It stood as an ornate symbol of steel industry might and job opportunity.
But as the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building languished for decades – empty and without purpose – it became a different symbol altogether for Lackawanna.
A sad shell of its glory days, with trees sprouting from a tattered roof, the timeworn facade reflected just how far Lackawanna had fallen since Bethlehem stopped making steel in the city that steel made.
Crews began tearing down the 1901 building in March and have scooped up nearly all of its pulverized remains.
“When it closed, it just sat there and rotted,” said Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski, who pushed for its demolition in the face of preservationists’ strong opposition.
So now the questions linger: Did razing the deteriorated structure come from a new playbook for doing things better while embracing reform after 30 years of decline following Bethlehem’s departure? Or was it another chapter of inept leadership and lack of foresight in Lackawanna?
Szymanski, just a boy in 1983 when Bethlehem stopped making steel in Lackawanna, calls it a turning point.
For years, Bethlehem pumped plumes of smoke into the sky and bundles of tax money into the city budget. The ultimate company town, Lackawanna at one time received more than two-thirds of all its revenue from the steel plant.
But Szymanski never witnessed the boom times.
Instead, he remembers friends sitting next to him in class one day and gone the next. Fathers who lost jobs at the plant moved away with their families to find work.
Doomsayers predicted that residents would flee en masse and that basic city services such as policing and firefighting would be eliminated, with municipal bankruptcy all but inevitable.
None of these scenarios happened, of course. The city stared down a couple of fiscal crises, raised taxes, laid off dozens of workers and survived with aid from Erie County. But Lackawanna has not fully recovered.
Thirty years after losing steelmaking, the city still shows severe signs of rust.
It is older, poorer and smaller, with a crumbling infrastructure and stagnant tax base. Making improvements has been compromised by decades of political shenanigans, patronage hiring and stifling legacy costs.
In 1982, the Bethlehem site brought about $6 million in property taxes to the city.
Today, the figure is well south of $1 million, and the assessed value of the 1,400 acres is constantly being challenged.
“We’re stuck on a treadmill,” said City Council President Henry R. Pirowski, “and we’re not moving forward.”
Catch-up list long, growing
Pirowski was just a baby when Bethlehem began shutting down. Like Szymanski, he ran in 2011 on a campaign to pull Lackawanna out its post-Bethlehem funk and into the 21st century.
They have their work cut out for them. In many ways, the city remains frozen in 1983.
Take something as simple as a 911 call for a fire emergency.
Most communities use central dispatching systems for police and fire, but in Lackawanna, a 911 call for an ambulance or fire is routed to police. The police then contact the fire station’s “alarm room,” where a firefighter dispatcher relays the emergency call to fire personnel.
The clunky system not only wastes valuable time, it requires the Fire Department to keep a trained firefighter at the station house to field calls.
“We don’t want firemen answering telephones and I don’t want policemen answering telephones. They belong in cars and on the trucks,” said Dana J. Britton, a former police officer who now is the city’s director of public safety. “It’s kind of common sense.”
Britton said the city’s contracts with the police and fire unions stipulate the current setup, which leads to higher personnel costs, because an assigned officer and firefighter take calls. “I don’t know how [the unions] got it,” he said. “They think the steel plant’s still around, and it’s not.”
The catch-up list is long and is growing:
• Much of Lackawanna’s playground equipment “was old when I was a kid,” the mayor acknowledges, and he hopes to replace at least some of the play sets this summer.
• The city ranked dead last among the state’s 62 cities in revenue growth between 1980 and 2010.
• Contracts with four unions of city employees have expired, some as long as five years ago.
• City Hall, often ridiculed as Lackawanna’s ugliest building, needs numerous repairs.
• The school system’s student scores on state tests ranked second from the bottom – above only Buffalo – among school districts in Western New York, according to a Business First of Buffalo analysis.
• The city is one of four in New York in danger of maxing out the total amount of property taxes that it can raise under state law.
• Traffic studies show that dozens of stop signs and traffic lights, installed when as many as 20,000 cars entered and left the steel plant daily, are no longer necessary.
The city has a two-tiered property tax structure, taxing businesses at more than double the rate of homeowners.
Few homeowners complain of high taxes, but many small businesses have folded since Bethlehem left.
“You could walk down Center Street and go to four different grocery stores. Now, there’s not a store on Center Street,” said Michael J. Sobaszek, president of the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got more industrial, buildable, usable land than anybody, and it’s sitting there. Why? Because who’s going to pay $70 per $1,000 in taxes by the time you add in the city, county and school district?”
Daunting legacy costs
The city currently has just 800 properties taxed at the nonhomestead rate – including homes with four units or more – to go with 5,382 parcels that are considered homestead.
“It’s more like a retirement and bedroom community,” said longtime resident and retired firefighter James P. Drozdowski. “There’s no kids anymore. All we’ve got are senior citizens and some small families.”
To attract new small businesses, the mayor and City Council shifted more of the tax burden onto homeowners. But city officials walk a tightrope with any tax shift, because many homeowners are senior citizens on fixed incomes.
Both Szymanski and Pirowski talk about making the city more business-friendly.
Lackawanna’s reputation in that regard has not been strong. Even Bethlehem Steel battled for years with the city, blaming high property taxes for its woes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But city officials refused to take less and tighten spending.
“It was the golden goose, and they milked it dry,” Pirowski said.
And the city still pays.
Lackawanna has more retired police officers, firefighters and other municipal employees earning pensions – 199 in all – than people currently working for the city.
“Our budget,” said Szymanski, “is retirees and union positions.”
Critics say the patronage continues unabashedly in Lackawanna. It can be found just about everywhere where public money is spent: City Hall, the school district and the Lackawanna Municipal Housing Authority.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Dennis M. Mulqueen Jr., one of the few Republicans in the city. “Nepotism here has got to be the worst. And I think the main thing holding the city back is nepotism.”
Mulqueen believes the city’s one-party dominance has a lot to do with it. The last Republican mayor of Lackawanna was in 1972, he said. A Republican has not sat on the Council in 22 years. It all leads to backdoor deals and no public input, Mulqueen said. Take a look at most Council meetings.
“It’s pretty much rubber-stamped before you get there,” he said. “They don’t have much of a discussion in front of people. Without checks and balances, can a city really ever change?”
For Mulqueen, Bethlehem’s demise is also a red herring for today’s elected officials.
“It’s a lame excuse, the steel plant closed. No kidding. Move on,” Mulqueen said. “You still hear them use that excuse to this day. It’s pathetic. That was 30 years ago.”
The current mayor and Council members say they understand that, even if their predecessors did not. “The equation changed in 1983. As far as I’m concerned, the politicians didn’t adjust to it. Now we’re doing that,” Szymanski said.
Joseph L. Jerge, the Council’s newest member, said governance is improving. “I think accountability was a problem in the past,” said Jerge, owner of Mulberry Italian Ristorante. “You can go back in the minutes to laws that were passed and things that were done and never followed-through on. That’s what’s been missing for the last 30 years.”
The mayor and Pirowski say they agree on many ideas they believe could help move the city forward. Both view redeveloping the 1,400-acre former Bethlehem site as the key to Lackawanna’s resurgence.
Old habits die hard in the steel city, though. The mayor and the Council have battled in court since last year over whether a Szymanski appointee should remain as the city’s public works commissioner. And residents who fought to save the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building felt little had changed in City Hall.
A forward-thinking city administration would have done more to preserve the building and find a viable reuse, said Danielle L. Huber of the Lackawanna Industrial Heritage Group.
Huber points to Bethlehem, Pa., where much of its former steel plant campus has been converted into an arts and entertainment district, with a Sands casino and resort and other amenities.
“They experienced the same type of situation, the same kind of loss,” Huber said. “The purpose of us trying to save that building was more than just the history and the architecture.”
Still, some longtime observers of Lackawanna’s political scene see reason for optimism.
“You have a younger generation at the reins of Lackawanna government,” said the Rev. Mark Blue, pastor of Second Baptist Church. “I’m hoping that it’s not the same old, same old Lackawanna government.”