Lehigh Valley Economy Swinging Above its Weight Class

by Don Cunningham

The Lehigh Valley has continued to see strong economic growth over the past year, which speaks to the remarkable diversity among the region’s various economic sectors, a sign of a well-balanced and multifaceted economy.

In fact, the Lehigh Valley’s economy has never been better. Yes, never.

The Lehigh Valley’s gross domestic product (GDP) – the measure of total economic output – has reached an all-time high of $39.1 billion in 2017. That marks a more than 4 percent increase in the Lehigh Valley economy over the previous year, which itself had been a record-high number.

To put that into perspective, that means the regional economy of the Lehigh Valley is now larger than that of the entire state of Wyoming ($38.5 billion) or Vermont ($31.5 billion), as well as 108 other countries in the world. The Lehigh Valley is the 65th largest economy in the United States, jumping up eight spots from the year before, and if we were a country, we would be the 87th largest in the world.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Lehigh Valley was also recently named by Site Selection magazine as one of the Top 5 regions in the Northeastern United States in terms of economic development for the second consecutive year.

Based on the magazine’s tracking of total projects by region, the Lehigh Valley ranked behind only the New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Boston metropolitan areas in the Northeast. The Lehigh Valley was the only region in the population range between 200,000 and 1 million to make the top five list.

You need only to look at the four heavy-hitters the Lehigh Valley shares that list with to see that we are swinging well above our weight class. This past year has been a significant one for economic growth in the Lehigh Valley, and we continue to be the fastest-growing region in the state of Pennsylvania.

What makes a solid economy is a balance and opportunity for people of all incomes and skill levels. Economic growth is meaningless if it doesn’t enhance, not harm, a region’s quality of life and strive to create an opportunity for all people, not just the educated or highly skilled. The best pathway for people to realize the fullness of life is the opportunity for meaningful work that pays a life-sustaining wage. To me, that is the aim of economic development

The Lehigh Valley economy is like a sturdy table standing on four legs. Our top four economic sectors are within $2 billion of each other. Our largest economic sector is finance, insurance, and real estate at $7.9 billion. Manufacturing is second with $6.9 billion. We’re the rare community in the United States with a growing manufacturing base helping to lead our economy.

Third and fourth are professional and business services & education and health care. They each generate about 5.3 billion in output. Each individual subsector saw year-over-year GDP growth from 2016 to 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Gone are the days when the Lehigh Valley economy depended entirely on one industry, or on a single employer like Bethlehem Steel. Our growth has been broad-based and balanced. All of our eggs are no longer in a single basket.

LVEDC tracked 31 business attraction or expansion projects in the Lehigh Valley that were either announced, under construction, or completed in 2017, creating more than 2,200 jobs and retaining more than 1,300. The organization also provided access to $17.2 million in financing in 2017, resulting in another 810 jobs either created or retained.

The region’s economic success story has started to attract international attention. The Lehigh Valley was the subject of a 24-page dedicated supplement in the In-Flight magazine of American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, which serves nearly 200 million passengers a year.

Additionally, the region’s booming logistics and e-commerce sector was the focus of a front-page article in The New York Times, which notes that the Lehigh Valley “provides a gateway to the nation’s biggest metropolitan area” due to its proximity to highways and easy access to much of the Eastern Seaboard.

Our economy is growing. Our renaissance is well underway — but far from finished. What’s happening here is the envy of many communities and regions across America who’ve yet to find their way back from economic change, and our today’s and tomorrows are even brighter than our storied past.

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