Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller talks economic development

By LVEDC Staff on January 22, 2014

LCLogo_209x200_Once upon a time, in the not very distant past, a man who didn’t have much of a taste for politics wound up not only becoming the top restaurant critic in the county, but the lucky guy who gets to dine at the places with linen tablecloths and napkins.

That’s right, Tom Muller is the new executive of Lehigh County and – stop the presses – the lifelong Republican pulled off his election win as a Democrat.

So the juxtaposition of the moment aside, Muller is making the rounds. Recently he paid a visit to Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation to give us his take on economic development for the county and the region.

When asked about his plans for Lehigh County when it comes to economic development in 2014, Muller responded with perhaps the most honest answer a man could give: “Survive.”

Whew! Glad we got that cleared up!

But there’s a little more to it than that.

“I would like to see the county to grow,” Muller said. “I was running against a guy (Commissioner Scott Ott) who says the biggest thing in the world is the $672 that the average person pays in county taxes… My opponent and I had a distinctly different point of view. His point of view was pretty simple, which was the most important thing government can do is ‘no harm.’ I happen to think government can do some good. That was a very basic difference of opinion.”

Specifically Muller said he would “like to push through” the Hamilton Crossings Shopping Center project in Lower Macungie Township.

“That’s important,” he said. “It’s a little over 900 permanent jobs more than 600 that are full-time and another 300 plus that are part-time. And it’s 495 construction jobs when it’s underway.”

Lest you think you can try economic development at home, be careful. You might get hurt. It’s not as easy as it looks from the cheap seats. Bless his heart, Muller has a way to saying things in four seconds that other guys take a week to spit out.

“I still think this is all about jobs,” Muller said. “I still think it’s all about getting companies to either expand or bring businesses in.”

Muller said he will “continue to push our commissioners who – we have a block of them who generally seem opposed to TIFs and any kind of incentives for companies to come into the area – well, I will continue to push. I believe they are worthwhile.”

To illustrate the point, Muller noted that he spent 40 years in the private sector. His last role with Victaulic was to establish a new company. The range for the company stretched as far south as the Mason-Dixon Line and as far west as the cornfields of Indiana.

He recalls, “We actually ended up in Allentown because we got help from the state and the city and we brought in 105 jobs. Could we have gotten on without it (incentives)? Possibly. But we would have had gotten better offers elsewhere. I think that’s part of being competitive.”

Muller’s top item as Lehigh County executive, meanwhile, is public safety.

“I think public safety helps lead to economic development,” Muller said. “My opponent and I were light years apart on quality-of-life issues. I got a lot of votes from people who were scared stiff that if my opponent had been elected he’d eliminate a lot of the quality-of-life spending the county does. I think quality of life is another reason why companies come here and why companies expand here.”

When asked what role he anticipated LVEDC would play in aiding and abetting economic development in Lehigh County, Muller thoughts for a moment, and then said the following.

“I would turn that around and say ‘what role does LVEDC want the county to play’ …I would hope my background from the private sector, from having moved companies and divisions and so on would have given me some insights as to how to help you folks. I also think we have to all work together and I’m encouraged that I already have very good professional relations with the mayor of all three key cities and the folks in Lower Macungie Township…”

If you spend four decades getting paid to do something then you’d probably have learned a thing or three. And Muller’s four-decade career in the private sector taught him this:

“Lehigh County has to present good quality of life,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve fully kept pace with our recreational venues out there for the population growth we’ve had. I think we have good ones, but I don’t think we’ve kept pace.”

That quality of life is an important part of why Muller said he wants to live in Lehigh County and an integral component of attracting and retaining companies to the county when you get down to it.

“You’ll hear rumors every once in a while that a CEO wants to move a company here because Saucon Valley Country Club is here,” Muller said with a chuckle. “It happens. I’ve seen it over the years.”

Spoken like a man who isn’t a lifelong politician.

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