Your View by Mayor Donchez 2021
New Year’s Eve has always had a profound effect on me, but none more than this year. It is the reflection and the contemplation of a year’s worth of goals and hard work that has come to pass.
As I counted down the moments to the dawn of a new year, with many of my friends and family members unable to join me because of the pandemic, all I can think about is the unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy we witnessed at just about every turn of 2020.
And I cannot help but spend New Year’s Eve pondering the events missed: weddings at Hotel Bethlehem, concerts at Musikfest, graduations, family picnics, just to name a few. There is no doubt that this has been a challenging year for everyone.
Last January, I unveiled ambitious goals and initiatives for Bethlehem, bolstered by strong national and local economies. It was soon after the New Year that we began to hear the words that have become household terms: coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic and social distancing.
By March, it was here in the Lehigh Valley. Businesses closed. Supermarkets were pressed to provide basic necessities as supply chains were stretched. Hospitals prepared to fight this invisible enemy.
Inside City Hall, I worked with my cabinet to take all the necessary steps to keep our employees and residents safe, while continuing to deliver all the essential services a city is responsible to provide. As we learned more each day, our policies and procedures continuously evolved. City employees adapted to every change with courage, cooperation and flexibility, while remaining focused on our mission.
As we settled uneasily into a new way of living, and isolating at home became the new normal, countless residents and organizations stepped up to the challenge. We are eternally grateful for their efforts.
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allowed the counties to provide funding directly to businesses. In addition, Northampton and Lehigh counties provided grants to Bethlehem to purchase first responder equipment, personal protective equipment and information technology equipment, and supported our response to our downtown communities, specifically the restaurants that have been struggling during this time.
As we continue to navigate the ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines, I encourage all of our residents to support our local businesses in any manner possible.
The impact of the pandemic derailed economic activity across the country. Bethlehem was not spared, and our revenues did not meet expectations for 2020. We made a number of adjustments to reduce expenses and limit the deficit, including a hiring freeze, employee furloughs and the closing of pools, parks and traditional summer programming.
Despite the challenges, Bethlehem continued to move forward in 2020, and I am pleased to share some of our accomplishments for the year: Construction of the new Memorial Pool is now complete and ready to be unveiled this summer. Our golf course saw fully renovated traps and cart paths. The first upgrade to the course in many years is now complete, resulting in record attendance rates.
We replaced three front-line pieces of fire apparatus since 2019 for our fire department: a quint truck in 2019, a rescue pumper in 2020 and a pumper to be delivered this spring.
The state Community and Economic Development Department took the initiative to support our restaurants by providing parklets and furniture. In addition, grant funding was offered to restaurants and small businesses.
Public Works diligently maintained our streets, parks, and green spaces, as people moved their gatherings outside. The Recreation Bureau partnered with our Health Bureau to run safe outdoor programming for youth across the city. The police and fire departments were great additions to these community programs.
One of my biggest privileges of the year was swearing in of police Chief Michelle Kott, who became the first female chief in the history of the city. Her energy, dedication and passion to the department is refreshing, as she begins her community engagement initiatives.
As the sun sets on 2020, Bethlehem will continue to move forward in 2021.
We hope to see the beginning of the development of the Martin Tower site, continued redevelopment of the Westgate Mall with the opening of the new Weis supermarket, the completion of Lehigh University’s Health Science Building, the construction of a second hotel on the Wind Creek site and some additional housing in both of our downtown districts.
As 2021 brings hope of an expected transition back to normality, we keep in mind the lessons learned from the challenges and frustrations of 2020. Among the most important of these lessons is gratitude.
We all owe a special thank you and appreciation to all of the health care workers and essential workers who have done a tremendous job seeing us through these unprecedented times.
Tomorrow is a bright new day for Bethlehem. I can assure you we will continue to work to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and am confident we will emerge stronger than ever.
Robert Donchez is the mayor of Bethlehem.