$10M for DaVinci Center
Northampton County Council voted Dec. 7 to award $10 million in hotel taxes for a new Easton-based DaVinci Science Center. But it’s unclear whether this $130 million project, whose centerpiece is a salt water aquarium, will ever see any of this money. This grant is the dying gasp of a lame duck council. Ken Kraft has already promised to repeal this measure once a new Council is seated next month.
The grant passed by a 5-4 vote. Voting for it were Peg Ferraro, Glenn Geissinger, Mat Benol, Seth Vaughn and Bob Werner. Voting No were Ken Kraft, John Cusick, Matt Dietz and Hayden Phillips. Geissinger, Benol and Vaughn will be off council at the end of the year.
Ferraro, a retired teacher, spearheaded the grant and even attended informational meetings.pitching the project throughout the four corners of the county.
Easton has already pledged $30 million, which includes the purchase and demolition of the Days Inn along Larry Holmes. That aging hotel will be demolished and replaced with a 170,000 sq ft facility that includes a science center, a 500,000 gallon aquarium with large view panes, an Aquarium Restaurant and an event center with seating for 500, an immersion theater, a creativity studio or “Fab lab,” classrooms and offices.
The state has pledged another $20 million, but only if there is no competition from a private aquarium being considered at .the Kalahari Resort in Tobyhanna Township. State Senator Lisa Boscola, who endorsed this state grant, had legislative aide Joe Kelly waiting in the wings as Council debated the matter
This $10 million grant was supposed to be just a $1 million grant, similar to the amounts paid to SteelStacks and PBS-39. But Ferraro proposed an amendment increasing it tenfold with no prior notice to the public.
The day before, even the $1 million grant was in jeopardy.
Thats because Council received a visit from Jonathan Davis, who owns Easton’s popular Pearly Baker’s, Bank Street Annex and Mueller’s General Store. He has been operating small businesses for the past 25 years after his graduation from Lafayette College. Claiming to be speaking on behalf of a large number of downtown Easton businesses, he said they are “very much opposed to the Science Center as it now stands.”
Plans for DaVinci include a 250-seat restaurant as well as cafes. “The restaurant community cannot have that happen to its downtown,” he argued. He noted that four Easton restaurants have closed this year, and only two have re-opened. “This quasi government kind of manipulation that has happened, with good intentions, has ransacked the business community.” He said the food court at Crayola has negatively impacted lunch business. He added that the publicly subsidized Public Market is no public market. “It’s a food court. That cut our business in half.”
He called the DaVinci Science Center a “killer for the restaurant business.” He said his 50 or so employees are suffering from lost tips already, and that DaVinci will be a “vacuum that sucks away any benefit it is supposed to have.”
“This is our money, this is public funds, and it should be going for the benefit of downtown Easton.”
“Destroy the restaurant community that established the downtown, and you will have larger issues than you ever expect,” he warned.
He added that Erickson told him that the restaurant would be used as a profit source to offset future expenses.
“Maybe we could have an event center with a caterer and a liquor license,” suggested Ferraro.
“Why? Why? What’s the mission? The mission is science and education. Where is it coming that we’re serving cocktails?”
Within 24 hours after Davis spoke, DaVinci Center pulled plans for a restaurant and Easton Mayor Sal Panto spent an afternoon soothing nervous business owners. Restaurateur Davis from skeptic to cheerleader. Council then heard from a stream of officials who support the aquarium. These included several members of Easton City Council, and Bethlehem School Superintendent Joseph Roy., who is also a DaVinci trustee.
Only one member of the public, Pen Argyl resident Jeff Fox, opposed this grant.