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Don Cunningham: Lehigh Valley is 65th Largest Economy in America

By Colin McEvoy on September 29, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on September 27, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

In case this is the first time your eyes have stumbled upon this space, I’m from the Lehigh Valley, back before we called it the Lehigh Valley, so I guess I should say I’m from Bethlehem.

When I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people from Bethlehem thought Allentown was the “City,” not Philadelphia or New York; Allentonians got lost when they drove in Bethlehem; and, well, pretty much nobody went to Easton, unless you lived there.

Bethlehem regularly smelled liked sulfur from the Coke Works at Bethlehem Steel. Allentown often smelled like the A&B Meats slaughterhouse on the river. And, Easton, well, nobody went there, so I imagine that it smelled pretty good.

Everything else was essentially farms except for the little boroughs like Catty, Coplay, Bangor, Northampton, and Slatington, which all developed their own unique character around specific industries and immigrant groups.

The Italians found their way to Roseto, achieving international acclaim as the test market for a famous longevity study. If you haven’t read it, in short, its conclusion was an early endorsement of the Mediterranean Diet, drink red wine and use olive oil not butter. The Lebanese got a foothold in Easton as the Syrians settled in Allentown’s Sixth Ward. People from just about every country across Europe, and many in South America, the Islands and Mexico, found their way to the mills and factories of Bethlehem and beyond, settling in with the seemingly native Germans, who in some twisted misinterpretation of the word Deutsch became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, although they’re not Dutch. As a kid growing up, I always assumed the Pennsylvania Dutch were the Native Americans until we learned about the Lenni Lenape Indians, who had the misfortune of being here back in a very pro-immigrant era when the natives were the ones to get bounced out. At one time, there were 53 different languages spoken just in south Bethlehem and most ethnic groups had their own neighborhood, church and social hall.

People didn’t say they hailed from the Lehigh Valley. They said they were from their city or municipality or, even more likely, from a little town or village that isn’t an official place at all like Egypt or Hokendauqua or Orefield, Neffs or Fogelsville. While this still confuses the hell out of many people, it built an authentic culture of place. This mix of people and towns and communities and cultures created a region like none other.

The Lehigh Valley is a suburb of nowhere. We are our own authentic place with unique cities and communities that have quietly become the 65th largest economy in America.

Last year, we were 73rd, so we jumped eight places in one year. I realize no one starts “We’re #65” chants, but let’s take this in for a moment. The Lehigh Valley now has more annual economic output than the states of Vermont and Wyoming. And, if the Lehigh Valley were a country, it would have the 87th largest economy in the world.

Don’t take my word for it. In this era of Fake News I know no one believes anything. These figures were released Sept. 20 as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s annual break down of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, across America. GDP is the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year. To make it easier, here is the link.

If you are prone to never believing anything good, which can be very Lehigh Valley, or hate the government and everything it says, please return to the Brietbart news site. For those reading on, the Lehigh Valley’s GDP is now $39.1 billion. Manufacturing, our second largest sector, produces $6.9 billion here and is nearly 18 percent of our GDP, making us an outlier in the country. Every sector of our economy grew from 2015 to 2016 with total GDP growth exceeding 4 percent. These numbers only account for private sector spending and output. If the government sector is added, total Lehigh Valley GDP rose to $42.7 billion in 2016.

Goods producing industries in the Lehigh Valley economy increased 3.4 percent while service-producing industries increased 4.4 percent. Finance, insurance and real estate became the largest sector of the economy at $8 billion with transportation and warehousing jumping up 9.5 percent to a total of $1.9 billion, but still only ranking as the area’s sixth largest sector.

In addition to growth, the most important aspect of this new Lehigh Valley economy is its balance. We no longer have all of our eggs in one or two baskets. The economy is spread out very evenly from the manufacturing and industrial sectors to the professional and corporate office arenas to health care, education and the retail and service sectors.

People often ask me, “What is happening in the Lehigh Valley and why?” There are a lot of technical and real estate answers that can be given: our access to market, infrastructure, available land and labor, the proximity to major ports and airports. But, in the end, I believe, it’s the legacy of all those who came here before and gave us an authentic place with a rich culture and the self-reliance to build our own quality health care systems, technical schools and colleges and universities and churches and neighborhoods. The people who left us pride in our heritage, our particular town and village, our high school, our sports team, our diversity. The end result is a place where people want to be, where they want to live.

One thing that seems to be lacking in America today is authenticity. And, while it’s nice to be close to New York and Philadelphia, we are not their suburbs, our fortunes don’t rise and fall with them. We have built our own place, our own economy, and our own way of life. So, please join me in this cheer:

“We’re #65!”

LVEDC Urges Strong Opposition to Job-Killing Warehouse Tax

The message below was sent on Sept. 29 to the Lehigh Valley legislative delegation by Don Cunningham on behalf of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC): [...]

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Lehigh ValleyQuick Facts

  • Industry Spotlight

    13.8% of Labor Force
    Employed in Professional & Business Services
    Q4 2016

  • By the Numbers
    $39.1 Billion

    Gross Domestic Product
    2016

  • Investor Spotlight
    City Center Lehigh Valley
  • Industry Spotlight

    9.8% of Labor Force
    Employed in Manufacturing
    Q4 2016

  • By the Numbers
    $3.44 Billion

    Exports
    2015

  • Investor Spotlight
    Air Products
  • Industry Spotlight

    1,504 Total Office Buildings
    Q2 2017

  • By the Numbers
    $57,510

    Median Household Income

  • Investor Spotlight
    PPL Electric Utilities
  • Industry Spotlight

    1,770 Total Industrial Buildings
    Q2 2017

  • By the Numbers
    24,400

    New Jobs Created Over Past 5 Years

  • Investor Spotlight
    National Penn
  • Industry Spotlight

    5.0% Industrial
    Vacancy Rate
    Q2 2017

  • By the Numbers
    658,477

    Population

  • Investor Spotlight
    Olympus
  • Industry Spotlight

    7.7% Office
    Vacancy Rate
    Q2 2017

  • By the Numbers
    342,493

    Labor Force

  • Investor Spotlight
    Lutron Electronics
  • Industry Spotlight

    17.2% of Labor Force
    Employed in Health Care & Social Assistance

  • By the Numbers
    5,073

    Technology Patents from 2000-2015

  • Investor Spotlight
    Mack Trucks
  • Industry Spotlight

    9.1% Increase in exports
    Among top 20 markets nationally in export growth

  • By the Numbers
    25.8 Million

    Total Office Inventory (Square Feet)
    Q2 2017

  • Investor Spotlight
    UGI
  • Industry Spotlight

    10.1% Industrial rent growth
    Second highest in the U.S.

  • By the Numbers
    115.5 Million

    Total Industrial Inventory (Square Feet)
    Q2 2017

  • Investor Spotlight
    NFI