The importance of location in economic growth is a given – and Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley area has one of the best. But the story of the region's $32 billion economy is about more than just easy access to transportation pipelines, a Foreign Trade Zone and major cities like Philadelphia and New York.
For years, the Lehigh Valley has been investing in its future. From infrastructure to workforce development, the Valley's industrial and economic leaders have poured time, effort and dollars into building the region into one of the country’s most desirable places to start, relocate or grow a business. And it’s working.
Nationally Recognized for Growth
In 2013, the Lehigh Valley was named one of America’s top 10 performers of its size in terms of facilities growth by Site Selection magazine. Fourth Economy Consulting, a national economic development firm specializing in identifying potential growth areas around the United States, ranked Lehigh County seventh in the nation among large-size counties with populations between 150,000 and 499,999, based on its amount of investment, available talent, sustainability, location and economic diversity.
Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Don Cunningham says the national recognition has come from a combination of intrinsic factors and intentional strategy.
“The Lehigh Valley has a unique combination of assets," Cunningham says. "We have great access to the entire market of the northeastern part of the U.S. It’s a large metropolitan area, but one with a small-town quality of life. We have a great labor force, and our costs of doing business are a lot lower than most of the larger Northeast areas.”
From tax benefits to the development of pockets of the area, the driving force behind its growth has been the combination of location and strategic positioning.
Lots of Ground to Break
Many urban areas, particularly in the Northeast, could not sustain the amount of growth that Cunningham says will continue. But the beauty of Lehigh Valley isn’t just its central location – it’s also the huge supply of shovel-ready sites and buildings ready for repurposing.
Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan says these repurposings are key to the city’s continued contribution to the Valley.
“The construction of Commerce Center Boulevard – a new roadway created off Route 412 – allowed for development of Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII and Majestic Bethlehem Center, two large-scale developments which are bringing manufacturing and warehousing back to Bethlehem.”
Not only do these new facilities bring jobs to the area, they bring well-paying ones, he says.
“Since the creation of the Southside Bethlehem Keystone Innovation Zone in 2004, Bethlehem has seen a 48 percent increase in technology jobs located in the city," Callahan says. "Nearly 30 percent of people living in Bethlehem work in careers in the technology or creative sectors.”
Training a World-Class Workforce
None of that growth in top industries like financial services, advanced manufacturing and education and health would be sustainable without a highly educated workforce. That’s where groups like the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board come in. Under the direction of executive director Nancy Dischinat, the organization has focused on building worker skill sets.
“Since the pathway to a gold-collar job is through career and technical education, LVWIB makes investments in these areas by providing resources for occupational skills competitions and direct linkages to private sector jobs," Dischinat says.
The group's PA CareerLink Lehigh Valley one-stop center also houses the SkillsUSA Council, which provides the latest in career and technical training to students, she adds.
Fortunately for the Valley, the work of these organizations is paying off. More than 8 percent of individuals in the Valley hold an associate’s degree – that’s higher than in Pennsylvania, neighboring New Jersey, and the country as a whole. With investments in workforce development, strong leadership and the commitment of local business leaders to keep the area growing, Lehigh Valley will continue to be a financial force in the Northeast.