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Don Cunningham: An Economic Bridge Across the Generations

By Colin McEvoy on January 17, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on January 17, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I’ve always found a comfort in walking the same streets that my grandparents walked.

They’re gone but the neighborhoods remain. And so it goes.

The houses we live in, churches where we worship, and places we earn our livings often serve beyond our expiration. In life’s sea of change, there’s an anchor in a place, a neighborhood, a city.

Some of the old family houses now have additions, new paint, or siding. The factories have become apartments, steel mills, warehouses. But the streets don’t change. The soil remains the same.

And, it’s in the soil where roots grow, upon which foundations are built.

I walk 7th Ave. in west Bethlehem, Mechanic Street on the Southside, the alley behind E. Goepp and High streets. I can imagine my grandparents there as kids when the stock market crashed, teenagers during the Depression, young couples during WWII.  What is history to me was life to them.

It will be the same tomorrow when my todays are the yesterdays to a generation yet born.

There are days I wonder if I’m blessed or cursed to still live where I was born. The same place my father’s father and mother’s mother were born. I didn’t leave, except for school or its pursuit. My sister left after college and made a home elsewhere. Others in the family sought warmer climates or new adventures in distant states.

But, this place, this soil, has given me the opportunity to stay. A hundred years ago it provided the opportunity for which my great-grandparents came, from Slovenia and Ireland via Conshohocken. Their opportunity came in the form of steel mills, machine shops, and cigar factories.

My opportunities here were different but they were here because Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley evolved, creating new opportunity for new generations.

We are taught to believe that America is the land of opportunity. I believe in general that is true. It’s just not equally true across every place, every family, every skill set.

America’s opportunity today demands a much higher price.  My great grandfathers found their opportunity with a strong back and a good work ethic. They found a place where those assets alone allowed them to earn a living, carve out a life for their families. The same was true of the coal miners in Schuylkill County, the textile workers in Wilkes-Barre and the steelworkers in Johnstown.

Today, in most places, those same assets create limited opportunity. Change has left places like Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre, and Johnstown behind. Disillusion takes hold when sons can’t do the same things their fathers did on the same soil. The hard hands that mined slate or cracked coal can turn to even harder hearts and minds searching for someone to blame. That someone is often “others,” those who look different, come from somewhere else or worship a different way.

The anger is understandable but misplaced. The great-grandfathers and grandmothers who came here from places beyond our shores understood that life’s only constant is change.  That’s why they came.

Nothing last forever, and no one makes a living searching for someone to blame. The wars of Europe, famine in Ireland or dictatorships in South America drove people far from the streets and villages of their childhood to find opportunity in places like Bethlehem, Allentown, Hazleton, and Wilkes-Barre.

Creating opportunity and being prepared to take advantage of it are the two sides of the economic coin.

A good amount of the world’s unskilled work is now in poorer countries with lower wages, lower costs, and lower standards of living. Today, there are people there with strong backs and good work ethics finding that opportunity.

There is a new opportunity in an evolving America. It’s not evenly distributed across every hamlet and village. In an interconnected world of technology, e-commerce, and global trade, it’s highly unlikely that factories and manufacturing jobs will again find their way to every borough and backwater. Leaders who promise such are false prophets.

People have to find their way to the skills and education that employers need and the places where the new economy is growing, much like their families did generations ago when they crossed oceans and hostile landscapes to settle anew.

The world was far too dangerous to waste time on assigning blame. In a pre-Internet and Facebook era, that task was left to the historians. There were oceans to cross, jobs to find, and ground to settle.

We are much more fortunate today. We can relocate with much less difficulty and risk. We can develop new skills for free in public schools, especially vocational and technical institutions. Community colleges remain affordable and the interconnectedness of the Internet lets us seek out opportunity and research reality without relying upon flyers tacked upon post office walls.

The other side of individual responsibility is community responsibility and cooperation. In a different era, towns, and communities were their own economy. Today, cities and regions need to be connected to the bigger world, the global economy.

The infrastructure of roads, telecommunications, technology, freight, capital, and intellectual assets need to create the pathways for business to thrive. The region also must develop and provide the talent, the educational assets, the quality of place and life for employers to come and to stay. That can only happen through regional coordination, good government, wise-investments and smart planning.

It takes resolve to withstand change and to prepare a place for what is next. Hope is never a strategy. Nostalgia is not a plan.

Today’s Lehigh Valley economy is much stronger and better than the one my great-grandparents found here. Steelmaking may be gone but the economy is balanced among five or six major sectors. There is opportunity for professional workers, skilled manufacturers making hundreds of different products, health care workers, retail and service sector employees and, recently, nearly 28,000 jobs supporting the e-commerce retail economy, paying $15 an hour for unskilled labor.

Same towns, same soil providing different opportunities to new generations. I am blessed to make my way on the same streets upon which my grandparents walked. It’s my intent that someday my grandchildren can do the same.

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