by Elizabeth Johnson
Gretchen Longenbach’s desk is a crossroads, and as the Director of the Department of Community and Economic Development for the City of Easton and Executive Director of the Redevelopment Authority Gretchen is at the switch: overseeing projects that have great impact on future jobs, homes, and recreation. She is a committee member of the Bushkill Creek Corridor Council for the Arts, Easton’s informal arts advisory organization. I notice that she favors jumbo paper clips, and that the towers of documents, photos, letters, proposals and business cards on her desk resemble buildings narrowly separated by streets and alleys. Balancing an aerial photo of the Simon Silk Mill and the Bushkill Creek Corridor and the Karl Stirner Art Trail and downtown Easton over her “desktop city,” she narrates the history of interrelated but separately funded projects.
Lafayette College and Easton partnered to revitalize the Simon Silk Mill and the Bushkill Creek Corridor in 2004, and nine million dollars from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) was awarded to the City of Easton in 2005. The Redevelopment Authority of Easton (RDA) and Lafayette became partners and sub-grantees for portions of the project. The money was earmarked for acquiring the property and completing construction along the Bushkill Creek Corridor. The property was purchased in 2006 after environmental assessments were made to aid appraisal. The RDA began looking for a developer to partner with; but due to the beginning of the economic downturn, a lack of feedback from the community, and concerns about the site itself, they decided to commit to long-term ownership and redevelopment of the site. About this time, the arts and creative industries evolved into being the most proactive focus for the complex.
In 2007-2008 Minneapolis-based Artspace USA completed a feasibility study for the Simon Silk Mill as an arts-based real estate project; ArtsMarket Inc. determined that the site could support a “high quality mixed use creative complex…and potentially draw 80,000-120,000 visitors a year”; and the Mill is deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009-2010 Spillman Farmer Architects begin their site analysis, publishing Silk: A Creative Community Master Plan which “leverages the arts and creative industries and embraces the sustainable opportunities of the project, all while respecting the historic integrity of the complex.” As the preferred developer, VM Development Group is chosen to negotiate with RDA the plans for Phase I construction or about 55,000 square feet of the project. During 2011, a Development and Disposition Agreement and an Agreement of Sale for the initial development was signed by RDA and the VM Development, establishing the rights and responsibilities of both parties.
In 2012, the Easton City Planning Commission granted preliminary land development approval and the Easton Zoning Hearing Board granted zoning approval for Phase I. RDA and VM Development signed the Sales Agreement for Phase II based on the positive progress of the project during Phase I. By 2013 Construction of Phase I began, and Keystone Opportunity Zone tax status was approved, excluding future owners from paying property taxes for 10 years from the award date.
By the fall of 2013, Eastonians gathered on the Karl Stirner Arts Trail to celebrate Karl (shy but warming to the attention), the glossy, red, metal arch that he made to mark the east end of the trail, and the future of the KSAT. Permanent sculptures such as Willie Cole’s Grace Gate and Patricia Meyerowitz’s Easton Ellipse punctuate the west side of the walking path. David Kimball Anderson’s Hydrogen and Oxygen was just installed mid-September 2014, in advance of the KSAT fundraiser on October 5th. And the Young Masters’ Wall across the Bushkill Creek from the Silk Mill regularly hosts painting events for Easton’s young artists and their families. The KSAT Fundraiser will finance the first installment for purchasing Karl’s piece, the cost of transporting and installing ongoing, temporary sculpture exhibitions, and an annual juried prize of regional sculptors’ work. Future fundraising efforts will pay for the installation of Stephen Antonakos’ final public work that was commissioned for the Simon Silk Mill’s smokestack. Over Route 22, the view from atop the brick smokestack will be mighty impressive: in fact, it may favor Gretchen Logenbach’s desktop, the place where all the numerous federal, state and local grant proposals, feasibility and market studies, surveys, and blueprints are organized.