Don Cunningham: The Lehigh Valley’s Economic Christmas List

By Colin McEvoy on December 21, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on December 19, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

Last weekend, my 26-year-old son asked me what I want for Christmas and my birthday.

My birthday occurs 12 days before Santa’s arrival.

Any Christian with a birthday inside a 15-day radius of Dec. 25 knows that the two major gift-receiving events of the year meld together into one: “Birthmas.”

“Text me a list,” my son said.

I have no list. I’m 53 years old. I’ve been a dad since I was 24. Sweaters and ties, self-made art projects, and photo collages are my gifts.

Besides, I’ve reached my prime earning years. My son is working three jobs to build a career and struggles to pay his rent, student loans, and car payment.

“Save your money, you need all you earn,” I said during our weekly brunch, this time at the City View Diner in Whitehall Township. I was splurging for the kid.

“Everyone needs a gift,” he said. “Send me a list of some books. I’ll never be able to pick what you like.”

That evening I sat to make a list. I focused on what I really want for Birthmas. This was my chance to reach beyond sweaters and pottery.

But as you get older, your gift ideas change. You have the means to buy what you need, so you focus on what you really want. A list of wants is simple. Here it is:

  • All three kids home for Christmas.
  • Spend a few evenings sleeping and eating under the same roof.
  • Take a walk together downtown and stop to eat or drink or take a hike along the river on the towpath.

With the nest now empty, the kids coming home — and being together — is the gift list. In this stage of life, it’s their health, happiness and financial security that bring comfort and joy.

I admit there is a touch of self-interest in my wanting their financial security, since mine is inextricably linked. There’s no doubt my full realization of Christmas comfort and joy remains some years into the future.

I consider it more of a stretch goal.

It’s not possible for me to send them this cornball list. It’s too soon. They would meet it with eye rolls, subtle abuse, and accusations of me going soft before my time. I’ll save it to shame them when grandkids are involved.

Ah, but what of reading it here? No worries. My kids are in their 20s, so they don’t read newspapers, especially not columns by dad. In the event that one does, however, let me say the new book by Joseph Ellis, “American Dialogue,” looks good, as does Jill Lepore’s, “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

My son’s request got me contemplating gifts, wish lists and the difference between wants and needs. ’Tis the season.

In my day job, I study the Lehigh Valley economy and work to sell it, market it, and help to grow it through a public-private coalition focused on strategies and actions to improve it for employers and employees.

The Lehigh Valley economy is strong. Unemployment is at its lowest since the mid-1960s. Economic output is at an all-time high. But economies are complicated, not everyone experiences them equally.

Therefore, I scratched out a Christmas list of fundamental economic and community needs so growth can be enjoyed by as many as possible. I sent the list to Economic Santa, otherwise known as St. Homobonus, the patron saint of business, who, by the way, lives in Switzerland — not the North Pole like St. Nicholas, his cousin.

Homobonus was a real guy, an Italian, and he’s a real saint, canonized in 1199. He’s the patron of business people, tailors, shoemakers and cloth workers — an interesting mix. I figure he’s interested in both the needs of workers and employers, so I hit him with some broad needs:

  • Job opportunities for workers at all skill levels, and skilled workers for all the jobs needed by employers.
  • A $15 minimum wage created not by law but through market forces so all hard work generates a livable wage.
  • Good schools at all levels, safe neighborhoods and accessible and affordable health care for employees.
  • Available and affordable houses and rents for all incomes.

Economic Santa in Switzerland sent my list back, saying the Lehigh Valley looked pretty good in all these areas and asked me to stretch it to a more specific list of wants. Must be his business background.

I brainstormed a few quick moonshots and developed a Lehigh Valley Economic Christmas list, caring not one bit for cost or practical reality:

  • A regional train or trolley loop connecting Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton and the suburbs that serves major neighborhoods, downtowns and industrial parks.
  • Route 22 widened to three lanes each way without 10 years of construction.
  • A regional, noncollege training academy for grades nine to 12 that combines two years of post-high school, grades 13 and 14, and specializes in the mechanical arts, technology and vocational skills needed for jobs in the new economy.
  • The regionalization of city and suburban school districts to reduce inequalities, along with proper state education funding to halt property tax growth.
  • Billy Joel rewriting his song “Allentown” with these lyrics: “We’ll we’re living here in Allentown and they’re building up a new skyline. Out in Bethlehem they’ve turned it around, five thousand new jobs, and two downtowns.”

I’ve yet to hear back from St. Homobonus. There’s no shot with Billy Joel, trust me. I’ve been down that road before.

Some wants are tougher than others. I’m certain the ones with my kids will be realized. They’re all coming home for Christmas, including my stepson.

It’s funny, the older we grow, the more we realize that the greatest gifts have no cost. They involve family, friends and community, just being together. Too often, we don’t realize it until it slips beyond the possible.

Just one more time I’d love to hear my mom’s voice so I can remember it. Just one more time I want to watch a Notre Dame game with my grandfather. Just once more, I want to be a kid on Christmas morning in my parents’ house.

Come to think of it, I’m going to send my gift list to my son, grandkids or not.

Maybe I am just getting soft.

LVEDC Looks Back on Economic Development Success Stories of 2018

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