Andrew Po moved from San Diego to Bethlehem after his sophomore year of high school.
The transition was hard because Po missed his friends and life back in California. Skateboarding became his outlet.
Soon, Po made friends who shared his same passion for the sport. He began to shoot skateboarding videos and researched more about East Coast skating. After a number of years, Po opened up a skateshop in the South Side.
“I didn’t choose Bethlehem, Bethlehem chose me,” Po said.
In 2002, Po and his friends shot a skateboarding video in the South Side. They invited people from the community to partake in the festivities, which also included art shows and live musical performances.
Around 500 people showed up, and the video became a success.
During this project, Po saw something in the South Side. Local businesses supported each other as well as the community at large and vice versa. He wanted to be that support for the skateboarding youth culture. Shortly after, he opened Homebase Skateshop.
Since then, Po has worked hard to foster community development. He and Homebase have helped create and encourage local events that celebrate the South Side’s culture. Specifically, Homebase helped build the Bethlehem Skateplaza and hosts a chili cook-off every spring.
Po said he does not see Bethlehem as the other side of the train tracks, but as an attractive, alternative downtown to the North Side.
But Po said Dennis Benner, a local developer looking to build in Bethlehem, is threatening everything Homebase and other businesses have worked so hard to create.
“(Benner’s) not asking how do I make life better and more accessible for people in the community.” Po said. “He thinks to better this community, we need to build things and stores that are more expensive, so we can push out the people who are already here and then bring people in.”
Po said he thinks Benner will open chain stores to squeeze the most money out of his project. As a small business, Homebase cannot afford to compete with a big skateboarding chain on the same block or across the street.
But this is not what intimidates Po. Po said he is frustrated with a man who looks at the community with dollar signs in his eyes and no appreciation for the existing community.
Benner asked his son what he did in the South Side while he was a Lehigh student. When his son replied there is nothing on the South Side, Benner was curious. He walked the South Side for himself.
Benner said his son was right.
“A normal person looks at everything that’s been created here like it’s really great that small businesses are thriving,” Po said. “In my opinion, he looks at it like this is all below me and a waste of good real estate, and these businesses can make millions off of these kids.”
Karen Pooley, a Lehigh professor with a background in city planning, said Homebase is a good example of what belongs in an eclectic community like the South Side. She said Homebase is funky, and Po strategically picked the location in an artsy, historic location, not a strip mall.
Both Po and Pooley agree more small town development, like stores similar to Homebase, should be brought in to build up the community’s existing character.
Po said he will stay in Bethlehem as long as he can.
“Homebase is about doing something positive for all these kids who never had someone to do something for them,” Po said. “I mean, I’m not rich. I don’t walk around in a suit everyday like (Benner does). I don’t drive around in a Mercedes like they do, but I’m happy in the community that I’ve been a part of and the things we’ve been able to do.”