The two men who have bankrolled much of the billion-dollar transformation of downtown Allentown are hoping to convert that commercial revival into a political force.
City Center Investment Corp. co-owners Joe Topper and J.B. Reilly have launched a political action committee aimed at channeling their investment in Allentown's rebirth into a campaign fundraising apparatus designed to defend those interests in the halls of local and state governments.
Since its founding in October, Citizens for Urban Renewal has dished out $47,000 in contributions to a mix of Democrats and Republicans, including Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who wrote the tax incentive law that paved the way for Allentown's booming Neighborhood Improvement Zone.
The law allows property owners such as Reilly and Topper to tap into the new tax revenues created by their projects to help pay off their construction loans.
"We're looking to support candidates who support public investment in urban renewal initiatives," Reilly said. "We're supporting government officials who show a commitment to the urban core."
The list of other Lehigh Valley legislators and candidates who received money from the PAC consists of nine Republicans and four Democrats, including Republican state Reps. Justin Simmons and Ryan Mackenzie of Lehigh County, and Democratic state Rep. Mike Schlossberg of Lehigh County. It also includes Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin.
The PAC's only contribution outside the Valley was a $1,000 donation to Senate Republicans in May.
So far, Reilly and Topper have been Citizens for Urban Renewal's primary backers, but that could soon change.
"As I've spent virtually all of my time on our projects in downtown Allentown, it's become clear to me that the challenges faced by the urban core are significant," Reilly said. "It takes a coordinated effort to dealing with schools, traffic, parking as well as poverty. And we will be looking to recruit like-minded people who will contribute to this PAC."
Reilly said he had no preset goals for how many people he hopes to recruit or how much he hopes to raise, but believes the PAC is needed to help promote continued investment in struggling downtowns.
Some in the Lehigh Valley believe Reilly, Topper and their new PAC already have made a surprising impact.
One of Citizens for Urban Renewal's first contributions, $5,000, went directly to Republican John Brown on the day he defeated prominent Democrat John Callahan for Northampton County executive. Callahan was an early critic of Allentown's NIZ.
A source close to the Callahan campaign said late donations from the Republican State Committee, which received a $25,000 donation from Topper as an individual in mid-October, were key in preventing the longtime Bethlehem mayor from winning the county executive seat in the Nov. 6 election.
Seeing Brown with just $7,000 in his campaign fund in June, Callahan's team assumed he would not be running a "credible campaign." As late as October, Brown reported just $20,000 cash on hand. Callahan's campaign elected not to call attention to the candidates' differences on the issues, instead relying on Callahan's record as mayor and name recognition, the source said.
Then the Republican State Committee paid for more than $80,000 in countywide mailers to super voters in the final weeks and took dead aim at Callahan.
"That was huge. Brown doesn't win that race without that money, period," the source said. "It's that simple."
Topper declined to be interviewed.
Campaign reports show Topper contributed $25,000 to the Republican State Committee three days before the committee mailed the first in a series of campaign ads on Brown's behalf at a cost of $10,385.
Reilly gave more than $40,000 to the leadership funds of state Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny; Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware; and state Senate President Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson. He said he did not dictate how the money be spent, leaving that up to the state's Republican Party leaders.
Chris Borick, Muhlenberg College political scientist, said it rarely works that way.