Imagine the Lehigh Valley's largest city with a premier high- rise hotel at one of its key downtown intersections -- just blocks from the seat of county government and the federal building and around the corner from Symphony Hall and the Allentown Art Museum.
The first floor of the Americus is ringed with retail stores and restaurants. The upper floors are home to luxury apartments and condominiums. The soaring banquet room hosts all types of celebrations, bringing lots of people downtown from around the Valley.
That is Mayor Ed Pawlowski's dream for the Americus Center, a 13- story building at Sixth and Hamilton streets that was once the largest operating hotel in the Lehigh Valley and has been nearly vacant, except for a handful of small stores on its first level, since 2002.
But when he opens his eyes, what Pawlowski sees is the opposite: an embarrassing eyesore with a crumbling facade; a building in need of sprinklers and a major electrical system overhaul, with an owner, Americus Center Inc., that has allowed the property to be scheduled for sheriff's sale in April.
Mark Mendelson is the majority shareholder in Americus Center Inc.
"I can't allow a building of this size and magnitude to just sit there," Pawlowski said.
Allentown's effort to bring back its central business district won't be complete unless it can turn around the historic Americus, an imposing landmark at the heart of the city's downtown, said T. Anthony Iannelli, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
It is the second-most prominent building in the city's skyline, next to PPL's Ninth and Hamilton headquarters.
"You can't ignore that building" Iannelli said. "It is so powerful by its physical presence."
Peter Koenig, an agent with Sperry Van-Ness Imperial Realty who specializes in downtown Allentown, put it frankly.
"It's a giant zit on Allentown's face," Koenig said. "We need to put someone in control who can make it viable and beautiful."
After trying for a year to get Mendelson to sell or to correct a list of safety violations, Pawlowski said he has decided to put away the carrot and break out the stick, with a threat to shut off the utilities to the building.
That is not going to help, said Mendelson's attorney, William Harrison. Harrison said his client is ready to make a deal with any legitimate developer who comes his way, and is willing to cooperate with city officials in doing so.
"Mark has heard the message loud and clear that they do not want him to redevelop this property," Harrison said. "He is eager to extricate himself from Allentown. They are not fond of him and he has no desire to impose himself on the community any longer."
He blamed Mendelson's inability to rehabilitate the building himself on negative publicity in The Morning Call, an argument that is central to a lawsuit Mendelson filed in 2003 against the newspaper. Mendelson alleges that the newspaper hurt his reputation and invaded his privacy in an in-depth story focusing on his real estate projects in Allentown and Philadelphia and his strained relationships with Allentown officials.
The city and Mendelson offer conflicting explanations of why the building hasn't been sold.
Mendelson referred questions to his attorneys, but he did say briefly that in his opinion, none of the developers the city sent him had the resources to purchase the building or convert it into the showplace Pawlowski envisions.
"I'm not in the position of refusing a check," Mendelson said. "Obviously there wasn't a check in hand, or I would have taken it."
In the past, Mendelson had asked for $3 million for the building, said Allentown landlord and Crocodile Rock nightclub manager Joe Clark, who led one investment group that was trying to purchase the property.