30 Years Ago… Freemansburg, Bethlehem Considered a Merger

Freemansburg, Pennsylvania ran into financial trouble in 1989. The little Northampton County borough was $100,000 in debt.

That number may seem quaint now, when local governments routinely borrow millions, but the little canal town on the Lehigh River was in real trouble.

At the time, “regionalism” was a buzzword, and in theory combining towns would cut administrative and fixed costs. Freemansburg was already in the Bethlehem Area School District, and got its water from the Bethlehem Authority.

One option was a merger with the borough’s larger neighbor, Bethlehem. Both towns formed committees and talked some, in one case kicking the media out of a meeting, despite laws requiring media access in almost all public discussions.

Nothing happened. Some residents of Bethlehem saw little to gain by adding the borough, and while Ken Smith, then the mayor of Bethlehem, was open to talking with Freemansburg officials about their problems, he never committed to a merger.

In Freemansburg, the independence of the little canal town was a matter of pride. Residents wanted the borough, known mainly for the annual Freemansburg Motorcycle Hill Climb, to remain the same.

At that time, Freemansburg had about 1,900 residents (1990 census). By 2010, that had grown to 2,600.

Had the merger gone through, Bethlehem would today be a city of about 78,000 residents, not even 3 percent bigger. Freemansburg would be a neighborhood not as significant as south Bethlehem (which itself only became part of the city in 1917) but far better known than areas such as Kaywin, and perhaps on a par with Miller Heights.

So remember the “regionalism” mania. Much talk, across the Lehigh Valley, many meetings and reports, little action.

And Freemansburg is still what its residents wanted: a quiet little town on the Lehigh Canal and Lehigh River that many people who live in the region will never pass through.




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