There's no doubt about it — Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is Lackawanna's favorite son. The mayor said so Tuesday.
But more importantly for Poloncarz, he's the son of a steelworker.
Roughly 100 people stepped gingerly along a fresh dirt path and found their way into a party tent on Bethlehem Steel property in Lackawanna Tuesday morning. They applauded the transfer of the first 60 acres of former steelmaking land to Erie County's control and listened to officials talk about plans to resurrect nearly 150 acres for future advanced manufacturing projects.
"Thank you for joining us in my hometown of Lackawanna," Poloncarz said. "For many years now, we have been waiting for this day."
The sheaf of papers transferring the land to the county's Industrial Land Development Corporation was so fresh that after Poloncarz held up the document to cheers from VIPs and others in the audience, he hustled off stage to hand the clipped stack back to the lawyers.
But as far as Poloncarz was concerned, the most important people watching were the two sitting next to him in the front row — his mom and dad.
He gestured from the lectern to his father, who worked for more than 30 years at the site, referring to him and to the thousands of others who made their mark in Lackawanna's steel industry.
"Because of all of their efforts, America reached to the sky and became the preeminent world power," he said. "Steel made right here in Lackawanna built the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge."
After the program ended and Poloncarz stepped from the tent to field questions from the media, his parents, Charles and Janice Poloncarz, looked out and soaked in the new promise for the surrounding land. The property they were standing on is slated to become the site of a new green manufacturing district — the only one east of the Mississippi River.
"You know the good thing about today?" Janice said. "We're alive."
The Poloncarz family has had dozens of friends who died of cancer after working at Bethlehem Steel — steelworkers who longed for news like this, but who never got the hear it. Others moved away years ago after the steel plant jobs dried up.
Janice looked over at her son standing in front of the TV cameras and microphones.
"He has talked about this forever," she said.
The $5.5 million agreement for Erie County's land corporation to purchase 150 acres of Bethlehem Steel along Route 5 has seemed tantalizingly close for six months, only to be beset by a frustrating series of delays.
Poloncarz had first tasked his former deputy county executive, Richard Tobe, with negotiating the deal with Tecumseh Redevelopment in 2012. Tecumseh, a subsidiary of ArcelorMittal, owned all of the Bethlehem Steel property. After Tobe departed, Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte became the county's chief negotiator.
"I thought we put in a lot of work to get the Buffalo Bills lease done," Poloncarz quipped. "That was nothing compared to getting this done."
Two months earlier, when officials nursed false hope that the purchase agreement with Tecumseh would come together within days, Poloncarz toured the property with his father and longtime family friend and former Bethlehem Steel employee, Bill Daley. That Poloncarz was wearing a suit and an unscuffed pair of dress shoes didn't keep him from walking over piles of slag, brick, glass, foundation ruins and oxidized railroad tracks.
He periodically threw questions to his father, asking him to identify old buildings and the items he picked up from the ground.
Walking into the old blown engine housing building, Poloncarz goggled at the scale of the place.
"This would make a good site for a zombie apocalypse movie," he said.
Though Poloncarz was familiar with the property as a Lackawanna native, his parents never let him or his two brothers work there.
It was for the best, Janice said. There was so much heartbreak with all the layoffs, the fits of employment interspersed with bouts of ever-lengthening unemployment.
Charles said he wanted his sons to aspire to something higher.
But now that his son was county executive, Charles asked him if it would be OK if he and his buddy Daley could come back on the property sometime with their rifles. They spotted white-tailed deer crossing the property and didn't want to miss a prime hunting opportunity.
"No," Poloncarz said swiftly.
Daley suggested asking again when a reporter wasn't present.
"No," Poloncarz repeated.
On Tuesday, many local leaders praised the county executive for investing the time and energy into reclaiming 150 acres of Bethlethem Steel — even if there are still hundreds of contaminated acres left that may not be developable for years, decades or generations. "Perseverance" was the word that kept popping up.
Back in May, the county executive didn't deny that personal pride played a role in the commitment of county resources for the Bethlehem Steel property.
"Maybe it's because I'm a Lackawanna guy," he said. "This is part of my own family history."
That history is not just his.
Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said Tuesday that the purchase of the first 60 acres of Bethlehem Steel marked a concrete sign of progress for a community that has gone too long without any. He joked that he had been a trespasser on the property since the age of 5 and would be happy to no longer being a lawbreaker now that the land was slowly but surely moving into county hands.
"It's a very emotional day for me today," Szymanski said.
He recalled being 8 years old when many of his friends started inexplicably leaving school and moving away as Bethlehem Steel wound down and ceased operations.
He had challenged the county to "show me, don't tell me" months ago.
On Tuesday, he said, "they showed me."
The Erie County Industrial Development Agency and Empire State Development Corp. received their fair share of credit for working with the county to make the Bethlehem Steel property transfer a reality. New roads, relocated rail lines, lighting, bike paths and other infrastructure are next on the checklist as interested manufacturing companies consider relocating on the property.
Sam Hoyt, regional president for Empire State Development Corp., said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is committed to keep spending state money to support the redevelopment of Bethlehem Steel, calling it smart economic development policy.
"We're in," Hoyt said. "We're committed. We know where this is going. We know additional resources are necessary."