The primary election for Bethlehem’s mayoral race will take place on Tuesday, May 18.
Leading up to the election, Democratic candidates Dana Grubb and Councilman J. William Reynolds are mapping out their timelines and engaging with the community to rally support. Signed petitions were due on March 9.
Former Lehigh County Administrator John Kachmar has also announced his candidacy for mayor, and is hoping to be the city’s first Republican mayor in 24 years. Kachmar did not respond to a request for comment.
Mayor Robert Donchez is approaching the end of his term and is ineligible to run for reelection given the two-term limit in place. He was elected to city council in 1995 and later ran for mayor in 2013. His term will expire in January of 2022.
Donchez said he hopes the next mayor will “continue to be fiscally responsible, with an emphasis on balanced economic development.”
He added that the Martin Tower site, the largest piece of undeveloped property in Bethlehem, will be critical in supporting Bethlehem’s economy. The 53 acres of land are to be developed in the next three to five years.
Donchez believes in an open door policy, where citizens can come into his office without an appointment to speak with him. He finds that being accessible to the public serves everyone best. He engages with the community through neighborhood walking tours, having organized 18 walks while in office, pre-pandemic. Through this initiative, he has helped distribute over 2,000 free fire detectors to Bethlehem residents.
He encourages the next mayor to take notice of the increasing attention Bethlehem draws.
“There’s really a large demand now from young millennials and Generation X to live in the downtown and the urban core,” Donchez said. “We could probably build on the South Side and on the North Side 300 apartments, and they’ll all be taken.”
According to Donchez, Moravian Historic Bethlehem on the North Side is being considered for recognition as a World Heritage site. He expects an increase in tourism if Bethlehem is selected in 2023-2024.
Bethlehem also hosts many festivals that drive tourism. Donchez said the city holds about 125 festivals annually. He added that Musikfest is the largest free music festival in the country, drawing 1.2 million people over the course of its 10-day span.
He hopes partnerships between the city, local universities and colleges, and other key community leaders will be maintained. He has grown close with Lehigh President John Simon and meets with the Lehigh Board of Directors annually.
Both Grubb and Reynolds have taken on a progressive approach while generating plans for the city.
Councilman J. William Reynolds
Reynolds grew up in Bethlehem and graduated from Moravian College, majoring in political science and minoring in history. He is the youngest city councilman in Bethlehem’s history and was elected president of city council in 2014 and again in 2016.
Reynolds said he proposed “Bethlehem 2017,” a series of initiatives to further develop Bethlehem, four years ago. This included a proposal for the city’s first open data program, “Open Bethlehem.” Reynolds believes the public deserves to have equal access to city data and records to use and publish if needed.
“It’s a way to make city finances more transparent, but also allow public access to that data,” Reynolds said. “I have all sorts of ideas of the future of how we further that connection between city government and the tech community to create community-wide solutions to some issues our city faces.”
Reynolds helped form Bethlehem’s first Climate Action Plan, the first Human Relations Commission, and “Northside 2027,” which aims to reinvest in North Bethlehem neighborhoods. Overall, he believes the role of mayor is about fostering relationships.
“How to make change in a community comes down to the ability to make coalitions,” Reynolds said.
In preparation for the race for mayor, Reynolds created a public survey, “Connecting Bethlehem,” to assess the needs and interests of the community as a whole. He finds that people are more likely to voice their opinion when provided the platform to do so via technology.
In anticipation of Election Day, Reynolds is also in the process of filming “The Bethlehem Corner,” a series highlighting issues concerning Bethlehem currently.
Grubb, like Reynolds, is also a lifelong resident of Bethlehem. He describes himself as “a political outsider with insider experience.”
Grubb is a Moravian College graduate who majored in political science. He worked in the construction industry as a manufacturing representative and laborer for a construction firm prior to being hired by the city as a sealer of weights and measures.
Grubb became a finance specialist for the city later on, and from 1988 to his retirement in 2004, he managed all of the state, federal and county grants that came to Bethlehem. In 1999, he was appointed acting director of Community and Economic Development in addition to his work in grant management.
Grubb added that he was thrown into a lead negotiating role on behalf of the city as it and Bethlehem Steel advanced the tax increment financing that funded much of today’s SteelStacks site.
“My goal always was to work for the city of Bethlehem and for the residents,” Grubb said.
Grubb supports environmental action as well, and aims to reestablish the Parks and Recreation department in the city. He looks to bring back Bethlehem’s Ethics Ordinance and diversify community boards. He also wants to reevaluate the training of police forces to ensure there is a positive relationship between police and the community.
“We’ve got to be adaptive in public safety,” Grubb said. “I think if city employees feel a lot better about their working conditions, I think we’ll get the extra effort, like when I was there… Because it was my hometown, I felt the obligation to serve to the best of my ability and to give people my time and effort.”
Having owned a photography business for 16 years, Grubb said he hopes to create a new position in his administration called “small business concierge” if he is elected. This role would guide aspiring entrepreneurs through the steps of opening their business.
Leading up to the election, Grubb is producing promotional videos for his campaign and delivering flyers to registered voters. The “Hike with Dana” fundraiser will be promoted on social media. He hopes he can engage with residents to have conversations about community interests through a shared hiking experience.
Overall, both candidates have goals of maintaining financial stability, promoting environmental consciousness, and further developing relationships between government and community members.
“You want to continue to have a good quality of life for the city,” Donchez said. “If you could justify a small tax increase, because bills go up, healthcare and pensions increase, the public is pretty good at accepting it. Having a safe city and providing services are very important and I hope the next mayor continues that.”