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The LVEDC Interview: In the Trenches With Don Cunningham

By LVEDC Staff on July 8, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s been two years since Don Cunningham took the reins of LVEDC. To mark the anniversary, we ask the former Lehigh County Executive and Mayor of Bethlehem to take a short look back and a long look ahead.

When you took this job two years ago you said “the purpose of LVEDC is to create jobs, opportunity and to expand the tax base.” Have you been successful?
D Cunningham 9.2012
The Lehigh Valley is doing well. We remain the fastest growing area in Pennsylvania. Last year we had a record number of new development projects and ranked second in the nation for regions of our size. That is the result of a lot of factors and a lot of hard work by people in the economic development and real estate community for many, many years. Most importantly, it is the result of businesses wanting to be here and investing their money to come here, grow here or start here.

Year two of your administration saw the release of the Blueprint for Success: An Economic Development Strategy, better known as the Garner Report. The document identified four sectors that our region should “target” to recruit new businesses here. How do you propose to attract companies in those sectors to our region?

New business attraction is one important part of what we need to do in economic development for the region. It is such a broad and wide-open arena. We needed a strategy based on data and analysis. We are now refining that even further to target our marketing and recruitment. In the end, it’s a smart approach to a lot of hard work and relationship building. Like any sales effort, it’s multi-pronged. In our case the product is the assets of the Lehigh Valley. The strategy is to drive awareness of those assets with the decision-makers in those industries. The tactics are targeted advertising in trade publications, appearances at trade shows and industry events, targeted communications to key people, visits to companies, developing relationships with key consultants, brokers and company officials, and telling the Lehigh Valley story. It’s ongoing work in the trenches.

Why in your view is marketing the region so important to building the momentum required that helps recruit new companies here and help the companies here do better?

Well, it’s simple brand awareness. Economic development isn’t exactly like a supermarket shelf but think of it as such. You buy a product because you know it’s good but if you’ve never heard of it chances are you’re not going to grab it. Our first job is brand awareness. The Lehigh Valley is the beneficiary of a tremendous location with incredible assets to offer businesses and people. We live, however, in the shadows of much larger and better-known markets. You can’t choose an area you never heard of. Our job with a limited amount of resources is to at least get the key insiders and decision-makers to know of the Lehigh Valley. The awareness is building but we still have plenty of work to do.

A major component of the future of LVEDC will be data management and information stockpiling. Explain why that’s important and how we can use that data to ultimately accomplish what you said you wanted to do: create jobs?

One of the things I regularly say to our staff is you must first know thyself. You can’t develop a strategy if you don’t understand where you are and where you are in comparison to your competition. We live in an age of big data. Knowledge may be power but, more importantly, lack of knowledge is failure. We need to know what businesses are here, what they make, what they do, where they sell. We need to understand what talent we have here, where we have skills gaps in the workforce, how we compare to other regions in a multitude of indicators. We also need to know why companies succeed here and what stands in their way. Having those answers are the key to being a truly helpful regional economic development organization that can help businesses succeed so they create jobs.

Later this month LVEDC is going to showcase the new business retention program, whose main efforts will be workforce development and supply-chain initiative. Why were those two efforts selected?

The business outreach and retention effort is a key part of understanding thyself. That initiative, which is a regional one in partnership with about 15 different economic development entities and governments, is critical. Seventy-five percent of job growth comes from companies growing here and starting here. We need to be in the trenches with them, visiting their shop floors and offices to understand them better, understand what they need, what makes them succeed and what stands in their way. And those answers need to be put in a database and analyzed for trends and opportunities.

The supply chain initiative could be one of our most powerful tools to create jobs here at home in the Lehigh Valley. If we can showcase businesses here to businesses here and increase the amount of goods and services Lehigh Valley companies buy from Lehigh Valley companies we will grow business and create jobs. Think of it as money recycling. The more Lehigh Valley dollars we recycle through the Lehigh Valley the greener we will be!

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