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2020 Year-in-Review: Despite Pandemic, Economic Development Continues in Lehigh Valley

By Colin McEvoy on December 30, 2020

2020 was anything but a normal year. But economic development activity continued in the Lehigh Valley despite the coronavirus pandemic, with several business projects and expansions announced throughout the year, and work on others continuing in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Additionally, both the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) and Made Possible in Lehigh Valley announced several exciting new initiatives this year, and the regional economy saw several significant announcements and milestones in 2020.

As we enter 2021, below are a few of the major accomplishments from this past year in economic development for the Lehigh Valley.

Sound economic base

The Lehigh Valley’s gross domestic product rose to $43.3 billion in 2019, the region’s largest single-year economic output. Lehigh Valley’s private-sector economic output increased 5.7% compared to 2018, according to federal figures released in December.

Additionally, Lehigh Valley was ranked the third-best region in the Northeast for 2019 in terms of economic development projects completed, under construction, or announced, despite competing with much larger metropolitan areas.

“The Lehigh Valley continued its incredible renaissance with strength and balance across diverse economic sectors last year,” said LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham. “While next year’s numbers will reflect the effect of pandemic, the overall balance of the regional economy remains strong and is allowing us to weather the downturn in some areas with growth in others.”

The region’s economic success was featured in a September episode of PBS NewsHour, one of the most popular evening television news programs in the country.

Fighting COVID-19

NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey interviewed OraSure Technologies President & CEO Stephen Tang for a December segment in CBS News Sunday Morning.

Lehigh Valley’s vibrant life sciences sector stepped up to the challenge created by COVID-19, with companies like LifeAire Systems, Owens & Minor, Polymer Contours, Pulse Innovations, Saladax Biomedical, Sharp, Skillion, and others taking steps to help fight the coronavirus.

U.S. Specialty Formulations is expanding its Allentown facility to accommodate its work in developing a COVID-19 vaccine. And OraSure Technologies added or retained 400 jobs with an expansion project and drew national attention for its efforts in creating an over-the-counter COVID-19 testing device that can be used at home.

LVEDC reassigned the majority of its staff to assist businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic, ultimately submitting 26 loan applications totaling $2.3 million in financing for regional companies via PIDA’s COVID-19 Working Capital Access Program.

LVEDC made other efforts to help the regional businesses during the crisis, including creating a COVID-19 resources and information page, providing information about funding sources, distributing business impact surveys, helping provide supplies for health care providers, and partnering with Guardian Life Insurance on grants for women- and minority-owned businesses.

Virtual event series

LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham interviewing BB&T, now Truist’s Travis Rhodes (center), Regional President Delaware Valley/Lehigh Valley Region, and Arthur Dorn (right), Lehigh Valley Market President, for the executive video interview series.

Prior to the pandemic reaching Lehigh Valley, the region had seen an unusually high number of new corporate executives, with more than a dozen major employers and prominent companies naming new leaders. LVEDC helped introduce them to the Lehigh Valley community through its executive video interview series.

“This new generation of leaders are shaping the future of some of our region’s biggest companies, and by extension the broader Lehigh Valley economy,” Cunningham said. “We’re pleased to have had this opportunity to introduce them to a wide audience, and will continue to do so in the future.”

The three-month series included interviews with such companies as B. Braun, BB&T now Truist, Capital BlueCross, Crayola, FLSmidth, Follett, Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, PPL Corp., Sharp, and others. The interviews were so well-received that plans for another series are already in the works.

LVEDC also hosted a congressional forum this year with candidates Susan Wild and Lisa Scheller, and participated in several other virtual events, including a seminar about best practices about site selection pitches.

Made Possible in Lehigh Valley

This Made Possible in Lehigh Valley marketing initiatives had an eventful 2020. This included the growth of its coalition; the release of videos, guides and billboard campaigns; a huge uptick in digital visitors and readership; and of dozens of stories about the Lehigh Valley told via Made Possible’s website and social media channels.

Looking ahead, the initiative will continue to focus on expanding its alliance of regional partners, and reaching out to employers and organizations to support the initiative’s objective. New programs and campaigns are also in the works, which will be announced at a later date.

“Made Possible in the Lehigh Valley showcases the region as the perfect place for people to visit, relocate or to bring their company,” Cunningham said. “Today’s business leaders and decision-makers are telling us they will come to where the talent is. That means that we need to tell a story of place: of our people, our cities, our communities, and our quality of life.”

Visit here to read more about the past year in Made Possible in Lehigh Valley.

Major projects and expansions

Workers with Stone Bridge Iron and Steel, Inc. placing the final steel beam for the construction of Lehigh Valley Hospital–Hecktown Oaks in Lower Nazareth Township in June 2020. (photo provided by LVHN)

Despite the pandemic, the Lehigh Valley saw a handful of significant business expansions and projects in 2020. Some of these were highlighted in our mid-year review, including Allegiant Air, Brennan Investment Group, EcoTech Marine, Flexicon, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Hecktown Oaks, Penn State Lehigh Valley, and TwinMed.

Among other projects this year were Sharp acquiring a new pharmaceutical packaging facility in Lower Macungie Township, Suncup Juice opening a juice production facility in the city of Bethlehem, A.P. Deauville relocated from New Jersey and doubled its manufacturing capacity in Forks Township,

Soltech Solutions doubled its space in Bethlehem, TSW Alloy Wheels opened a new distribution facility in Forks Township, Forward Air Corporation opened an East Coast facility in Bethlehem, and Bowery Farming opened a vertical farming operation in Bethlehem.

Talent supply

The COVID-19 crisis has not stopped LVEDC’s talent supply initiative and the efforts of the organization’s Education & Talent Supply Council, a partnership of regional stakeholders focused on creating and executing regional strategies that help the Lehigh Valley maintain a competitive workforce.

The council hosted a virtual internship summit focused on how to start remote internships, recruit interns, create a virtual experience, and operate internships in today’s unusual circumstances and into the post-pandemic economy.

The group also partnered with Lehigh Valley colleges and universities on an alumni survey that will gauge perceptions of the region, explore alumni’s priorities related to careers and location preference, and help direct LVEDC’s marketing efforts to attract talent.

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