Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley is bright.”
From the opening of the ArtsQuest Center in 2011 to Dec. 31, 2015, ArtsQuest has presented 2,189 free concerts at SteelStacks, an average of 438 each year, drawing tens of thousands to the city while providing opportunities for hundreds of local and regional performing artists to support their livelihood through paid performances. These free concerts include not only dynamic local acts and up-and-coming musicians, but also nationally known artists like The Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Smithereens, The Drifters, Casey Abrams, Coco Montoya, Marcia Ball and Orleans.
Equally as important, ArtsQuest has greatly expanded its educational offerings for area public and private schools, as well as the region as a whole, adding in new initiatives like the SteelStacks High School Jazz Band Showcase, which brings together the region’s high school jazz bands; the “Marketing Musikfest 101” class, which teaches area high schools how to book and market bands at one of the nation’s largest music festivals; and Peas & Qs, the free Saturday morning family series designed to promote early childhood development through the arts. Since 2010, the number of children who experience ArtsQuest’s programming has nearly tripled, from 12,000 annually to more than 35,000 each year.
“While we have been open for five years, we have merely scratched the surface of the kinds of arts programming and cultural experiences we can offer,” Hilgert says. “From artist development opportunities to new educational series and programs to creative partnerships with other nonprofits, we have a stable of ideas that we are excited to continue to build and roll out with input and support from our community. We can’t wait for the next five years.”
Since 2011, SteelStacks has also been a major destination for community groups to host programs and events. Over the past five years, 95 nonprofit and community organizations have presented programs on the site, ranging from educational sessions to major fundraising runs and walks. In 2014 and ’15, SteelStacks also brought the community together to celebrate the World’s Game, offering World Cup viewing parties that attracted crowds of up to 10,000 to cheer on the U.S. Men and Women’s Soccer Teams.
“It’s fitting that the 5th Anniversary of SteelStacks coincides with the 275th Anniversary of the City of Bethlehem,” says Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Tony Hanna. “The development of the SteelStacks campus by partners ArtsQuest, PBS39 and the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Bethlehem embodies many of the same attributes that went into the development of the City of Bethlehem – vision, collaboration, creativity, public engagement, perseverance, tenacity and commitment.
“We have provided our community with a public gift, a public place that is helping to reinvent Bethlehem, while embracing its cherished industrial past. In June of this year the community will be celebrating its founding 275 years ago with a Community Celebration at SteelStacks. We are honored that SteelStacks was selected as the site for this special event, where the events of the day will give us all a chance to both look back on where we’ve been and look ahead to where we want to be.”
SteelStacks Hosting 5th Anniversary Events
In honor of SteelStacks 5th Anniversary, SteelStacks and ArtsQuest are celebrating all summer long. Here are some of the upcoming highlights:
The $5 Anniversary Weekend – April 15-17
Everybody loves a birthday party and ArtsQuest is throwing cinema fans one to remember. To celebrate the opening of the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, tickets for all Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas movies including the week’s feature films are only $5 (regularly $10). ArtsQuest is also bringing back some of fans’ all-time favorites from the past five years including “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” as well as classics like “Vertigo” from the Hitchock Film Series. The list of feature films will be announced Monday, April 11; the complete list of movie screenings will be posted at www.steelstacks.org/event/2522/the-five-dollar-fifth-anniversary-screenings/.
Our Hometown Heroes – Memorial Day Weekend
In honor of the “Our Hometown Heroes” program at SteelStacks, Embassy Bank and ArtsQuest are inviting the servicemen and women featured on the Our Hometown Heroes banners over the past five years to attend the Memorial Day Celebration, where they will be honored during a special service as part of the weekend’s activities.
Levitt Pavilion Birthday Bash – July 2
Kick off the Levitt Pavilion’s 5th year of awesome free music with a birthday celebration, complete with cake.
SouthSide Swing – July 22-23
It’s a swingin’ evening under the stars as the Levitt Pavilion presents two great swing acts. Did we mention we’re putting up the first-ever dance floor on the Levitt lawn?
Important SteelStacks Dates
April 15, 2011 ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks opens; cinemas host first films – “Win Win,” “Super” & “The Evil Dead”
April 30, 2011 ArtsQuest Center’s Musikfest Café presented by Yuengling hosts first concert – Steve Miller (private concert)
May 1, 2011 ArtsQuest Center’s Musikfest Café presented by Yuengling hosts first public concert – Craig Thatcher Band
June 11, 2011 PPL Public Media Center at PBS39 opens (originally named the PBS39 Public Media & Education Center)
July 2, 2011 Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks opens
Aug. 4, 2012 Visitor Center presented by St. Luke’s University Health Network open to public for first time
June 14, 2013 Visitor Center presented by St. Luke’s University Health Network officially dedicated
June 25, 2015 Hoover Mason Trestle opens
April 15, 2016 5th Anniversary of SteelStacks