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Exports Provide Great Opportunity for Economic Growth in Lehigh Valley

By George Lewis on September 14, 2017

Exports offer enormous growth potential for Lehigh Valley companies and the regional economy in general.

To help companies open doors to export opportunities, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Lehigh University in Bethlehem hosted “Bringing the World to You,” an international business conference that included workshops on financing, logistics and legal issues, and one-on-one meetings with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s international trade representatives. About 70 people, many representing small businesses in Lehigh and Northampton counties, attended the Sept. 11 conference.

Exporting is big business in the Lehigh Valley. According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, exports by Lehigh Valley companies totaled $3.4 billion in 2015, an increase of $300 million over the previous year. That placed the Lehigh Valley among the top 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. for export growth.

“The fundamentals are in place in the Lehigh Valley to build on its record of export growth,” said Don Cunningham, President and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), who opened the SBDC conference with an overview of the regional economy, its transformation over the last 20 years and its bright prospects for the future.

Conventional wisdom holds that manufacturing output and manufacturing jobs are in decline across the country, especially in regions whose economies were based historically on heavy industry.

“The Lehigh Valley is defying conventional wisdom,” Cunningham said. “Manufacturing is growing here. It is the largest contributor to the regional economy, but instead of being the dominant force it was 20 years ago, manufacturing today is part of a far more balanced economy.”

Manufacturing accounted for $5.6 billion of the Lehigh Valley’s $37 billion overall Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015. It is one of four pillars of a diverse economy that includes finance and real estate ($5.5 billion), education and health care ($5 billion) and professional services ($4.9 billion). Another important element contributing to economic change is a rapidly growing transportation and warehousing sector, which has added nearly 7,000 jobs in recent years.

“The region has added 13 million square feet of industrial space in the last three years alone, with another 5 million square feet under construction. That’s a rate of growth we’ve never seen before in the Lehigh Valley, and it’s driven largely by e-commerce, a sector of the economy that didn’t exist five years ago,” Cunningham said.

The Lehigh Valley, which is positioned right in the middle of the massive East Coast consumer market, is at “ground zero” of e-commerce battles among the largest online retailers to deliver products to customers quickly, he added.

As this impressive level of growth continues, a major focus of LVEDC, Cunningham told the entrepreneurs and business leaders at the SBDC conference, is improving the Lehigh Valley’s economic assets, including the labor force.

“Jobs, in particular manufacturing jobs, are changing,” he said. “Perhaps the single biggest challenge facing the Lehigh Valley – and the United States for that matter – is preparing people with the skills they need to work on today’s manufacturing floor, both intellectual and technological skills.”

But manufacturers here are proving that the Lehigh Valley is a prime location to make products. Capturing new opportunities to export those products, with resources and assistance available from SBDC, the Manufacturers Resource Center, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and others, will further economic growth in the Lehigh Valley.

The SBDC at Lehigh University is a member of the Pennsylvania Network of Small Business Development Centers, whose mission is to provide entrepreneurs and small business owners with the knowledge needed to make smart decisions and prosper. It has served small businesses in the region since 1978 and annually consults with more than 1,000 small businesses in all stages of development from pre-venture to mature.

Sponsors of “Bringing the World to You” included the SBDC, Lehigh Valley Export Network, Centric Bank, AGEX Financial, Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba, the World Trade Club of the Lehigh Valley and LVEDC.

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