BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Plans to redevelop vacant land and buildings of the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. into a National Museum of Industrial History are being set aside in favor of a development including a lavish slots parlor that would illuminate the old blast furnaces and blend industrial motifs into its design.
A 300,000-square-foot machine shop once envisioned as the museum's home instead would contain swanky retail stores, restaurants and residential lofts.
"We're building a city," said Michael Perrucci, a partner in the New York development group BethWorks Now, which bought 124 acres of Bethlehem Steel land and, in conjunction with the Las Vegas Sands, will develop it. "When you live here, you'll park your car and you're never leaving," Perrucci said.
A project that was once envisioned to cost $450 million has more than doubled into one that could draw as much as $1 billion in investment, according to BethWorks Now and city officials.
The overhead rail car that once carried ore from Bethlehem Steel's ore yard to the blast furnaces will be refurbished to ferry people from an opulent slots parlor and conference center to the retail and residential parts of Bethlehem Works.
About 1,000 residential lofts would be incorporated into the plan, with a cinema, eight restaurants and two hotels.
A 5,000-seat indoor arena with glass behind the performance stage would give spectators a view of illuminated blast furnaces in the background.
A large "lifestyle center" would incorporate the ruins of Bethlehem Steel's former iron foundry in its western wall and offer stores such as Urban Outfitters and outdoor cafes.
Though the latest plans include a 30,000-square-foot Exposition Hall for artifacts, preservation of several buildings and restoration of the hulking blast furnaces, they don't include the $200 million museum.
The museum was the centerpiece of a $450 million plan to redevelop the property into an entertainment and shopping district. But the plan has been beset by a lack of money and investors since Bethlehem Steel Corp., which was dissolved Dec. 31, 2003, unveiled it in 1997.
Parts of Bethlehem Steel, including the Sparrows Point complex in southeastern Baltimore County, were acquired by International Steel Group Inc. and recently resold to a company led by Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal.
Hank Barnette, a former Bethlehem Steel chairman and member of a museum Leadership Council trying to preserve the site, said he hasn't given up hope.
"The development of a national museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution was and continues to be our objective," Barnette said. "In fairness to the BethWorks Now group, I'm going to reserve judgment until they present final plans."
State Rep. T.J. Rooney, who long supported locating a slots parlor on the Bethlehem Works site, said the plans being made by Las Vegas Sands should not be confused with the tacky neon look of the Las Vegas strip.
"This isn't some kind of seedy casino with a neon cowboy out front," the Democrat said. "This is not a pie-in-the-sky plan. If the slots license is awarded, this will happen almost overnight, and unlike the original BethWorks plan, it will happen without a nickel of public funds."
The BethWorks Now plan, while lucrative for the city, could force preservationists to give up their dream of building the Na- tional Museum of Industrial History.
In April, members of the museum's Leadership Council set a goal of raising $2 million by July and $5 million by the end of the year. The council has deflected questions about how much has been raised, and no construction plans have been filed.
Perrucci said he believes he can serve both economics and preservation.
"We're going to help develop Exposition Hall, we're going to preserve several buildings and we're allocating museum space," Perrucci said. "With the space we have, we can do a lot."
The Morning Call, of Allentown, Pa., is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.