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7 Questions with John Callahan

A brief look back at the mayor's 10-year tenure.

John Callahan in his office during one of his last days as mayor.
John Callahan in his office during one of his last days as mayor.

The reins of power in Bethlehem will be passed from John Callahan to new Mayor Bob Donchez in a ceremony Monday morning in Town Hall.

Last week, Patch sat down with the outgoing mayor for a brief look back at his 10 years at the city’s helm—a period during which tremendous strides were made in redeveloping the country’s largest brownfield, the former Bethlehem Steel complex.

Callahan would not directly address swirling rumors that his next job will put him in charge of one of the key players in that redevelopment—ArtsQuest—whose founder and current president Jeff Parks has announced that he intends to retire by the end of 2014.

However, Callahan did say he hopes to find a job where he can continue to play a role in economic development projects. This was the work he said he enjoyed the most as mayor and believes he can continue to make a positive contribution to without being an elected official.

What achievement are you most proud of?

“The ArtsQuest Campus: The fact that we got it done during the Great Recession; the speed with which we put it together; and the quality of the whole campus. That’s something I’m very proud of.”

What do you regret most?

“I wish we could have gotten the Martin Tower project further along. Now that the CRIZ is in place, I think this will finally move forward.” The Bethlehem Area School Board rejected his efforts at getting Tax Increment Financing for the project. Callahan also said he wished that Lehigh University would have become more engaged with the city “despite my best efforts.” Near the end of his tenure, Lehigh rejected Callahan’s efforts to give the city a financial contribution in lieu of taxes—a common arrangement among many colleges around the country.

What surprised you most about being mayor?

“It’s a lot of work. You have to be a bit of a jack of all trades.” Without a city manager to lean on, the mayor is forced to become an expert in multiple disciplines as he is in charge of the city’s day-to-day operations. “I learned a lot.”

What was the worst day of your tenure?

[Aug. 1, 2006, the day Bethlehem police exchanged gunfire with Christopher Eric Johnson, 21, after he committed a robbery. Officer Stephen Marks was hit twice in the legs with bullets. Johnson died at the scene.] Callahan said he can count on both hands the number of times he rode in a Bethlehem police car as mayor. But he happened to be in a car with then Deputy Police Commissioner Stuart Bedics when the call of “officer down” came over the police radio. Callahan said Bedics’ car was among the first on scene in the aftermath of the shooting. He watched Marks be carted off in an ambulance and saw Johnson take his last labored breaths. “You don’t expect to hear that on the police radio. You never know when tragedy is going to strike.”

What was the best day of your tenure?

“The day we were awarded the gaming license,” which led to the development of the Sands Bethlehem Casino. [The actual date: Dec. 20, 2006] “We spent a lot of time preparing, had hours and hours of public meetings. You do the best you can and then it’s out of your hands.” There was a big buildup of suspense the day the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board issued the licenses in Harrisburg. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh licenses were awarded first. “There was a great deal of excitement in the room” by the time Sands BethWorks was named the recipient. There was also a lot of excitement at City Hall when he returned after the announcement.

What will you miss most about being mayor?

“My personality is that I like to solve problems. In a city of 75,000 people, there is always going to be some problem that needs to be solved. Making people’s lives better. I love that aspect of this job. Believing that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. Working as a team to make a community better. That’s something I know I will miss.”

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