I like unique for Bethlehem

My guy Thoreau (a gadfly if there ever was one) describes good writing somewhere as having the feel of a nail driven into the stud instead of the lath and plaster. Dana Grubb is a strong writer. He has already contributed several valuable posts to the Gadfly (for instance, Banana Factory Expansion #3), and you can see him in effective verbal action on Gadfly grandkid Owen’s video of the public meeting on parking (Parking #11). The Gadfly hopes Dana has a long connection with the Gadfly blog.

There was a particular “sock” to Dana’s recent Bethlehem Press editorial “The Same 10 People” (September 27). It must have caused some spilled coffee on Bethlehem breakfast tables last week. It certainly did in my house. I cannot speak to the specific trigger to Dana’s editorial, but I would like to speak to his general vision of the public, or certain elements of it, and elected officials.

To me, Gadflies are sacred. Gadflies are the unofficial officials of a town, self-appointed to be the voice of the people. And one of the things I wanted to be sure to do with this blog is memorialize the gadflies. The mayors and prominent Council members will have plenty written about them in permanent, indelible ways in the official annals of our town – and deservedly so. But I wanted to make sure “the other guys” were remembered too – hence the “Gadfly History” feature of the blog. And hence, already, within the first two weeks of “The Bethlehem Gadfly” existence the appreciative notices of Antalics and Scheirer.

Dana too believes gadflies sacred, though he might not use that word. “Our political system requires civic involvement to keep government and elected officials honest, productive and accountable for what they say and do,” Dana says, “Residents who attend regularly make well thought out, very well-researched and sometimes critical remarks designed to encourage council members to think deeply about issues and perhaps rethink their positions.” Right on. Textbook.

But in the perhaps excessively pious and high-flown clumsiness of my mission statement on the “About” page, I propose a significantly different view of the gadfly figure. The traditional view of the Socrates story is gadfly v. state. Citizens good, rulers bad. We v. you. But this Gadfly thinks differently.

“That every elected official in a democracy began as a Gadfly. That elected officials are Gadflies still. That elected officials are simply but significantly Gadflies with power.”

It’s not gadflies v. state. But gadflies from every tier united against sterile thinking, stale ideas, lack of imagination, a torpid status quo, apathy, lethargy, a scorn for history, bureaucratic mindlessness, greed, selfishness, corruption. And on and on.

We must believe that our elected officials all probably sought office (not for the money, right, Councilpersons!) because of a burr under their butts, an itch that needed scratching, a need that required filling, a dream that wanted out. They are gadflies.

In Town Hall we are on different sides of the desk. But not in real life.

Speaking at Council the other night (when the place was crackling with golf tension and nobody was probably listening — sigh) I spontaneously realized that the meetings are like Church. The agenda is our liturgy, always the same, rigorously and religiously followed. In the front is our altar with High Priest (I am always trying to get President Waldron to smile, is he smiling now?) and his acolytes. We are formal figures: “President Waldron,” “Mayor Donchez,” “Mr. Gallagher.” There can be dramatic moments, but for the most part we are framed in ritual and routine. Mr. Antalics has his assigned part, Mr. Schierer has his assigned part. Which is all as it should be. But it can be numbing. Lots of us, unfortunately, sleep in Church.

The Town Hall is our Church, and Council meetings our service.

But I hungered for something different. Not as replacement. But as complement. A place where everybody was together. A place where we could let our hair down a bit. A place where we could trade ideas, try out ideas, talk provisionally and tentatively, talk without being locked in to a position, talk before a vote looms, talk after a vote pleased or angered, talk out-of-the box, talk wildly even. But talk with mutual trust.

Good conversation makes community.

There, that’s my revisionist textbook idea of the relationship between gadfly and elected officials that – ha! – Dana’s stud-hitting post dragged out of my shadows.

There, that’s my dream for the blog.

I think we have a chance to be unique.

It will take a bit of work. And trust.

I like unique for Bethlehem.

And a good start: I have written before how appreciative I am that the mayor and most of Council (but not the solicitors – yet) have signed on. That’s quite a risk to take with an old guy they hardly know, and, I hope, offers some optimism to temper Dana’s pessimism. I hope there will be good conversation for them to listen to (damn, ending with a preposition again) – that’s our challenge — and that they will contribute as well.

Healthy dialogue.

I have become what Stephen Crane in Red Badge of Courage (are students still reading that classic?) called “a wind demon.”

Signing off.


This Blog: An Archive of Public Comment, and an Example

Gadfly knows the golf course issue is over. In fact, passing the course this morning, Gadfly could see that tree work has noticeably commenced.

But one of the reasons Gadfly came out of retirement and started this blog was to provide an archive of citizen comments, a record of public participation.

Over and over again Gadfly has seen commenters come to the podium at Council meetings with carefully thought out and written texts. Gadfly has been impressed over and over again at the high quality of these public comments and felt it a shame that, although covered well in Mrs. Kelchner’s minutes, the actual “voices” of the commenters evaporated from public view where residents not at the meeting might well find them of value.

The blog started too late to cover the golf course issue from the beginning, but Nicole’s reporting linked below performs that function well.

What Gadfly wants to do here is ask Council commenters to think of this blog as a place to archive those comments. Send your prepared texts to Gadfly.

And to give you a specific example — regardless of where you stood on the golf course issue — of the thoughtful, courteous public discourse of which Bethlehem can be proud.

Barbara Diamond enjoys retirement as Lehigh University Director of Foundation Relations by engaging in various activities and organizations hopefully for the betterment of the community. Her particular interests at the moment are preventing gun violence, local government ethics reform, and Bethlehem Democratic Committee work.

Remarks to City Council RE: Golf Course (Sept 18, 2018)

Since the last CC meeting I have been looking into golfing and golf courses. Golf is in decline across the US and even around the world. I am concerned that investing so much in the golf course is not going to solve the problem of profitability. Interest in golf has been declining for almost 2 decades because it is, according to surveys, too slow, takes too much time, costs too much, is too difficult to play especially for beginners and is seen by millennials as just not cool.

According to the National Golf Foundation, young people are not interested — there has been a 30% decline among 18-34-year-olds over past 20 years — so there is a pipeline problem for the future. Lots of measures indicate waning interest: TV viewing is down, equipment purchases and manufacturing were down by 28% in 2014 — which led to retailers jettisoning products, floor space, and personnel – and, of course, rounds played are down.

With fewer people playing, golf courses are closing — over 800 in the last decade — and the number is accelerating. In 2018 only 9.6% of US population plays golf. It is hard to see how improvements to the course will revive what appears to be dying interest in the game.

Another consideration is that there are 16 public courses in NOCO and Lehigh CO and another 6 in Bucks Co. Our region seems well served by public courses.

There is also the issue of environmental impact — golf courses are notorious for their use of harmful pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and water. Our budget in Bethlehem for these products just on the golf course is $66,000.

In Bethlehem 750 residents use the golf course per year.

Considering all the above is this $3M investment wise?

In your committee discussion about improving the golf course’s profitability, did you consider the possibility of re-purposing this very desirable green space as some other kind of recreational asset — something that would be appealing and used by a greater number of Bethlehem residents?

I am not opposed to borrowing money to devote to recreational opportunities for our city. I am opposed to devoting $3m to improve a facility that is used by a small fraction of Bethlehem residents for a sport that is on the wane, while, according to the 2018 Outdoor Foundation, running, jogging, and walking for exercise are now the most popular forms of outdoor activities.

So I ask that you pause this plan and think of the golf course as an opportunity to consider creatively and with vision how this extraordinary property might be used to enhance existing and planned parks and recreational opportunities.

For example, is it possible to improve the 9-hole and re-purpose the 18-hole?

I also support the feasibility study for the Pedestrian bridge as a way to further link recreation opportunity on both sides of the river. Imagine how re-purposing the golf course with walking/ biking paths linking with the pedestrian bridge could enhance Bethlehem as a destination? That would be much better use of economic development grants and taxpayer dollars, at least in my mind.

But I would further suggest that you consider holding a couple of town hall meetings so the public can have input on how this valuable recreational resource can best meet the needs and preferences for Bethlehem residents.

One more suggestion is act to preserve this property for use for recreation rather than development.


“Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez is pitching a $1.75 million proposal to get the city’s cash-strapped golf course into better playing condition.”
Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem to sink $1.75 million into golf course.” Morning Call, August 30, 2018.

“Bethlehem City Council backed a $1.75 million makeover of its popular but cash-strapped golf course, part of Mayor Robert Donchez’s plan to turn around the finances without bringing in a private operator.”
Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem tees up $1.75 million makeover of golf course.” Morning Call, September 6, 2018.

“The Bethlehem Golf Club has been running a deficit for 10 years. Why wasn’t the restructuring that is being planned implemented at some point during those 10 years? With 10 years of mismanagement, I think the city should hire an outside operator.”
Deborah Helms, “Readers React: Bethlehem golf course mismanaged.” Morning Call, September 12, 2018.

“Bethlehem City Council on Tuesday approved borrowing $1.75 million and applying for grants to improve its popular but cash-strapped golf course, over some objections that the money would be better used on facilities more residents use.”
Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem backs borrowing $1.75 million for golf course.” Morning Call, September 19, 2018.

“Golf isn’t exactly in our budget, let alone the majority of Bethlehem residents. The rich are getting richer and will always take care of themselves first. Bethlehem City Council proved that on Tuesday.”
Maggie Riegel, “Readers React: Spending $1.75 million on Bethlehem golf club is a swing and a miss.” Morning Call, September 20, 2018.

How the Garages are paid for (22)

(22nd in a series of posts on parking)

Breena Holland is an Associate Professor at Lehigh University in the Department of Political Science and the Environmental Initiative. She is a past and current director of Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative.

Gadfly: I wholly agree with the sentiment of Vivien Steele’s post. I’m also a critic of the use of bonds to pay for expensive garages. But I want to make one point of clarification. I’m not sure it’s entirely correct to say the garages are paid for with our taxpayer money.

The way this city seems to be paying for garage construction (e.g. New Street Garage) is by approving taxpayer backed general obligation bonds. If the bonds are not repaid by the Bethlehem Parking Authority (BPA), then it’s my understanding that the city has to pay off the bonds, which it would presumably do by raising taxes on residents. This has happened in other cities, such as Scranton. The cost of the construction and upkeep of the garages is one of the stated reasons why the BPA is raising parking meter rates. The revenue from parking meter rates is needed to help pay off the debt from the bonds issued to cover garage costs. In this sense, residents/taxpayers are paying more for parking, if they use the meters. Everyone using the meters is helping to pay for the garages.

I would not have a problem with this if I believed the garages were genuinely good for small businesses. However, if the garages are being built primarily to serve other interests (institutions or developers), then I think those interests should pay for them. In the case of the New Street Garage, the claim was that the parking was needed and would help small businesses. Yet the parking study did not convincingly demonstrate this. If parking is only needed for the people who are in the office building attached to the New Street Garage by a glass walkway, the institutions that lease those offices should pay for the cost of building the garage. I don’t think the city should be issuing taxpayer-backed bonds to pay for parking for one or two institutions (Lehigh University and St. Luke’s) who already don’t pay taxes.


The Northside 2027 Neighborhood Plan (1)

(1st in a series of posts)

Nicole Radzievich, “Bethlehem lays out long-range plan for north of historic section – North Side 2027 initiative, a $100,000 study, aims to spruce up neighborhoods.” Morning Call, October 19, 2017.

On Thursday October 11 the first public meeting on “Northside 2027” will be held from 6-8PM at Liberty High School in the chorus room.

The Gadfly will be there. Will you? Pass the word.

Well, ok, Gadfly, you say, what is “Northside 2027”? My immediate thought was that it was a television series: Hawaii 5-O, Beverly Hills 90210, 77 Sunset Strip (Gadfly goes way back).

Take a look at the City newsletter that should be appearing in your mailboxes right about now for a description.

“The ultimate goal of [Northside 2027] is to enhance the Northside 2027 neighborhood by stemming declines in housing stock, promoting homeownership, improving the visual attractiveness of the area, ensuring vehicular/pedestrian mobility and safety, strengthening community facilities, and improving the general quality of life in the neighborhoods.”

North Side is defined as running “roughly between Broad and Laurel streets.. . . in some areas, west to Mauch Chunk Road and east to Maple Street.”

“The initiative is a partnership involving Bethlehem, Bethlehem Area School District, Moravian College, businesses and citizens.”

Gadfly will attend the meeting and will report.

Mayor Donchez, Councilman Reynolds, Moravian president Grigsby, and BASD School Board president Faccinetto all follow this blog (a tip o’ the hat for that – I guess Gadfly should say a wave of the wings), and Gadfly hopes they will weigh in as appropriate.

The Gadfly is eagerly looking forward to learning more about this project.

“strongly opposed to the rate hike” (21)

(21st in a series of posts on parking)

Dear Gadfly:

I am writing to object to the proposed increase of parking meter rates from $1 per hour to $1.50.  I am strongly opposed to the rate hike for two reasons.

First of all, I’m afraid the action will make shopping in Bethlehem even less attractive than it already is. I, for one, used to enjoy leisurely browsing through the little shops in Bethlehem, but because I have to pay $1 per hour to be there, I now only run into a shop for a specific item I want. Window shopping is no fun and not relaxing when you have to keep one eye on your watch. Consequently, I now do most of my shopping in the Lehigh Valley or Promenade Malls, where I can proceed at my own pace because I don’t have to pay ANYTHING to park! And, as a result, that’s also where I do most of my purchasing too!

I think the City needs to think very carefully about what consumer behavior they are encouraging by creating a rate increase. If the City really wants to attract shoppers, finding a way to DECREASE parking fees would be a better idea.

Secondly, I am angered by the fact that our local officials make big decisions without sufficiently taking into consideration the wishes of the taxpayers of their community. I don’t remember hearing anything lately about a parking meter increase, and now I am also being told about a possible second parking deck on Southside that may be built with our tax money. I’d like to think our officials could find other more appropriate financial support rather than charging me for a parking deck I will never use.  (This also applies to the one that appeared on 3rd and New Streets.)

Bethlehem is filled with conscientious people who love our town’s history and desire to protect the unique community we all love. Among these are many individuals who, if consulted, can provide creative solutions to the problems we face. I hope the City gives some consideration to these good people  — ask for their opinions and listen.

Thank you.

Vivien Steele

Hope for Change in Casino Ownership (20)

(20th in a series of posts on parking)

Michael Faccinetto is President of the Bethlehem Area School Board.

(See Dana’s post #15 and Mike’s post 19)

Dana, this depends how you define success. The casino was coming with or without TIF to the site. That is the main tax driver of the TIF. Without them there would never have been enough money for the Arts Campus or the Hoover-Mason Trestle. So if you define success by the cultural benefit of that area then, yes, it’s a success. The lack of other tax paying businesses opening up shop as a result of the TIF is glaring and disappointing. With a change in casino ownership my hope is the remainder of the area will finally be sold for development.


The same 10 people

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development and deputy director of community development.

Provocative editorial by Dana Grubb in the Bethlehem Press:

The essay begins, “For months I have heard rumors that a few members of Bethlehem’s seven-member city council have special code words they use to ridicule residents who regularly attend council meetings. . . .”

Take a look.

We’ll need to chew on this.

Take a breath and start chewing.

The Gadfly

By the way, if you do not subscribe to the Bethlehem Press, take a look. The Gadfly had not paid much attention to this paper till January, about the same time he started attending Council and other City meetings on a regular basis, and he has grown to love it. It is a “community” newspaper, something we really need.