The Economic Bridge from Our Past to the Future

by Don Cunningham

It’s often hard to get perspective when you are close to something.

Those of us living in the Lehigh Valley during the last five years realize that something is going on here. We are changing, getting bigger, more cosmopolitan and diverse.

The annual Site Selection Governor’s Cup ranking provides some perspective on that growth. The Lehigh Valley was the fifth leading metropolitan area in 2016 for growth and development in the Northeastern United States. The only metros with more growth were New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston, in that order.

What makes this even more significant is that Site Selection is the premier magazine for the economic development and location consultant crowd. Its annual ranking is based exclusively on objective criteria such as the number of new projects, the amount of investment and number of jobs created, not on subjective observations.

This is not your grandfather’s Lehigh Valley.

The annual economic output of the two-county region has hit $37 billion in GDP, that’s more than the entire state of Vermont and 97 countries in the world. Job creation of 5.5 percent in the Lehigh Valley since the Great Recession of 2008 outranked every other region in Pennsylvania. The next highest was the Lancaster region with 4.5 percent job growth.

Most importantly, the growth has been broad-based and balanced. The Lehigh Valley is not just a one or two industry economy. All of our eggs are no longer in a single basket.
GDP in the Lehigh Valley is very balanced in four economic sectors with manufacturing at the top generating $5.6 billion in economic output. Not far behind is the financial and real estate sector with $5 billion of GDP, followed by education and health care with $5 billion and professional and business services with $4.9 billion.

Health care still leads the way in the number of jobs with about 55,000. The growth of e-commerce drives the industrial economy, and the Lehigh Valley’s location in the middle of the Northeast with 40 percent of American consumers within an 8-hour truck drive, is the fastest growing sector.

Since 2014, 10 million square feet of industrial space has been added in the Lehigh Valley, leading to the region being deemed a new Inland Empire of the Northeastern U.S. There is another 6.1 million square feet of industrial space under development.

Not all of the industrial space is for e-commerce and warehouse centers. Manufacturing is a big part of the industrial market. There are more than 680 manufacturers in the Lehigh Valley employing about 32,000 workers. The products produced here cover a wide range of goods from medical devices to food and beverage to traditional heavier manufacturing like cement, Mack Trucks, and metals.

As the industrial base and manufacturing have grown, contrary to what is taking place across many areas of the U.S., there has been a rebirth and resurgence in the Lehigh Valley’s three cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Riding a groundbreaking state economic incentive, which created a 130-acre Neighborhood Improvement Zone in the downtown and on the Lehigh River waterfront, Allentown has seen more than a $1 billion in new office, residential and downtown development, including the 10,000-seat PPL Center arena.

City Center Development has led the way in developing a new skyline and luring major companies and institutions back to the downtown of the state’s third-largest city, along with building new apartments for Millennial workers and Baby Boomer retirees.

Easton has taken full advantage of its river town vibe developing a wide variety of restaurants, shops, and nightlife to go with the Crayola Experience and State Theater. Bethlehem has continued its urban growth on both sides of the river as the former lands of Bethlehem Steel Corp., which stretch for 1,800 acres on the South Side of the city, have become a nearly fully redeveloped industrial and commercial job center. New apartments and townhouses, along with an office complex, are being added to the core of the South Side neighborhood near the Greenway walking path. Lehigh University and St. Luke’s Hospital will be the lead tenants in the new 127,000 square foot Greenway Park office building, anchored by a new municipal parking garage.

No matter where you look in the Lehigh Valley the landscape is changing, and jobs are being created, and the rest of the world has begun to take notice.

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