Don Cunningham: Celebrating the Wins in the Lehigh Valley

By Don Cunningham on December 7, 2021

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on December 2, 2021. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

There are lots of indignities in aging.

You body aches in places you didn’t know existed in your 20s. Hair disappears from where you like having it and appears where you don’t. And your kids can now beat you in every activity except sending money to other people’s bank accounts.

That’s why the wins need to be celebrated.

This Thanksgiving holiday, my 25-year-old son was home from New York City with a friend. A group of us went to Bethlehem’s Annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at City Hall. We planned to follow it with dinner and drinks downtown, which was packed with people. He volunteered to go ahead and get a table for everyone at Red Stag.

When we arrived, there was still a wait for the table, so we hit the bar for a round. I told him what I wanted and visited the men’s room. When I returned, the drinks were there. I reached for my wallet. He had already paid.

These were the actions of an adult. Taking initiative. Securing a table. Buying a round.

A “drop-the-mic” moment. Parenting work, done.

Who cares if I can’t beat him in a single game in a tennis set or keep up with him for one mile on a short run?

The wins need to be celebrated.

This was an evening to give thanks, on many levels.

Main Street in Bethlehem was filled with people; sidewalks were three or four across. Every restaurant had at least a one-hour wait and the shops were filled. It was much different last Thanksgiving. Downtowns in the Lehigh Valley were quiet, most restaurants shuttered, except for takeout.

Last Thanksgiving, I worried that restaurants, shops, and other downtown assets — decades in the making — might not survive the pandemic. The threat remained into this spring and may still not be over for all in the service sector.

But we’ve turned a corner. The hardest-hit part of the economy is returning.

The following Saturday, my son and I hiked Easton’s Karl Stirner Arts Trail and then walked up the hillside through the gorgeous Easton Cemetery. We finished hungry as the sun set at 5 p.m. and called Mesa Modern Mexican on Third Street to get a table for two.

The earliest reservation available was four hours later, at 9 pm.

The Lehigh Valley is in the midst of an economic renaissance. Every major sector of the economy is growing. Many of them, like health care, the life sciences, manufacturing and production, and e-commerce, accelerated during the pandemic.

Like other growing markets, the region’s biggest economic challenge today is finding workers, particularly those with the needed skills, and keeping them. This is a new challenge for the Lehigh Valley. Historically, we’re more accustomed to the opposite side of that employment coin.

Worker wages and median household income is growing, while poverty levels have remained in check. The average hourly wage for the Lehigh Valley last year was $24.60. The government minimum wage is irrelevant. Market forces have created a non-skilled minimum wage of at least $15 per hour. Some industrial companies are paying $18-20 with health care benefits and signing bonuses.

This translates to growing household incomes higher than those of the U.S. and Pennsylvania. Last year, the Lehigh Valley’s median household income was $66,865, up from $58,338 in 2015. By comparison, the Pennsylvania median is $61,744 and it is $62,843 in the U.S.

The region’s poverty rate of 10.7 percent remains unchanged from a decade ago and is below the state rate of 12.4 percent, and that of the U.S. at 13.4 percent.

No one knows for sure when the pandemic and its health nightmare will end, but it’s safe to say that the region’s economy has survived it and continues to prosper.

This allows us to look ahead and to see opportunities for smart growth into the future, some of it caused by changes wrought during the pandemic.

Companies seek markets where talent lives and is less costly.

The Lehigh Valley has one of the fastest-growing population of workers under age 40 in the Northeast. The real estate industry is ripe with reports of an emerging trend toward new, smaller markets for the tech sector, life sciences and startups as companies cast as wider net for talent and lower costs, especially in an age of remote work.

As the poet Louise Gluck wrote, “Everything returns, but what returns is not what went away.

People now understand the risk of long, international supply chains dependent on goods produced and moved across oceans. This is good for the Lehigh Valley. Companies are looking at shorter-distance regional supply chains for everything from pharmaceuticals to food and beverage, to building supplies and furniture, creating more production and manufacturing in America.

Manufacturing is the Lehigh Valley’s second largest economic sector, and the region has a skilled manufacturing workforce.

E-commerce will continue to grow as more goods are ordered online. With the Lehigh Valley a major center of e-commerce in the Northeast, along with being a distribution and supply chain center with critical assets like cold storage for food and pharmaceuticals, demand will continue.

Smart zoning and planning tools will be necessary to balance large e-commerce and supply chain facilities with the need for smaller buildings to house manufacturing, production, and the life sciences. Local governments will need to look at zoning restrictions, tax abatements, set-aside requirements and regional multi-municipal plans to help strike that balance.

We’ve turned the corner. There will be more wins to come.

The next generation has arrived, and they may just be buying a round.

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