|Da Vinci Science City - Easton Waterfront|
Last week, news broke that The Da Vinci Science Center, located on the west end of Allentown, is considering an expansion into Easton. Executive Director Lin Erickson gave Northampton County Council an overview of the project last week, claiming it would bring education, tourism and economic development to Northampton County.
According to Erickson, Da Vinci Science Center needs to expand, and has spent the past year evaluating different locations. Its search led it to Days Inn. That will be demolished and replaced with a 170,000 sq ft 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.
Easton has agreed to contribute up to $30 million of the projected $130 million cost.
Based on a comparison with the Chattanooga Aquarium, Erickson projects that Easton's Da Vinci 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 that 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%.
Over the next year, Easton and Da Vinci will conduct a feasibility study to determine if the plan is viable. That alone will cost $1 million. Northampton County will assist with $50,000 in hotel taxes If Da Vinci gets a green light and funding, the project will be completed by 2021.
One drawback of this site is that, as Erickson herself noted, is that it is located in the flood plain. From time to time, it is itself an aquarium. I am unable to recall whether The Days Inn was impacted, but know the McDonalds across the street has been hit several times by floodwaters in recent years.
Erickson stated that she decided on Easton, in part, because of its accessibility to Routes 22 and 78, as well as New Jersey. But funding was also a major factor. "Mayor Panto stepped up with a commitment unlike any of the other cities," acknowledged Erickson.
Da Vinci's goal is to bring "science to life and lives to science." According to its 2014 tax return, it took in about $2.6 million in revenue and had about $2.5 million in expenses. Those include $1.3 million in salaries, including $131,000 to Erickson. It employs a staff of about 50 full-time and part-time employees. One of them is related to a board member. It has a very large and unwieldy Board of Trustees of 28 people, and has a loan out to one of them.
Can Easton afford $30 million for a project that might fail? 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.
Easton has already agreed to spend $5.9 million to acquire the Days Inn, but is only paying $100,000 for the property until the feasibility study is completed.
Previously, Panto had hoped to enhance tourism with a national high school hall of fame. But that idea went nowhere.