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Monday, December 05, 2016

Is DaVinci Center a Fit in Easton?

Da Vinci Science City - Easton Waterfront
Without question, Easton looks much better today than it did just a few short years ago. Mayor Sal Panto, who is an enthusiastic ambassador when he talks about what once was known as Shadtown, deserves much of the credit for this rebirth. But its main attraction is that it is a river town halfway between New York and Philly. People and businesses have been playing to these strengths in recent years, and it's working. It might work for the Da Vinci Center, too.

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.  


Anonymous said...

The DaVinci Center should look no further. Easton is the right location. But instead of downtown, buy the County prison and fill that up with water. Just don't take the prisoners out first because we could use them for shark bait. That will solve the prison problem. Then expand the Aquarium over into the courthouse and fill that up with waste water and sewage. Leave John Brown, County Council and the Judges law clerks there.

Anonymous said...

The newspapers stated that Da Vinci was going to raise 100 million for this project. That is hard to believe since Easton could not put together a few thousand dollars in contributions to meet a match to continue a caclv program in the West Ward.

The best developers are the ones with years of experience and wheel barrows full of cash. That is the challenge for this project. Da Vinci lacks experience in running such a program. It also lacks cash and has never raised this kind of money. An aquarium is a sophisticated zoo. It requires trained dietitians, stores of food, medical personnel and trained engineers to run complicated water filtration and treatment facilities. No simple undertaking. Easton has lost most of its big economic punch. Banks have left as well as industries. It is difficult to raise money and support would have to come elsewhere in the valley. Traditional supporters such as. PPL have passed on Easton because it is outside of their service area. One early fault of this project is that it has been sold on simple terms. It is not a giant goldfish bowl.

Other challenges have been raised including traffic and the contribution that the city makes.. what is the real benefit for the city. There are jobs and increased economic activity. Does that benefit most of the city's population.? A lot of money has been borrowed for investment in the downtown while most of the city remains in decline with little or no investment

It is an interesting project proposal. We will have to see how it develops.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame the county didn't put its government center downtown. It would have been a perfect fit for the county and Easton. Instead of the one use building in an Industrial park, it could have housed all non-court functions of county government. With stores and restaurants nearby it would have helped generating economic income.

Missed opportunity by the county.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The government center already is in Easton. It's called the courthouse. If you are referring to the centralized human services building, it's exactly where it needs to be. It provides human services to the entire county, not just Easton, and needed to be in a more centralized location for the 18,000 people it serves. Also, it does not exist to generate income for Easton. It exists to provide human services. Also, there are enough county employees paying Panto's commuter tax and getting tickets from the Panto parking police. This was no missed opportunity. The county did not want to be there. And many of the people served would not be frequenting the high end restaurants bc they can't afford them. If they were there, you'd be whining about it before long.

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of this project coming to Easton. I do have one concern however. How is the city going to handle that traffic?

Anonymous said...

The DaVinci Center lent money to a staffer or a board member? Is that even legal?

Anonymous said...

Isn't panto being sued for deceit?

Anonymous said...

This will be a bust. Can you imagine the traffic jams on the way to the aquarium?

Anonymous said...

Part of me really likes this project. Easton deserves a lot of credit for doing something with the Days Inn and erasing a big crime magnet. It's a good, visible location and that's a very bad place.

The other part of me says that it's very expensive to build in a floodplain and raising $130 million is just too big of an ask for the Lehigh Valley. That price needs to come back to Earth.

There is also the potential for ill feelings for those that sponsored the current facility. It was expensive to build and only after a couple of years it'll be an afterthought. I think the board needs a better plan for the existing facility. I'm not sure the same donors are going to come around again if they don't.

The backers keep referring to the Chattanooga aquarium. I'm unsure why. The funding of that facility was in large part due to a private foundation and the family that backed that foundation.

Anonymous said...

Can Easton afford $30 million for a project?

Good question. Isn't their pension underfunded and wasn't that the justification for the commuter tax?

Traffic at that intersection is already a problem. This is far from a done deal. Lots of work needs to be done in the next year.

Anonymous said...

Pawlowski did not do enough to keep them in Allentown.
Who wants to do business in this city with him still in command.
He is all about himself.
He is mean spirited and truly evil.
Easton was a back up choice.
I got this from a source who serves on the board.

Monkey Momma said...

The DaVinci science center is currently landlocked and cannot do an expansion where they are located. I'd like to see it placed in downtown Allentown, personally. But I can see people not wanting to work with Pawlowski's team.

So, OK, Easton. Building this type of project on a floodplain is...not that smart. Have the costs for recurrent flood repairs been included in these estimates? Because they will be substantial.

In neighboring Bethlehem, a simple pool system ruined the community center. Imagine the potential for error with building an aquarium!!

But, overall, I'll say this: the river is an underutilized spot that really should have much more in the way of restaurants and attractions. I like the idea of taking the family there for such an outing, and I think a LOT of people will visit. A fifty mile radius for potential visitors is totally reasonable. I really do not think traffic is a major concern, since there's not "start and stop" time for an aquarium - it's generally open all day, maybe into the night, and people come and go at all times. It is a 12 month a year endeavor, too, which separates it from zoos that typically suffer in the winter. The DaVinci Science Center is awesome as it is, and it has grown so much during the time I've lived in the valley. They can and should expand.

Anonymous said...

I love the concept - it fits perfectly with Crayola Center & Canal Museum. Is there risk involved with such a project? Absolutely, but doing nothing and/or hoping that private development on that sort of scale will materialize carries risk as well.

The population and build out of the Lehigh Valley has continued to grow over the past 25 years and the 3 city centers must concentrate on developing themselves into viable destinations for those residents.

Traffic and parking are "good problems" to have and I am sure will be addressed. The general footprint of the proposed Center, along with the existing museums, the rivers and Northampton Street are VERY walkable and if properly planned for could create a vibrant retail/restaurant environment for small business owners.

Anonymous said...

I am not opposed to the idea on its face. However, if the entrance fee is going to be like the Baltimore Aquarium at $40 a pop, you will get some people going once out of curiosity and never go back and you will get even more people not going because of the expense. I'd like to see some more information about this before the "if you build it, they will come" crowd starts the cheerleading.

Jeff Fox said...

During the presentation to county council, the parking question was asked by council. I do not remember who asked. The answer was the DaVinci Center plan included only negligible parking. Most of the parking problem/issue/opportunity would be put on the city of Easton. This would be in addition to any investment in the project itself. Parking and traffic seem to be two major issues which should be addressed.

Anonymous said...

Aquariums are destination attractions. There is already a very fine aquarium in Camden that has a lot more to offer than the one proposed for Easton. It is 60 miles away. No big deal. And of course the National Aquarium in Baltimore is only a few hours away. The one in Easton would draw from only the greater Lehigh Valley. It is unsustainable.

Anonymous said...

It does not necessarily fit with the crayola center. Other projects like the Weller center tried to play off of crayola and failed. The attraction has to stand alone, able to attract visitors without other draws. An aquarium on the level of Chattanooga would do that. This project does not measure up to Chattanooga which is 12 stories in height.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"The DaVinci Center lent money to a staffer or a board member? Is that even legal?"

I think a board member (Butz) lent money (or more likely, construction services) to Da Vinci. I do not really know. The 990 is a bit confusing. But I'm not terribly thrilled at connections like these between nonprofits and their boards. I also think the Board is far too big to be effective.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Isn't panto being sued for deceit?"

He is being sued for his used of sock puppets to carry on his vendettas against people. I give him credit where it is due, but consider him dishonest.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"During the presentation to county council, the parking question was asked by council. I do not remember who asked."

That was Mat Benol.

Anonymous said...

"Easton has agreed to contribute up to $30 million of the projected $130 million cost."

"Chattanooga (528,000) is much larger than Easton (27,000)..."

Ok, boys & girls, it's time for some simple math. $30 million divided by 27,000 comes to $1,111 per resident. That means for a family of four, the bill will only be $4,444. I'm sure that household burden can be easily handled in a community as affluent as Easton, and won't be a problem on family finances (sarcasm intended).

I would also expect the Center to seek out large chunks of funding from the county and state. This makes perfect sense (heavy sarcasm), since the idea is so good and the aquarium would be so well positioned geographically that it will be a sure-fire money-making draw from the surrounding population (heavier sarcasm).

Bottom line, hold onto your wallets, a politician and non-profit have an idea. I'm sure that all Easton residents (and later county and state residents) will at least get free season passes until this "investment" is repaid (heaviest sarcasm yet).

Or the DaVinci Center could put their money behind their grand scheme and borrow the money they need to build, and repay it out of the money they earn from their idea. I guess that would be crazy talk. Or maybe the reality is that their projections aren't telling the real story.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Redd, Your comments must be ON TOPIC and IN ENGLISH. I am not going to allow you to post gibberish here.

Anonymous said...

Another way for me to use MY city to continue "Pantoring" (pandering) to the NY/NJ crowd. No wonder I think there is no conflict for Donnie C to get a $30K stipend from a Chinese company.

-Your pal Sal

Anonymous said...

Going to see some fish is not going to get me to go to Easton. Last time I was in Easton was 1972 when I had to take the Armed Forces test before going in the Air Force

It was a nasty place then, and hasn't gotten any better 40 years later. The only decent thing there is Willy-Joes, but that's actually in Phillipsburg, you have to go though Easton to get there

Anonymous said...

This idea should be sleeping with the fishes. It deserves to be deep sixed. What responsible funding source would spend millions to build a facility in a flood zone??

Anonymous said...

When I first read about the project, I thought the LV Dairy property would have been large enough to host a facility with plenty of room for a hotel, parking, and/or complimentary attraction. Given the Board was only looking to be in a City, it probably was never considered. An ideal location should be able to handle school bus parking.

Anonymous said...

"What responsible funding source would spend millions to build a facility in a flood zone??"

A government one that never did any realistic urban planning.

Anonymous said...

Why not build on county land next to Dorney Park? Easy access from highways. Can tie into an all-day or weekend family excursion and would be a mile from the science center. Downtown Easton makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

"Downtown Easton makes no sense.'

Politically-derived solutions never do. That's why the Ice Hockey arena is in the middle of the Central Business District of downtown Allentown.

Anonymous said...

"Going to see some fish is not going to get me to go to Easton. Last time I was in Easton was 1972 when I had to take the Armed Forces test before going in the Air Force

It was a nasty place then, and hasn't gotten any better 40 years later. The only decent thing there is Willy-Joes, but that's actually in Phillipsburg, you have to go though Easton to get there"

You're shortsighted and way off, I love visiting Easton! Only decent thing Willy Joes? Have you even taken the time to walk around Easton lately, with a couple of exceptions (i.e. The Quadrant, Carmelcorn Shop) nearly everything has changed. The intermodal bus station is the region's best, I just took a Transbridge bus to Clinton, NJ the other day and was very impressed with the cleanliness and comfort. Check out the old Mount Vernon Hotel, Two Rivers Brewery is a perfect place with delicious fresh beer. You must check out the Easton Public Market, it is similar in quality to the Chelsea Market. I'd hope you will give Easton a try, its a great place!

Anonymous said...

Both Bryon and Callahan thought of building a county government center in Easton. Once the Stoffa building lease deal happened that had to be taken off the table due to the huge costs of the lease.

Anonymous said...

It pains me to commend BO for raising these questions. While economic development is key to a rising community, $1.1M per resident is a great deal to invest. And yes in 2005 the water reached the roof top of McDonald's i recall the pic very well. So what if......

Perhaps securing businesses in a AAA office space/movie theater/something for kids think partnership with Guggenhiem/MOMA/etc (charter school for the arts up the block)..hell even the Museum of Sex Easton campus or a Med School as Mr. Orloski long ago suggested. Or a culinary institute--all would inure more benefit without the risk of fish floating away. The flood plain issue is real and hate to see the insurance premium for DaVinci.Though Lee Butz I am confident can cover it.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The comment at 5:27 is sheer horseshit. And as I've altready pointed out, we already have a government center in Easton. Also, I had no idea Lord Byron ran for Exec

Bernie O'Hare said...

4:30, very well said. I like Easton very much.the downtown has definitely turned around, and the south side improves every year. The west ward needs a lot of attention. This is a bold idea. I have raised some negatives, although I think my readers have done a better job. But I definitely support a feasibility study, but not a bullshit feasibility study that makes unrealistic predictions.

Bernie O'Hare said...

3:04, I wonder if LV DAIRY was considered.

Anonymous said...

Allrighty than, this rendering of a said superfund site that people are saying is on a flood plain rendering also is a site for sore eyes suffering from toxic fumes! As you have posted above the lehighvalley dairy falls under the same superfund site and is a possibility for all grant grab get to give parasites to come out of the woodwork!
REpublican redd
not a party favor in anyway

Anonymous said...

At least Sal did not take credit for the aquarium idea as that belongs to a Slate Belt/UMBT resident/official who pitched the area here as a site more than three years ago when John Brown was leading the charge for regional economic development in the area. Corporate sponsorship of the project and an available site here had this area on the front burner til Da Vinci pulled out and ran to Easton. SB may yet build their own attraction despite Sal's big splash last week. We shall see if they can come up with the money to make this grand plan happen.

Doh Biden said...

If this Da Vinci center gets built Sal should move his sights towards Norco County Exec, it would be a great capstone for his tenure as mayor.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I do not think Panto could be elected outside of easton. He has alienated the 'burbs with various insults, and his own dishonesty would hurt him.

JoshLCowen said...

Interestingly the city shot down the initial plan for the transportation center because it was in the flood plane. But all that would have ever gotten wet was the bus station. The planned condos above would have been dry as a bone. I sure hope this aquarium site has plenty of drainage.
On the bright side I disagree with those above who don't think the Crayola connection is a good one. Neither the Crayola Factor nor the Aquarium are full-day destinations, but together they will be a big draw for those coming from great distances. And don't be fooled by the discussed 50-mile radius. If people from the New York area will travel to Dorney Park for a day they will surely visit Easton for this double-venue treat. That turns a market potential of 7-million into more like 17-million.
And don't forget that the proposed Aquarium is just steps from Lanta, Trans Bridge and other intercity buses. Unlike that silly high school sports museum I think this idea has real potential. Funny, isn't it that it wasn't put on the Lehigh River in Allentown? Pawlowski is a real burden to further growth in Allentown.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Josh, Your comments are quite encouraging. I think raising the money is going to be the chief hurdle.

Anonymous said...

AS much as I hate to give credit to a Republican, lets not forget former Mayor Tom Goldsmith. He was the mayor who moved City Hall downtown bringing more workers into center city. And it was Goldsmith who got the Crayola operation downtown. I think many people have forgotten that.