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LVEDC Highlights Lehigh Valley Economy to International Tour Group

By Colin McEvoy on November 4, 2022

LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham speaks to the Political Tours group at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem.

When Nicholas Wood was working as a correspondent with The New York Times in the Balkans, a hitchhiker from California followed Wood in Serbia and Kosovo for four days as he worked on a story, and he was fascinated by the experience.

That inspired Wood to create Political Tours, in which top journalists, diplomats, or academics provide tours of significant places and people throughout the world, with a focus on news stories and interesting analysis rather than traditional tourism spots.

Wood and his wife Karen Davey, a former South African doctor, and others from the company have together led tours in almost 40 countries around the world. One such tour with more than a dozen visitors came to the Lehigh Valley on Nov. 4.

“The Lehigh Valley has an amazing story,” said Wood, who also previously worked for BBC News. “It has reinvented itself, and we want to know how that’s happened. What has enabled industries that are perhaps dated to change themselves and attract new investment. It’s a story of regeneration and reform.”

LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham speaks to the Political Tours group at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem.

The Lehigh Valley is a key portion of the company’s tour of Pennsylvania in the context of the upcoming midterm elections and national political climate, but much of the discussion here focused on the region’s economic revitalization and $42.9 billion economy.

“Despite the political polarization we’ve seen nationally, in the Lehigh Valley we’ve largely still been able to benefit from regional cooperation,” said Don Cunningham, President & CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC). “Our economic recovery is tied in part to the politics of this market, because there hasn’t been this drastic partisanship.”

Cunningham spoke to the tour at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks. The former home of Bethlehem Steel was an appropriate location to discuss how the region evolved since that company’s closure into a diverse and multi-faceted economy that no longer depends too strongly on one single industry.

“I think the Lehigh Valley is a really interesting question,” Wood said. “There’s this idea that America is falling back and losing out to China, when in actual fact you have the top industries in the world, and the Lehigh Valley is an area that has reinvented itself very successfully, and even made something out of those rusting industrial hulks (at SteelStacks).”

The Lehigh Valley’s GDP is larger than those of the entire states of Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming. Finance, insurance, and real estate is now the largest sector of the regional economy, contributing $8.1 billion to the Lehigh Valley’s GDP. Education and health care makes up $6.2 billion, while professional and business services makes up $5.3 billion.

Yet the Lehigh Valley still maintains its strong manufacturing heritage. Manufacturing is the second-largest economic sector for the region with an economic output of $7.9 billion, and is a Top 50 manufacturing market in the United States, Cunningham said.

One of the tour participants asked what role the Lehigh Valley’s colleges and universities played in the region’s economic success. Cunningham highlighted the efforts of the LVEDC Education and Talent Supply Council, a coalition of the region’s education, training, workforce community, and employers working together to address the Lehigh Valley’s skills gaps and workforce needs, and to help fortify the region’s talent pipeline.

The Nov. 4 tour was led by Malcolm Brown, a former Washington D.C.-based foreign radio and television news correspondent and videographer. The group spent one day in the Lehigh Valley, and will be visiting other parts of Pennsylvania, as well as Washington D.C. and rural Virginia in the upcoming days.

The tour included people from a wide variety of countries, occupations, and industries. Among them were a journalist from Sydney, Australia, entrepreneurs, engineers, energy industry officials, college professors, school volunteers, photographer and artist, and others.

Kassie Hilgert, President & CEO of ArtsQuest, also spoke during the tour’s Lehigh Valley stop. She and Cunningham discussed the history of the region from Bethlehem Steel’s heyday through the deindustrialization of the United States and the redevelopment of the land into the ArtsQuest Center.

“They took what was the largest bankruptcy in America, and turned it into a tourist attraction,” Hilgert said. “There is no better connection to who we are and using the arts and the community to become who we are today and who we will be.”

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