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Don Cunningham: Today’s Lehigh Valley Nothing Like Billy Joel’s Allentown

By Don Cunningham on September 26, 2022

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on September 25, 2022. This column is excerpted in part from speeches this month at LVEDC’s Fall Signature Event and the Boy Scouts Minsi Trail Council Leadership Dinner. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It was 40 years ago this month that Billy Joel released the song, Allentown.

I was a senior at Freedom High School.

My dad was pouring hot metal in the Ingot Mold Foundry at Bethlehem Steel.

As far as I know that didn’t entail “filling out forms or standing in line.” But Billy Joel did capture the decline of American heavy industry and manufacturing that was taking place across the country at the time.

America didn’t understand it yet, but it was the beginning of the global economy and a competition for skills, wages, and innovations with the rest of the world. A competition that would end up costing millions of manufacturing jobs and decimate cities and towns built around a single mill or industry.

Art of any kind — music, film, books — isn’t required to be exactly accurate. The song Allentown wasn’t. What it did capture was a time in American history — the emergence of a “Rust Belt” of shuttered mills and factories.

It also delivered quite a punch in branding Allentown and Bethlehem for those who’d never been here. Art can do that. Pop culture art even more so.

Unfortunately, that brand stuck.

It’s taken 40 years to buff away those rust stains.

It’s safe to declare them gone.

In a post-pandemic world, the Lehigh Valley has emerged as an even bigger manufacturing market than it was in 1982.

The region is now one of America’s top 50 largest manufacturing markets with about $8 billion in annual GDP.

We still make things here.

Since 2017, manufacturing job growth in the Lehigh Valley has been 11 times greater than that of the United States — growing more than 2 percent a year here, while annual growth in the U.S. has been .2 percent.

That translates to about 35,000 people making products in the Lehigh Valley for more than 750 unique and diverse manufacturers.

The Lehigh Valley is the little engine that could.

It’s not a top 50 market by population or economy — only when it comes to making the goods used by Americans and many throughout the world.

Most importantly, for those who work here, the average manufacturing wage is $75,379, about $15,000 more a year than the Lehigh Valley’s average wage across all jobs. Manufacturing helps keep the Lehigh Valley’s median household income above the state and national averages.

There’s something special about a comeback story.

Today, my dad — after, yes, a working life where “he spent his weekends on the Jersey shore” — is safely ensconced in South Florida, meeting the mandatory requirement for retired Pennsylvanians.

New generations have taken his place. As it should be.

The same goes for his Ingot Mold Foundry, which once stood off Emery Street in south Bethlehem.

Today, that area is home to companies like Vastex International, a manufacturer of screen printers, presses, and other equipment, and U.S. Cold Storage, a critical piece of infrastructure for the storage and delivery of food and beverages and pharmaceuticals.

For centuries, Lehigh Valley manufacturing helped to lead the way in America. While the products have changed, the story remains the same.

The pandemic has increased that as it decimated global supply chains.

Forty years after manufacturers and producers rushed to chase lower wages across continents and rely on growing supply chains and ocean transport some of that model is reversing. It’s called near-shoring.

Producers want to be closer to customers and large population centers, particularly if there’s good infrastructure and a skilled workforce to meet the technological needs of modern manufacturing.

Those elements, along with the proximity to raw materials, is how the Lehigh Valley helped to drive the last century’s industrial revolution. Lehigh Valley Manufacturing 2.0 serves a new, diversified economy today that is based on the same core elements.

If you live long enough, the old becomes new and, eventually, the new becomes old. Not much remains the same. Change is our only constant.

It takes work to keep something the same. Even more to have it return once it was gone. That’s why it’s worth celebrating the Lehigh Valley’s return as a manufacturing powerhouse.

Most places can’t do that. But the real story of the Lehigh Valley is that it’s not most places, it’s unique and special. It’s a place where people work together with a common commitment toward a common goal in service of place.

There is enough in this life — and this time — that divides us. Lots of people telling us how much we should dislike or distrust those with different views, or religions, or cultures. We Americans are not each other’s enemies.

That’s understood in the Lehigh Valley. That’s what makes this a nearly indescribable place. We rally together around common goals and shared values to strengthen our communities and to build up and not tear down.

Because, in the end, we all want the same things.

Whether you were born here or came here and made it your home it’s a shared value. I believe it’s our secret sauce.

It’s hard to capture that in a song.

All we can do is keep erasing the rust and making the Lehigh Valley a shining example for all who come to see.

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