The renovation plans for the Banana Factory were approved on Feb. 19, 2019, at the Bethlehem City Council Meeting. ArtsQuest is fundraising money to help with the costs of renovating the art gallery. (Courtesy of MKSD Architects)

Banana Factory’s plans for major expansion

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The Banana Factory plans to spend $16-18 million on an upcoming expansion that ArtsQuest, a local nonprofit arts and cultural organization, is fundraising for.

The funding will come from a variety of state and private donors, said Mark Demko, the senior director of communications for ArtsQuest.

The expansion will allow for the Banana Factory to host Lehigh Valley’s first arts-based pre-K program and provide more space for resident artists. It will add a 125-seat black box theater for comedy performances, teaching workshops, educational classes and team building experiences. The theater will be used for community groups or corporations.

“We are looking at an 80,000-square-foot cultural center on the site where the Banana Factory is located,” Demko said. “That will be a combination of adaptive reuse of existing buildings, as well as new construction.”

ArtsQuest  was founded in 1984. Demko said over its 35 years, the organization has grown substantially and focuses on using art and culture as tools for economic development, tourism and community revitalization in Bethlehem.

“The Banana Factory has outgrown its usefulness because it has been such a positive impact,” said Adam Waldron, the president of the Bethlehem city council. “There’s always a waiting list for people who want a space in there.”

The Banana Factory’s expansion plans were approved during the city council’s meeting on Feb. 19.

ArtsQuest events and places — Banana Factory, Musikfest, SteelStacks and Christkindlmarkt — draw about 1.8 million people to the Lehigh Valley annually, Demko said.

Funding for the nonprofit comes from different sources, including the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, local businesses, donors and ticket sales.

“ArtsQuest is the unofficial department of arts and culture in the city,” said Tony Hanna, the executive director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority. “The impact will be in making connections to Lehigh University, the school system and the area in general.”

The estimated start date of construction for the Banana Factory is uncertain. ArtsQuest is starting the project by developing the programming and fundraising behind the new expansion of the art gallery.

Because the Banana Factory is located in Bethlehem’s historic district, the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Committee had to review the application for the expansion prior to city council’s review of the proposal. The committee went back and forth three times with ArtsQuest until they reached a compromise on the plans for the construction, Waldron said.

After the compromise was made, the historic committee sent in a recommendation to the city council to approve the project on Jan. 28 with a 5-3 vote, according to the council’s meeting documents. Bethlehem council voted 5-0 to allow for the expansion of the Banana Factory.

“We have to be very careful about when we talk about design and making sure that it represents the city well, because it’s going to be one of the first things you see when you come into South Bethlehem,” Hanna said.

The expansion of the Banana Factory will also feature a three-story addition and two new outdoor plazas.

“Our goal is that this space (expansion) will allow artists, students, makers and others who are looking to visit Bethlehem to take part in unique arts and cultural experiences and then use it as a springboard to explore everything else the city has to offer,” Demko said. “So we hope that people will visit the Banana Factory, but then they will walk through the South and North sides, spend some time in the restaurants and the shops and discover everything this great city has to offer.”

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