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Don Cunningham Discusses the Legacy of Bethlehem Steel Following Documentary

By Colin McEvoy on October 12, 2020

LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham (bottom right) participated in a Sept 16 panel discussion about the documentary “Bethlehem Steel: The People Who Built America.”

Don Cunningham was the newly-elected Mayor of Bethlehem when the Bethlehem Steel plant closed in 1998. Twenty-two years later, he is the President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), an organization that was formed partially in response to Bethlehem Steel’s closure.

Cunningham provided his perspective from both perspectives during a virtual panel discussion after the broadcast of the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Bethlehem Steel: The People Who Built America.”

“This is what many of us just grew up with,” Cunningham, whose father Don Cunningham Sr. was a hot metal worker for Bethlehem Steel until when the last cast occurred in 1995, said during the panel discussion on Sept. 16.

“I grew up with my father and his buddies around the kitchen table, coming home from work or a shift, playing in the Steel softball leagues,” Cunningham said. “It was such a part of the fabric and the life of everybody in the community.”

The documentary chronicles the more than 140-year history of Bethlehem Steel and its impact on the community, largely from the perspective of the people who actually made the steel.

The film was aired by Lehigh Valley Public Media, home to PBS39 and WLVR News, which has been holding virtual screenings of locally-produced documentaries since August and will continue doing so through the end of the year.

All the films shown will be locally produced, with a goal to keep the community inspired and engaged while at home, according to Lehigh Valley Public Media. Visit here for information about the series and upcoming screenings.

LVEDC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. During the panel discussion, Cunningham noted that the organization was started by a coalition of Lehigh Valley’s business community seeking to establish a regionalism-focused approach to economic development, and that stemmed in part from the closure of Bethlehem Steel.

Over the past 25 years, the Lehigh Valley economy has grown more diversified and multi-faceted, no longer dependent entirely on a single industry or company like Bethlehem Steel, Cunningham said The regional gross domestic product (GDP) reached a record-high $41.2 billion last year.

Manufacturing remains the second-largest sector of the regional economy, but it looks very different than the days of Bethlehem Steel, he said. There are 700 manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley, creating a wide variety of products, employing 35,000 people, and contributing $7.3 billion annually to the regional GDP.

“I think it remained in the DNA of the people of the Lehigh Valley and our schools,” Cunningham said. “We have a long history going back to the Moravians of making things in this region.”

Cunningham noted that unlike areas like western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, Bethlehem Steel did not close suddenly, but instead experienced cutbacks over the course of several years and closed more gradually.

“There was lead-time for people to prepare, and we knew that it wasn’t going to last forever,” he said. “But no matter how much time you have to get ready and think about it, there’s still a shock when something that has been your dominant industry and your identifier for a century disappears.”

In addition to Cunningham, other panelists included Curtis H. “Hank” Barnette, former CEO and Chairman of Bethlehem Steel Corporation, and Andria Zaia, Curator of Collections at the National Museum of Industrial History.

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