Da Vinci’s aquarium is topic of town hall
Allentown’s Da Vinci Science Center would like to reinvent itself in Easton. Thanks in no small part to a $30 million pledge by Easton Mayor Sal Panto, the science center, now near Cedar Crest College, plans to transform into a $130 million aquarium, complete with an event center and even an immersion theater, in the City of Easton.
But who will pay for it?
Executive Director Lin Erickson answered that question Aug. 22 during the first of four town hall meetings throughout the county, held at Bethlehem’s Northeast Middle School. She wants Northampton County to foot some of the bill with hotel taxes. She didn’t state the requested amount, but former Lehigh County Executive Jane Ervin said the ask is $15 million.
About 30 people attended the inaugural town hall, but most appeared to be event participants and media. Northampton County Councilperson Peg Ferraro, Discover Lehigh Valley’s Mike Stershic and Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy were there, along with several teachers. Representatives of Wildlands Conservancy, which has a contractual relationship with Northampton County and is apparently interested in partnering with Da Vinci in some way, were on hand. There were numerous reporters but not many actual Bethlehem residents. Aside from Ferraro, no one from Northampton County Council was there nor was anyone from Bethlehem City Council. Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez also was absent.
The town hall was billed as one in which public comments, questions and suggestions were being sought. Erickson said she was interested in what others think but said comments would have to wait for “break out” sessions following initial presentations by her, Easton Mayor Sal Panto and representatives of a San Francisco architectural firm, who just arrived that day.
Da Vinci plans to relocate to Easton Days Inn, near the junction of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. The hotel would be demolished and replaced with a 170,000-square-foot facility that includes a science center, a 500,000-gallon aquarium with large-view panes, an aquarium restaurant and event center with seating for 500, an immersion theater, a creativity studio, or Fab Lab, classrooms and offices.
One drawback of this site is its limited parking. Another, as Erickson herself noted, is that it is located in the flood plain. From time to time, it is itself an aquarium.
Its accessibility to Routes 22 and 78, as well as its proximity to New Jersey, are positive factors.
The biggest challenge would likely be the funding.
“Mayor Panto stepped up with a commitment unlike any of the other cities,” Erickson said.
Easton has agreed to contribute up to $30 million of the projected $130 million cost. Its population as of 2016 is 26,978, so that comes out to $1,112 per Easton resident. Nearly a third of its population is below the poverty level. Only half of its homes are owner-occupied, but the city has an A-plus credit rating.
What draws Panto to the science center is its commitment to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. He also argued the science center would be great for schools because there could be field trips. He added that, one or two days a year, the science center will open its doors to the economically disadvantaged.
Da Vinci wants $15 million from Northampton County.
Northampton County has contributed $50,000 in hotel taxes to help fund a $1.2 million feasibility study.
In February, Northampton County Council said no to a request for an additional $50,000.
“When Jeffrey Parks came here and wanted money for [Artsquest], he had all this stuff done already,” said Ken Kraft, who represents the Bethlehem district on council. “I think it’s really premature to throw money at a pipe dream. You keep coming back to the trough, and I say no.”
Council President John Cusick shared Kraft’s concerns.
“The taxpayers need to hold onto their wallets,” he warned.
At that time, Erickson said her chief goal was to have raised 65 percent of the $130 million needed within a year.
Six months later, Erickson has only raised about three-fourths of the $1.2 million needed for a feasibility study.
In April, council discovered that Erickson had known about a potential competing aquarium in the Poconos for over a year but never mentioned it when she successfully lobbied for $50,000. She also failed to disclose this venture when she sought another $50,000. Hayden Phillips told Erickson that he was disappointed. Bob Werner, who actually represents Easton, also was upset.
Despite this setback, Erickson has continued to lobby Northampton County Council and has been meeting council members privately and individually in a quest for $15 million in hotel taxes. At the town hall, she asked those present to sign a petition for council.
Based on a comparison with the Chattanooga Aquarium, Erickson has previously projected that Easton’s Da Vinci Science Center will draw 600,000 visitors annually. It will create $45 million in economic development, provide jobs for 200 people and generate $7 million in local tax revenue.
Chattanooga (528,000) is much larger than Easton (27,000), but Erickson noted the population within a 50-mile radius of the Lehigh Valley is 7.1 million — seven times that of a 50-mile radius around the Tennessee site.
In its 20-year history, the Chattanooga Aquarium has attracted 18 million visitors, and hotel taxes in that area have increased 500 percent.
Chattanooga and other successful public aquariums like Baltimore were constructed with private donations, but studies show, according to tucsoncitizen.com/morgue2/2002/04/08/ 155703-cracks-appear-in-aquarium-plan, that when aquariums rely on gate receipts to repay construction costs, they become financially distressed. That happened in Tampa, Long Beach and Denver.
Easton’s $30 million in construction costs will be repaid from gate receipts.
Louisville officials found cracks in aquarium plans presented there, which proposed building in a flood plain. The same project is now being pitched in Indiana.
Da Vinci hires
Da Vinci also has selected an architect — San Francisco’s EHDD. Architect EHDD’s Duncan Ballash was introduced at the town hall. He and an associate had just flown in that day. They detailed several of their past projects but made no mention of Easton’s colonial history. Their focus was on a 4-D immersion theater where you could feel water being sprayed into your face.
Erickson explained some months ago that a concept exhibit architect was necessary for a marketability study, after which there would be a “deep dive” into the finances. She said this was all part of a feasibility study.
Council and hotel taxes
Northampton County receives about $2.5 million in hotel taxes every year. This is based on a 4-percent room rental fee at county hotels. Discover Lehigh Valley, the regional tourism agency, gets 68.75 percent of that tax ($1.7 million), pursuant to state law. Another 18.75 percent ($468,000) goes for tourism and community development. The rest ($332,000) can be spent only on developing facilities or marketing campaigns that will boost tourism. If all of this money is given to Da Vinci, it will take the county 45 years to honor this commitment.
In the past, Northampton County did fund the Steelstacks project, but that was only for $1 million and over a period of several years. There was a feasibility study and a lot of cash on hand already.
Bruce Haines, principal at Historic Hotel Bethlehem, questioned the use of hotel taxes to fund the construction of an event center that will take away weddings and banquets from other hotels.
“What’s that got to do with education?” he asked.
He said it makes more sense for now to use hotel taxes to market Bethlehem’s Moravian settlement. It has been nominated as a UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage site.
Another concern, raised by Kraft, is that the county is taking a property that currently pays real estate taxes off the rolls and replacing it with a tax-exempt entity.