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Expertise of LVEDC Board Helps to Understand Lehigh Valley Economy

By Colin McEvoy on May 26, 2020

The LVEDC Board of Directors met on May 19 via the video conferencing application Zoom.

The Board of Directors of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) brings together the talents and expertise of leaders representing a cross-section of the Lehigh Valley economy.

That expertise was on display at the LVEDC Board of Directors meeting on May 19, held via Zoom, during which several board members gave presentations about the impact on the coronavirus pandemic on such Lehigh Valley sectors such as health care, logistics and manufacturing, hospitality, and staffing.

“One of the strengths of the Lehigh Valley economy is its balance,” said LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham. “The quarantine and closures caused by the coronavirus has affected each sector very differently. LVEDC has been engaged in gathering data and listening to those on the front lines of their industries here to truly understand what is happening in our region.”

The LVEDC Board has 35 members from both the public and private sectors with the majority of the membership from the private sector.

“We have assembled a board with members from all of the major sectors of the Lehigh Valley economy from both large and small employers,” said LVEDC Board Chair Jane Long, who is Of Counsel with Fitzpatrick, Lentz & Bubba. “The collective expertise of our current board is impressive and is of significant benefit in developing understanding and strategies regarding the Lehigh Valley economy.”

Logistics and Manufacturing

Michael Landsburg, Chief Development Officer of NFI Industries, said the impact of COVID-19 on their business clients has usually been one extreme or the other. They’ve seen retailers completely shut down and warehouses closed due to inactivity but have also clients such as food and beverage companies, grocery stores, and paper manufacturers who are doing a lot of business.

“It really is this dichotomy where there haven’t been a lot of folks in the middle,” he said. “Either your business has been booming, or there’s very little going on and you’re totally shut down.”

Landsburg said logistics has not been as negatively affected other industries, and that industrial real estate will remain crucial to the nation’s infrastructure and the distribution of goods. His remarks echoed a recent CoStar analysis that has found Lehigh Valley’s industrial market is well-positioned to weather the pandemic.

“Logistics is one of the few bright spots right now,” Landsburg said.

Growth in ecommerce, which had already been a strong sector for Lehigh Valley, has only accelerated during the pandemic as more people become accustomed to shopping online, Landsburg said. He also argued that municipalities should consider a quicker approval process for construction projects due to fast-changing circumstances in the present environment.

Staffing

The business disruptions caused by COVID-19 prompted historic unemployment claims, but the employers in industries deemed essential during the pandemic face hiring challenges, according to Susan Larkin, Vice President at Allied Personnel Services.

Childcare, social distancing, sanitation and enhanced unemployment benefits all contribute to the ability to connect the unemployed with jobs in the factories, distribution centers and other businesses still in operation across the Lehigh Valley, she said.

“We were referring to the labor market here for the last year or so as unprecedented,” Larkin said. “So, in the immediate future, COVID-19 is going to make what was already a tight labor market even tighter.”

Larkin credited the work of the LVEDC for its work on talent supply, putting the region in a good position for the post-pandemic economy. She believes the region’s workers will be well-positioned to make career transitions.

Health care

The Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network effectively managed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on  the Lehigh Valley and surrounding communities. Ed Dougherty, LVHN Senior Vice President & Chief Business Development Officer, complimented the community for the social distancing and quarantine measures taken by Lehigh Valley residents.

Both Dougherty and Carol Kuplen, President of St. Luke’s University Hospital Bethlehem & Network Chief Nursing Officer, said the region benefited from the presence and preparedness of both major health networks. The networks collaborated on various aspects of the effort such as the approach to visitation, which assured consistency for Valley residents.

“Our Valley is very fortunate to have the resources, skills, and talents that we have here, all which were available in ample supply at both institutions,” Kuplen said. “As a result, we’ve experienced impressive clinical outcomes. We’ve had great success with managing patients in the ambulatory, acute and critical care settings.”

Dougherty said the community adapted well to online virtual care, which he thinks will become more of a trend moving forward. But he also said patients have been avoiding ER visits during the pandemic, creating a risk of untreated issues becoming more serious.

For example, heart attack cases at LVHN decreased about 40%, yet heart disease has not decreased. That’s consistent with a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, which found that 43% of respondents nationwide deferred seeking medical care in the last month.

Kuplen said the pandemic has had a negative financial impact on the entire health care industry. A significant portion of a hospital’s revenue is generated through testing, procedures, and surgeries, all of which have been negatively impacted over the last three months. As an example, at the peak of the crisis, SLUHN surgical volumes were 1/3 of its typical numbers.

Hospitality

The hospitality industry, which employs 26,000 people in Lehigh Valley, was hit hard when pandemic shut down large gatherings like concerts and transformed fine dining into curbside pickup.

Hotel occupancy in Lehigh Valley dropped to 45% in March, down from 70% a year ago. The occupancy rate was still the highest in Pennsylvania because of the extended stays by contractors and other business travelers, said Discover Lehigh Valley President & CEO Alex Michaels.

But Michaels said national surveys show that 68% of respondents feel safe in their own vehicles and one in five are willing to drive 500 miles for a leisure trip this summer. Meanwhile, 94% say they miss live events, and 76% say they will attend one within the first two weeks of being able to, which he said bodes well for Lehigh Valley.

“The quicker we can get open, the more likely we’ll be able to pick up some of that business,” Michaels said.

ArtsQuest President and CEO Kassie Hilgert acknowledged revenue has taken a significant hit for the Bethlehem-based arts nonprofit, and many in the industry predict large events may not return until a vaccine is produced although smaller gatherings and venues may be allowed earlier. ArtsQuest has worked to provide online programs and virtual concerts.

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