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Don Cunningham: As I Get Older, the Lehigh Valley Gets Younger

By Don Cunningham on April 13, 2022

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on April 8, 2022. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.) It is an excerpt from Cunningham’s keynote address at the LVEDC 2022 Annual Meeting virtual program. Read more about the event here, and watch the video below for the full broadcast:

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Life comes to us day by day, which suddenly becomes months and years and decades. One day you look in the mirror — or maybe at a photo — and you see your parent or grandparent looking back. And you wonder when it happened.

It’s important to keep perspective.

Organic life has an end date, usually following a natural period of decline. We’ve yet to develop a way to turn back the clock and restore youth to the old.

Communities, cities, regions are the opposite. They are constantly reborn. They have no expiration date.

From the ashes can rise a phoenix. From decline and decay can spring life. The screen refreshes itself with new people, new generations, and new uses for old places.

That’s the magic, mystery, and allure of economic development and building communities.

A new canvas always awaits, limited only by creativity, ambition, and resources.

I’m older than I was in 1996. My hair is greying and thinner.

But, today, the Lehigh Valley is younger. It’s more vibrant, more diverse, growing in population and economic output. It’s home to new business, new arts, and culture, growing downtowns, and increasing family income.

Since 2010, Lehigh Valley’s population rose by more than six percent to about 690,000 people making it one of Pennsylvania’s fastest growing regions and in the top 25 percent of growing regions in the U.S.

More importantly, the population between the ages 18 to 34 years old grew by 10.7 percent during that time – making the Lehigh Valley the fastest growing region in the state for young people, who now are the largest generation in our workforce.

This is evident in the development of new, modern apartment buildings, particularly in the downtowns of Easton, Allentown, and the south side of Bethlehem, which are being leased as quickly as they are being built.

The region is also becoming more diverse.

Every minority group grew by double digit percentages the last decade, accompanied by a decrease of about 10 percent in white population. Hispanic population fueled the overall growth, increasing by nearly 46 percent.

The growth is primarily because of people moving here. The region added about 25,000 people from international migration the last decade with Lehigh County being ranked by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s SelectUSA program as in the top one percent of all U.S. counties for international migration.

The Lehigh Valley was among the top five regions in the Northeast for net population growth due to in-migration from other metro regions between 2015 and 2019. This heightened during the pandemic. A CBRE analysis of U.S. Postal Service data showed that migration from the New York metro to the Lehigh Valley increased by about 14 percent in 2020.

It is the population growth, particularly of young workers, that is driving the region’s economic growth, which continued during the pandemic.

Once again, the Lehigh Valley was in the top ten in the U.S. for regions of up to 1 million in economic development projects with more than 50 major projects. Notably, manufacturing output grew to $7.9 billion in GDP — 18.5 percent of our private sector output — launching the Lehigh Valley into one of the top 50 manufacturing markets in the country.

The region’s manufacturing output exceeds its population ranking. We punch well above our weight class.

The importance of the Lehigh Valley’s premier role as a manufacturer, producer and distributor of goods became clearer as many of the region’s 700 manufacturers produced food, drinks, medical equipment, supplies and other essential items that sustained the nation.

Economic growth has translated to higher wages and growing income for Lehigh Valley residents. The median household income was nearly $67,000 in the Lehigh Valley, compared to about $62,000 in Pennsylvania and $63,000 in the U.S.

The poverty rate stayed level in the Lehigh Valley during the last decade, remaining at 10 percent of the population, two or three percentage points lower than both the state and U.S. levels. While 10 percent is still too high, those numbers are being held in check by a market-based minimum wage that’s approaching $20 per hour, created by the growth of industrial and manufacturing jobs in the region.

Our mission at LVEDC is to support the recruitment, growth and retention of employers and the creation of jobs for people of all skill and education levels. Every three years, we develop a new strategic plan to do it. The latest may be our most bold and ambitious to date.

There is exciting work to do and opportunities on the horizon for the Lehigh Valley. For LVEDC, it includes new strategies and approaches to grow and develop four high-value target sectors: life sciences and pharmaceuticals, professional and creative services, advanced manufacturing and high-value production, and food and beverage production

The Lehigh Valley remains in steady evolution. Day by day, month by month, a new Lehigh Valley emerges. New generations and new people are filling our cities and driving our companies — new companies, different than those of my youth.

Unlike our bodies, the Lehigh Valley is being reborn.

April 2022 Issue of LVStartup Has Been Released

The April 2022 issue of LVstartup, a monthly e-newsletter about entrepreneurs and startups in the Lehigh Valley, has been released. Click here to see the new issue, and[...]

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