With renewal aid, HQ cost is practically a steel

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Thanks to the June arrival of the Sands Casino Resort in the industrial Lehigh Valley in east central Pennsylvania, the region can expect the opening of a shiny new public TV station as well.

The casino will be about a mile down the road from a new headquarters and studio for PBS-39 (WLVT).

“Yes, a mile away, so Big Bird won’t be playing slots,” quipped station CEO Pat Simon.

Construction starts in September on the station’s 36,000-square-foot, $13 million facility, according to Simon. The station should be able to move in a year later.

How can this rust-belt station build a handsome new home in this economically inert year? Especially in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Ed Rendell is attempting to zero out state funding for pubcasting?

For one thing, the state approved the gambling license on the condition that the casino operator donate 3.5 acres for a redevelopment that will bring entertainment, shopping and dining to a blighted spot where the once-mighty home plant of Bethlehem Steel once operated.

SteelStacks entertainment complex, former Bethlehem Steel blast furnacePBS-39 will adjoin a new ArtsQuest arts center in the new SteelStacks arts and enterainment complex being built around the steel works’ old electrical furnace building and towering smokestacks.

The station ended up having to raise only $100,000 of the $13 million price tag for construction, thanks to three state or federal subsidies:

  • Pennsylvania’s Regional Capital Assistance Program, which aids organizations that construct buildings in economically distressed areas, and gave $6.125 million to PBS-39;
  • the state’s Neighborhood Partnership Program, which prompted donations to the station by letting businesses give part of their tax obligations to nonprofits instead of the state; and
  • the federal New Market Tax Credits (this year part of the economic stimulus) that gives taxpayers a 39 percent credit if they invest in Community Development Entities in low-income areas, which helped reduce the cost of the Bethlehem redevelopment.

In addition, the city will use state-mandated fees from the casino operator to cover the cost of the arts complex’s exterior site development, Simon said. “Streetlights, road work, park benches, landscaping — we’ll save millions,” she said.

PBS-39 will be tied electronically to the adjoining cultural complex being developed by the nonprofit ArtsQuest. The center’s 450-seat theater will stage performances from local groups including the Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra, the Hispanic American League of Artists and the Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

The relationship will give the station live performances it can record and present its multicast partially dedicated to the arts.

“We’re wiring the whole site so we can do plug-and-play from anywhere,” Simon said.

The new facility will arrive just in time, as PBS-39’s circa-1960 15,000-square-foot home is rapidly deteriorating.

“It’s in pretty bad shape,” Simon said. “It’s like a rabbit warren, there’ve been so many additions. There are 14 separate air conditioners on the roof, the roof leaks, I haven’t had any heat in my office for three years.”

Distinguishing features of the complex are the huge silent blast furnaces and the looming smokestacks, which will be well-lit landmarks at night.

But right now, Japanese signs are covering the site. The signs are props for the movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, filmed there and opening in June.

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