Back to the drawing board: Catasauqua talks options for Iron Works property after deal fell through

CATASAUQUA, Pa. – At Monday night’s meeting, Catasauqua Borough Council voted to create a special committee to explore which direction the borough will take with the former Crane Iron Works property after a plan 12 years in the making fell through last month.

Councilmembers Brian Bartholomew, Howard Cunningham and Cameron Smith are now charged with leading the effort to determine, with public input, what to do with the 12-acre brownfield.

The borough is back to the drawing board, after a deal to turn the property into a mixed-use development was stopped in its tracks. In early June, the borough was in the process of selling the property along Front Street to Bethlehem-based developer Dunn Twiggar Co. LLC.

Dunn Twiggar planned to redevelop the property into a work-life center with residential, office and retail space. However, on June 3, the borough received a letter from the developer terminating the agreement of sale.

That development did not sit well with borough residents, and a number of them showed up Monday prepared to voice their displeasure with council.

However, after hearing a presentation by borough Solicitor Thomas Dinkelacker about the legal options available to the borough to move forward with the Iron Works property, objections were voiced in a civil manner that was lacking at the June 6 council meeting.

Dinkelacker said that, by law, the borough has two options to sell the property. The first is to publicly advertise for bids using either a request for proposal or the auction process. In that option, the highest bid must be accepted.

The second option, Dinkelacker said, “is to negotiate directly with another institution, generally a nonprofit.”

The exception to the two options is to sell to a redevelopment authority like the Lehigh County Redevelopment Authority. A downside to this approach, noted Dinkelacker, is that the borough would lose control over the property.

If Catasauqua were to choose to go with the RFP process, the sale must close within 60 days of the approval of bids. To help mitigate that tight closing window, the solicitor said that many municipalities attach an agreement of sale to the RFP and give respondents up to 120 days or more to reply.

What if no one bids? In that case, Dinkelacker said the “no bid law” applies. The borough would advertise the property for bids a second time. If none are received a second time, the borough can negotiate a private sale with a buyer of its choice as long as the selling price is not below fair market value.

Dinkelacker recommended that council establish a special Iron Works committee and hold four public meetings in August and September.

Among the issues he recommended to be addressed: public discussion of the agenda, identifying interested parties, creating an electronic clearinghouse for existing documents, preparing to deal with outside agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection, and determining if adjustments are needed to the waterfront area zoning ordinance.

“Things have not changed since 2017, when I did this the last time,” Dinkelacker observed. “Only the ‘no bid law’ has changed slightly.”

Most of residents’ concerns expressed Monday night were about maintaining the mixed-use zoning of the Dunn Twiggar approach, which council indicated it also favored.

Some residents also took issue with the selection of the three councilmembers for the special committee. 

“I do question the committee of three,” one community member at the podium said during public comments. “Brian, it was a little hard to see that you stopped the project and put an end to it, and you were not really forthcoming with the community.”

Brian Bartholomew, borough council president, said with changing times, the same stores planned 12 years ago may not be what the borough needs now.
“It seems to me that brick-and-mortar really, you know, is going,” he said. “Really, to me, what do you have any more…pizza shops and beauty parlors?”
“I’m a little angry about that, actually I’m a whole lot of angry about that,” said Virginia Schlegel, who’s lived in Catasauqua for nearly 38 years. “It’s something that would be good for the Borough of Catasauqua, would benefit the borough.”
“I’m a little angry about that, actually I’m a whole lot of angry about that,” Virginia Schlegel, who’s lived in Catasauqua for nearly 38 years, said. “It’s something that would be good for the borough of Catasauqua, would benefit the borough.”
The previous borough council president, Vincent Smith, said in June that he had worked on the deal for more than a decade, and he’s not sure what went wrong.
The developer had also previously said the company had to pull out of the deal when it learned the borough council president was not going to approve an extension of due diligence.
That extension was to be discussed during a special council meeting at the beginning of June. It was canceled at the last minute, but some members of the community say they don’t know why.

Other news

In other business, council voted to name Mayor Barbara Schlegel as the temporary open records officer. Also, the two-hour parking signs on Second Street between Bridge and Strawberry streets were approved to be removed.

In addition, councilmember Cunningham reported on the status of the search for a new borough manager to replace Steve Travers. He said there are currently five applicants, and the first round of interviews are scheduled for Aug. 26. Finalist candidates will be interviewed by council Sept. 6.