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Don Cunningham: Lehigh Valley Takes Center Stage in a Global Show

By Colin McEvoy on May 23, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on May 4, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

If all the world is a stage, the Lehigh Valley was Broadway this week.

A little known and unheralded troupe of business investment players from around the globe, under contract with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, rolled into Bethlehem Tuesday evening, tired from their long journeys and travels across the state.

They came from China and Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, Italy and Germany, Japan and India.

They came to see and hear what is happening in the Lehigh Valley. Like skilled actors, they’d been immersing themselves in their roles for a week, learning and understanding the economic assets and success of Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. The intent being to take their act to the boardrooms, meeting rooms, and reception halls across the world to an audience of international companies interested in locating in the United States.

In the business of economic growth and business attraction, they play the part of the front line sales team in far off markets. The production has run for a long time to great success but, unfortunately, is under threat from budget cuts and misgivings in Harrisburg.

Pennsylvania once had the largest group of foreign direct investment consultants of any state. Today, only nine offices remain but they generate about 100 international prospects each year. About 20 percent of those locate in Pennsylvania, said David Briel, executive director of the state’s Office of International Business Development.

Other than Briel and a few staff in Harrisburg, the core players are not Commonwealth employees. They are business consultants from the country in which they are located, contracted by Pennsylvania to find and develop investment prospects.

It’s good we live in a state that realizes that we live in a global economy.

The Lehigh Valley has long been a home to companies based in other countries, employing nearly 10,000 workers here. Large manufacturers like B. Braun, Hydac, Bosch-Rexroth, and Wacker Chemical of Germany. Cement kilns like LaFarge of France and Essroc and Buzzi Unicem of Italy. And, of course, Olympus of Japan and Mack Trucks of Sweden. In many of these cases, manufacturing jobs remained here because of the purchase by international companies of companies grown here that could no longer find a way to compete.

In recent years, there has been a strong trend of international companies opening plants and operations here. Nearly half of all new business locations to the Lehigh Valley in 2015 came from abroad.

Why?

The United States is still the largest consumer market in the world. The East Coast of the U.S. is home to about 40 percent of the nation’s consumers. The Lehigh Valley happens to be less than an 8-hour drive to all of that market with excellent infrastructure access, a skilled workforce and lower land, building and labor costs than a good portion of its competition.

International-based companies have generated a lot of jobs and growth in the Lehigh Valley and remain some of our brightest prospects. In recent years, in biotechnology, Nihon Kohden of Japan and I2R Nanoware of Canada have located here. Fuling Plastics of China, Norac of France, SunOpta of Canada, and Malmedie of Germany have opened or are building manufacturing facilities in Lehigh or Northampton counties. The France defense contractor Safran has opened an airplane wheel and brake repair facility in Lower Nazareth, servicing major airlines.

Fuling is the only Chinese manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania. Its location here, like most recent companies, came from leads and contacts developed by the state’s network of international investment consultants.

“We are seeing increased demand from China and Asia,” executive director Briel told a Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) meeting with area real estate brokers and developers at Lehigh University during the visit. “We have reduced resources so we need to shift focus to the areas of increasing activity. We will be adding another contractor in China.”

Every other year the consultant team assembles in Pennsylvania for two weeks, meeting with state officials and touring all of the state’s major markets for development. They reconnect with contacts and learn of the latest projects in each market while getting updated on quality of life, education, health care and workforce assets.

This week, after checking into Hotel Bethlehem, the group spent an evening unwinding from their whirlwind tour with dinner and drinks at Edge in downtown Bethlehem. Many of them had been here two years ago, minus some colleagues who fell victim to budget cuts.

“We always look forward to visiting the Lehigh Valley,” said Patrizia Marani of Italy, who covers several countries in Europe. “This is a special place, a real community, with all the assets that people and companies need.”

During the dinner, issues of global economic and politics were discussed, covering everything from the tensions in South East Asia between the U.S., North Korea and China, the recent election in France, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and trade policy and tariff discussions in the U.S.

It was clear that all the world is a stage, and the U.S. remains its star character, a character everyone seems to be watching closely in light of the recent election and evolving attitudes toward trade, tariffs and the world economy.

There is much to be lost for the Lehigh Valley, its workers and Pennsylvania if we were to close the curtain on this global show.

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