LACKAWANNA, NY – Since he began his first term as Erie County Executive in 2012, Mark Poloncarz has made a priority of redeveloping the former Bethlehem Steel site in his native Lackawanna.
At a news conference on Tuesday, he proclaimed that a major step has been taken toward that goal.
Triumphantly holding aloft a copy of a deed filed with the county clerk’s office, Poloncarz announced that the county had taken title to 60 acres of land at the site, the first part of what will eventually be a deal to purchase 150 acres of it for $5.5 million.
The site is largely void of any remaining buildings and is covered by weeds and a few trees.
“If we spend $37,000 an acre, and then we get companies that invest more than $100 million, that's a pretty damn good investment for the people of the community because in the end it increases our tax base and it grows jobs," said Poloncarz.
However, the county will spend millions more to cap the property with a foot of clean soil (dredged from Green Lake in Orchard Park) and then build the necessary infrastructure like roads and sewers to set up the land for private companies to purchase and build manufacturing plants.
"We own it today, but my goal is that we eventually don’t own a single acre of this land, and that it's owned by private concerns that bring back jobs to our community," Poloncarz said.
"Lackawanna needs this," said Stephen Tobias, who for 36 years worked in a machine shop at Bethlehem, until a day in 1983 when he recalls, “ they kicked us all out.”
“I hope I'm around to see this happen, but…what the hell, I’m 89, so you just don’t know,” Tobias said.
"I guarantee you that in a very short period of time, you’re gonna be seeing economic development here and the jobs that come with it," said Poloncarz, who insisted his prediction was based on more than just wishful thinking.
“We’ve already had conversations with private sector firms, and it will happen,” he said.
Poloncarz, however, declined to provide the names or any descriptions of the businesses that he claimed were interested in locating at the site.
The County Executive, who steered the purchase, pronounced the site "unlike any other in the entire Northeast” due to its size, and ready access to roads, rail, and water…the same thing that drew Bethlehem to originally come here generations ago.
The county also plans to build something of its own on the site called a Net Zero Energy building, which will be powered by non-fossil fuels like solar, wind and geothermal, and in theory generate as much power through those means as it consumes.
The proposed 80,000 square foot facility is being built in consultation with the University at Buffalo, and would ideally be leased out to small companies.
In addition, there is a recreational component to the plan with provisions made to continue the Shoreline Trail through the parcel, connecting the Outer Harbor to Woodlawn Beach State Park and providing a modicum of public access to the site.