LVHN COMMUNITY PARTNER
Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez gives Roger Hudak a lot of credit.
“Roger’s motivation, energy and commitment of his personal time has been invaluable to the City of Bethlehem, especially the South Side,” Donchez said of Hudak.
Hudak acknowledges the South Side has for decades had to overcome negative attitudes about where to live.
Immigrants coming to this country to work at Bethlehem Steel in the mid-20th century settled on the South Side to be near where they worked.
Because of the tight ethnic communities that developed there, many spurned it as a place to live.
For Hudak, that was never a problem.
Of Slovakian descent, “I am one of ‘those people’ who others wanted to avoid,” Hudak quipped.
Hudak has been a South Side resident his whole life.
“I grew up here, and my late wife, Sandra, and I raised our daughters, Kathryn and Kristen, here.
“That was important to us because our daughters grew up with the advantage of seeing people for who they are, not seeing the color of their skin or their cultural background. If you live here, you’re accepted - and ugly prejudice doesn’t happen here.”
For the past 20 years, Hudak has been the chairman of the Mayor’s South Side Task Force and was the volunteer community liaison to the Sands Casino organization and its successor, Wind Creek Casino.
Donchez said Hudak and others “were instrumental in helping get the casino to agree to a memo of understanding, which included agreeing to using local labor.”
Back in the early 2000s, it was becoming increasingly obvious Bethlehem Steel was struggling and would probably not survive. With Bethlehem Steel operations accounting for 20 percent of the city’s tax base, many saw possible bankruptcy in the city’s future.
While visionaries saw the vast land holdings of Bethlehem Steel as possible locations for industrial redevelopment and repurposing - and as revitalization for Bethlehem - they also knew that would not happen overnight.
With that inevitability on the horizon, the administration of then-mayor John Callahan called together “block watch captains” to enlist their help in taking the pulse of South Side residents.
That group was the precursor to the mayor’s task force. Under Hudak’s chairmanship, the task force group became a force in the rebirth of that side of town.
“The loss of Bethlehem Steel was a tremendous blow to Bethlehem. The advent of the casino locating here provided a time cushion as area redevelopment people worked to fill the industrial parks that have replaced the steel plant’s operations,” Hudak said.
Working as an advocate for the casino to provide the linchpin of that development was not without personal sacrifice for Hudak and his wife, who died in 2012.
“We were vilified by those who did not want gambling to be part of the area’s rebirth,” Hudak said. “We lost friends because of our advocacy, and even some family members avoided us for a long time.”
Hudak persevered and became a citizen liaison to the Sands group.
“They were great to work with and never once lied to us about any issue,” he said.
Anecdotally, Hudak said, even the sign marking casino property was the subject of a lot of discussion.
“The color of the lighted sign was chosen because of the history of Bethlehem Steel, which our group worked to keep alive,” he said.
The color was reminiscent of the reddish glow of ingots from the blast furnace on a foggy summer night moving along for their next processing destination.
“My wife insisted that saving that fragment of history was important to the community, and the Sands people agreed to it,” Hudak said.
When the casino changed hands in 2019 and was bought by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, a Native American tribe in Alabama, the new Wind Creek sign kept the same coloring.
Now in his mid-70s, after retiring in 1997 following nearly 32 years teaching English at Liberty High School, Hudak sees himself gradually withdrawing from the task force.
“It’s time for new blood to take over,” he said. “I promised Mayor Donchez I would stay in this position until a new mayor is elected in 2021.
“I hope to be able to stay on and help transition a new team into place to represent the South Side.”
After that, he’ll enjoy being just another resident of the diverse neighborhood where he has lived his whole life.
“We’re at a place where it’s as good as it gets. The South Side may see some gentrification as years go on, but never to the point of losing its unique identity of diversity,” Hudak said. “You live here because you love it here.”