Don Cunningham: Uniqueness and Authenticity Among Lehigh Valley’s Assets

By Colin McEvoy on November 7, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on November 7, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

About this time last year I invited Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to visit the Lehigh Valley as part of his company’s search for a new headquarters.

The invitation was part of a column in this space heralding the attributes of the Lehigh Valley in support of our region’s bid for his company’s second headquarters. To up the ante, I attempted to lure him with an invitation to one of my favorite local haunts by explaining the unique taste sensation of a Yocco’s hot dog.

The coup de grace was my offer to buy.

I never heard from Bezos.

I did get ripped online by the humorless — and a few who prefer Potts or other hot dog shops — for only offering a hot dog to a billionaire.

It’s a tough time in America. Even hot dogs aren’t safe ground.

Those elitist hot dog snobs even looked right past the fact that my offer was for two — with everything.

They did, however, manage to teach me a lesson.

This summer when I applauded Air Products CEO Seifi Ghasemi in a column for being the anti-Bezos and committing his company’s new, smaller headquarters to the Lehigh Valley, I invited him to dinner at the house, prepared by my wife Lynn, a fabulous cook.

Radio silence.

In fairness, it was a loaded invite. His dinner invitation was contingent upon using his skills to help convince my wife that it’s time for us to downsize to smaller living quarters downtown with no yard.

I figured he could be my guy to turn around my losing position.

But no wise person would step into the middle of that domestic situation, not even for a good dinner — or two with everything.

My real lesson learned is that newspaper columns are no place for CEO invitations.

My record is 0 for 2.

Bezos is now closing in on a plan to split Amazon’s second headquarters between New York City and northern Virginia, where the presence of 25,000 employees in a headquarters is likely to improve Amazon’s government relations.

Not even a Lehigh Valley partisan like myself could fault him.

It’s a tough time in America. A trillion dollars in market value, a half million employees and products and services in nearly every American home is not good enough if the president doesn’t like you.

That leads me back to the hot dog. It may not have worked for Bezos, but there’s a strategy in it. Well, not the hot dog, per se, but the authenticity behind local foods, restaurants, attractions, history, culture and overall place.

So much of America is the same.

Yocco’s — or Potts — is only here. The same goes for SteelStacks and the Moravian Historic District in Bethlehem, the Delaware and Lehigh national heritage corridor, Hawk Mountain, the Crayola Experience in Easton, Coca-Cola Park and PPL Center in Allentown, to mention but a few.

Uniqueness and authenticity are critical assets to a region, a city or a town.

In the parlance of the day, it’s called “placemaking” — a kind of 21st century progressive spinoff of the 1950s term homemaking.

This fall I attended the meetings of the Site Selectors Guild, a leading group of national and international consultants who advise corporations on where to locate companies.

The collective message of the meetings to people like me who work to attract good employers to their region and to keep them there was simple: Quality companies need quality people and quality people want to live in quality places.

Quality means a lot of things, but one of its intangibles is to not be like everyone else — to be authentic, to be unique.

It’s a simple formula, very logical.

Kind of like the baseball equivalent of if you hit, get on base, advance the runners and score you are likely to win.

“I think we are on the precipice of a paradigm shift from incentivizing companies to incentivizing the attraction of people,” site selector Didi Caldwell, the founding principal of Global Location Strategies in Greenville, S.C., said during a session titled, “Investment in Quality of Place and the Race for Talent.” “If the talent is there, the companies will come.”

Quality of place — or placemaking — involves many factors today, according to those who evaluate communities for a living. It includes low crime rates, good schools, affordable housing, access to quality health care, attractive and active downtowns, access to the environment and recreation, arts and culture and — the latest to be evaluated — the lack of major drug abuse and opioid addiction issues.

Not every region, city or town in America is well-positioned to meet today’s definition of quality of place — the Lehigh Valley is. City by city, town by town, the region has been working at it and developing it for decades.

There is more work to be done, which can be more challenging here because it needs to happen in 62 distinct municipalities in two counties with 17 school districts. There is no regional oversight or governance control in the Lehigh Valley as in other states where metro government councils or county-based school districts, police departments or regional planning and development takes place.

Nonetheless, it all comes together and works in the Lehigh Valley. It’s possible that the lack of regional control — and the independence of cities, boroughs and townships to create and develop their own dynamic — is the secret.

The history and development of the Lehigh Valley is a microcosm of America’s. We are a region that evolved, recovered and transformed as times changed.

In the process, the Lehigh Valley has held on to enough of its history, traditions and assets to be unique. In our downtown revitalizations, we’ve used the past to develop our future. That’s why Lehigh and Northampton counties are two of the rare ones in Pennsylvania growing in population, jobs and the economy.

It ain’t all about hot dogs, but don’t discount the importance of unique assets in a homogenized America.

There’s a passage in the Bruce Springsteen song “Long Walk Home” about his hometown that I believe captures the values that endure and guide the changes here:

My father said, “Son, we’re lucky in this town, it’s a beautiful place to be born. It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone.”

“The flag flying over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone. Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.”

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