The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was never truer. When most passersby look at the site of the former Allentown Metal Works they see large abandoned buildings, missing windows, and overgrowth. Maybe they even see the heyday of industry from the manufacturing past in the City of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley region. But that’s not what Scott Unger sees.

He sees the future, the potential, the opportunity. He sees a manufacturing rebirth where today’s manufacturers bring the 17-acre site back to life. And he has a plan for making it happen.

A heavy lift

The fact that the offices of Allentown Economic Development Corporation, of which Unger is Executive Director, are across and just down the street from the Metal Works site means it’s a constant visual reminder of his plan and its goal. It’s a plan he’s been working on since 2013 when AEDC entered into an agreement of sale to purchase the site and he became its biggest champion. As of today, the site is the largest property to undergo redevelopment through AEDC’s Urban Sites program. Purchasing such a large and complex property is not something that every economic development organization would take on… especially not one that requires selective demolition, environmental remediation, and extensive site plans for its rebirth to happen. It’s also going to require considerable patience because a project of this magnitude does not come to fruition quickly or easily. And seven years into the project, AEDC’s team still has plenty of fundraising and redevelopment work remaining.

“I didn’t have AEDC enter into this expecting a fast turnaround,” said Unger. “I have realistic expectations for it. I knew it would take time. Big projects like this always do, and this one has been a grind. Brownfields are always a risky undertaking, but when the site is operating as a manufacturing facility again, the reward will have far exceeded the risk. In the meantime, my job is to keep moving it along to the next phase.”

Progress is expected to go slowly for a project like this, but Unger is not about to say it couldn’t go a little faster with the right support or public-private partnership. “If the right partner came along to collaborate on Metal Works and help to advance the redevelopment of the site, I’d be open to having that conversation to find out how we might work together.”

Years of accomplishments

“We’ve actually done a considerable amount in the past seven years. It might not look like that from the street or to the untrained eye, but we’ve made significant progress on preparing the site for what comes next,” he explained. “There’s no point in cleaning up and readying only a portion of the site when the whole thing will need renovation if it’s ever going to be used to its full capacity.” (Go HERE to see project timeline.)

When planning such a large redevelopment project, Unger says its necessary to think big picture. “Projects of this size and complexity require careful attention to the sequence of the work. Infrastructure such as utility laterals, stormwater improvements, as well as parking and vehicular circulation improvements need to be carefully thought through and planned out.”

Over the years, AEDC has applied for many federal, state and local loans and grants, along with private funds from local foundations in order to do the ground-level work. To date, the amount of funds secured totals $4.5 million. Of the accumulated funds, $2.5 million remains, and matching grant funds are currently being pursued to be used for future phases. In addition to the $4.5 million raised for the project, AEDC has also invested approximately $250,000 of its own funds into redevelopment efforts.

The combination of these funds has been used for important things like the DEP ACT II Voluntary Cleanup Program, environmental assessments, two rounds of remediation, the demolition of four buildings that were determined to be functionally obsolete, and the development of site plans.

Expanding Manufacturing in Allentown

For over 40 years, AEDC’s mission has been to grow and expand the area’s existing manufacturing sector. When there is an increase in the creation of good-paying jobs through expansion of existing businesses or new manufacturers set up shop in the region, it has a positive impact on economic development, specifically the local tax base and employment.

Once the former Allentown Metal Works site is completed, it is expected to be home to either one large or several smaller manufacturers with the potential to support 75-400 jobs, creating employment opportunities within walking distance to the city’s workforce. There are three existing buildings, together totaling more than 200,000 square feet on the site, several with extra high ceilings, heavy crane capability, and the potential for rail service if a spur is added from the nearby rail line. The site was previously served by rail, but the rail had since been removed.

They say nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. If that’s truly the case, for Scott Unger and the team at AEDC, the difficult road of redeveloping the Allentown Metal Works site will be well-worth the final outcome.