One Tank Destination: In Bethlehem, Pa., music festivals and casino forge revival

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BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- The fiery blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel forged bridges, ships and skyscrapers, employed generations of workers and produced hundreds of millions in profits. Since 1995, these once roaring industrial dragons have stood silently beside the Lehigh River, which bisects this town of 74,000.

On a warm Sunday evening in August, a kaleidoscope of colorful lights warms these mammoth, silvery ghosts, transforming them into a dramatic, sculptural backdrop for an indoor and outdoor entertainment complex called the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks.

In front of the furnaces, on an artfully designed stage, the Red Elvises play Siberian surf rock. Igor, the lead guitarist, sings a campy, spot-on version of "Blue Moon" a la Elvis, and 400 people, seated on white folding chairs arrayed on the grass, applaud enthusiastically.

This is Bethlehem -- not the birthplace of a Christian savior but the home of MusikFest -- an annual 10-day showcase of more than 500 musical acts on 14 stages, most of which are free. Among the 10 ticketed concerts, performers included Peter Frampton, B.B. King, Styx, Foreigner and Darius Rucker, country star and singer for Hootie and the Blowfish. Begun in 1984, the event attracts visitors from 41 states, five Canadian provinces, Puerto Rico and Germany, said Mark Demko, a spokesman for ArtsQuest, a nonprofit that organizes MusikFest.

Bethlehem, 290 miles east of Pittsburgh, is the home of the nation's oldest Bach choir and traces its musical roots to the Moravians, a progressive Protestant sect from Europe that founded this community in 1741. The Moravians' cluster of handsome stone buildings on Main Street recently won designation from the National Park Service as a national historic landmark district. The area includes a large community house, other homes, an apothecary and Central Moravian Church.

But the newest temple in town traffics in luck, not liturgy. The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, which opened in 2009, offers 3,000 slot machines and was built on the former ore yard of Bethlehem Steel's vast plant, which stretched for 41/2 miles.

The casino's gaming area invokes Bethlehem's steely past with a kind of modern industrialist decor.

Anchored to the high ceilings are enormous pipes that hold heating and venting systems; the room's pendant lights, in hues of orange and gold, mimic the metal that dripped from open hearths. Like many factories, the walls are of brick. Here, visitors can play blackjack, roulette, craps, baccarat and an Asian game called let it ride. There's a poker area plus the Paiza Club, a quieter space where each hand is $100 minimum.

PG map: Bethlehem, Lehigh Valley
(Click image for larger version)

"Some people like to be in the action on the floor. Some people want something more subtle," said Julia Corwin, the casino's marketing manager.

Diners can choose from three Emeril Lagasse restaurants, including Emeril's Chop House, a white-tablecloth affair with a food bar where guests can watch chefs prepare their meal. There's an Emeril's Italian Table that looks like a Tuscan courtyard and serves wood-fired pizza. And there's Emeril's Burgers and More, BAM for short.

If you've caught a chill and need a cozy fire, there's St. James Gate, an Irish bar and restaurant with a fireplace and comfortable leather chairs. There's a Carnegie Deli, too, if you're hankering for a Reuben, corned beef or pastrami.

In 2011, the casino added a sleek, 300-room hotel with a pool and fitness room. Walk a little farther in this complex and there's a 200,000-square-foot outlet mall with DKNY, Coach factory stores for men and women, Under Armour, Lenox, Van Heusen and Nine West. Georges Perrier, formerly of Philadelphia's famed Le Bec-Fin restaurant, is opening Joli Bakery and Cafe, an authentic French establishment.

There's live entertainment at The Sands Events Center, which, depending on the configuration, seats between 3,200 and 2,200 for acts such as Jay Leno, Tony Bennett and the Impractical Jokers. Before your big night out, pampering is available at European Body Concepts, a spa in the outlet mall.

Robert DeSalvio, president of The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, said his organization envisions turning Machine Shop No. 2, a former Bethlehem Steel building that's 1,550 feet long, into a retail mall. Among other products, workers in the building produced armaments for U.S. naval ships.

The casino is partnering with Bethlehem's redevelopment authority on a new $10 million project to turn the Hoover-Mason Elevated Rail Trestle, an old railroad that ran through the steel plant, into a half-mile long walkway that links the casino with the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks. Inspired by New York City's High Line, the path will feature planters, benches and give the public its closest view yet of the blast furnaces.

"All of the design development work has already begun. We'll see work on the site this fall," Mr. DeSalvio said, adding that plans call for its completion next year.

Meanwhile, Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, a local nonprofit, offers daily walking tours of the former steel plant, much of which was taken down. There's a carpenter and pattern shop, central tool shop, and the 1873 Bessemer rail rolling mill, which has beautiful Roman arches.

"The buildings are the touchstones and allow us to relate the stories of what took place there. I'm happy to see things still standing. We're seeing this renaissance, this rebirth," said Kathy Zoshak, who wears a hard hat when she leads tours.

A resident of Macungie, Lehigh County, she has a personal connection to steelmaking because her maternal grandfather, John Schramko, worked there for decades before his death in 1968. His last job was assistant heater in the soaking pits, and she easily translates what that meant.

"It's where they heat ingots in a gas-fired furnace to make them all a uniform temperature," she said, adding that the immense ingots, which were lifted in and out of the furnace with a crane, were then shaped and rolled.

Mrs. Zoshak greets tour groups at a visitors center. A restored stone building, it's a former stock house that held iron ore, limestone and anthracite coal, which were used to make iron. Located near the SteelStacks outdoor stage, it offers an introductory film, exhibits and restrooms.

Recounting the city's role in the nation's Industrial Revolution is one of the goals of Stephen Donches, president and CEO of the National Museum of Industrial History. His office is in a former bank just across the street from the Bethlehem Steel headquarters, where he was once employed as a corporate spokesman.

About a block away on East Third Street is a two-story red brick building built in 1913 that's been restored with a $4.5 million state grant. When it opens, the museum will tell the story of steelmaking in the U.S. as well as the history of Bethlehem Steel, which began in 1863 and shut down for good in 1998.

"None of this would have happened if Gov. [Tom] Ridge had not passed the land recycling act, the brownfields law," Mr. Donches said. "In years past, when you had an industrial shutdown, they would padlock the facility and walk away."

You'll never again see blue flames coming from the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel, but the city has found a way to make the mill its centerpiece once more.

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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