Don Cunningham: Lehigh Valley is Launching Past Billy Joel’s Allentown

By Colin McEvoy on July 6, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 6, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Black tie events are not my favorite.

I usually prefer a special event on my sofa at home in jeans and a t-shirt with a book or a ball game.

But this was a good one: the 90th Anniversary Gala for the State Theatre in Easton. The iconic theater is a special place. It’s been bringing the Lehigh Valley high quality music and entertainment since Herbert Hoover was in office.

As my tux and I settled into our seat, the State was doing it again at its birthday bash. Singer and piano player Jim Witter and his band were ripping through five decades of classic rock n’ roll songs in a raucous, note-for-note cover performance that had the audience swaying and singing along.

Then it came.

“We can’t leave here without doing this one,” Witter said. “This is the only place we play this song.”

I slumped in my seat. I knew what was coming.  The stage rang with the faux steam whistles and chugging gear sounds that signal the opening of the 1982 Billy Joel hit, “Allentown.”

Normal people – meaning pretty much everyone but me – went on with the evening, which transitioned post-performance into a beautiful night of dancing, socializing and toasting the achievements of the mighty little theater.

But as Witter sang the opening line, “Well, we’re living here in Allentown and they’re closing all the factories down,” I yanked on my bow tie and squawked to my wife, and anyone else in ear shot, “Why does anyone think we want to hear that song here. We’ve spent the last 35 years working to overcome it!”

“Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time, filling out forms, standing in line.”

Lynn gave me the non-verbal cue that translates roughly to shut up. So, in my own quiet protest, I got up and went to the lobby bar for another bourbon. Hey, how else are you going to protest at a black tie?

I realize I’m more sensitive than most to the lyrics of that song. I have nothing against Billy Joel or, for that matter, Jim Witter, who seemed like a great guy. And, I admit, back in 1982 — the start of my senior year in high school — a lot of those lyrics rang true. My dad was a Bethlehem steelworker who went through a few layoffs.

Since 1995, in one position or another, I’ve worked on the economic development of parts, or all, of the Lehigh Valley. Today, my role is to sell the Lehigh Valley economy and our assets to executives and companies. We work to bring them here, keep them here or to convince them to start their business here.

It’s not hard to do. The Lehigh Valley’s assets today are plentiful. And, I’m a true believer. Other than college and graduate school, I’ve always lived here. I’m a homer. My kids are the fifth generation of our family to grow up in Bethlehem.

This is a special month for the Lehigh Valley. American Airlines magazine has a 24-page special feature on the Lehigh Valley in its in-flight magazine, American Way. Every passenger on every domestic and international American flight has the chance to read about today’s Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton – and the entire Lehigh Valley.

It features the growth of our economy, our educational and quality of life assets, our prominent companies and the recovery and revitalization of our cities, and manufacturing base. The article focuses on how the Lehigh Valley is the rare American region where manufacturing is the largest part of its economy. The airline estimates that at least 5.4 million people will see it.

The selection is a big deal. American Airlines only features 8 regions every year in its monthly publication. Dallas-Forth Worth, St. Louis, and Memphis were some of this year’s other communities.

It may not be the same as a top twenty single, but I look at the American Airlines feature as launching the Lehigh Valley past the imagery of Billy Joel’s Allentown.

I spend a lot of time on the road with national site selectors, industrial and commercial real estate brokers, international location advisors, and corporate and trade groups in targeted industries and sectors. The Lehigh Valley’s image is changing one success and one story at a time.

Just in the last two weeks, the Lehigh Valley was front and center at the U.S. Department of Commerce SelectUSA international investment summit in Washington, D.C., and at the ACG conference in New York City, where a national group of private equity investors and commercial real estate developers featured the Lehigh Valley as one of America’s premier manufacturing economies.

We now are getting invited to tell our story.  More and more of those outside of here who make decisions and shape opinions understand the new Lehigh Valley. But, there are still miles to go.  It’s amazing how a pop song lingers.

Why couldn’t Billy have written something more like, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco, “New York, New York,” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas?”

Ah, but there’s always a silver lining. While I was grumbling to the bartender at the State Theater about hearing, “Allentown,” he looked at me and said, “Well, at least he said they only play it here.”

Yes, that means they’ve stopped playing it out there. The wisdom of the bartender.


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