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Lehigh Valley: A Strong Second Act on the Industrial Frontier

By Bill McMeekin on March 25, 2014

With apologies to Billy Joel, they are alive and well and living in Allentown. In fact, in Allentown, Bethlehem and across the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania, there is a strong sense of forward momentum and a renewed vitality that is shaking off a Rust Belt reputation. A packed house last week at the restored jewel, the State Theatre in Easton’s revitalized downtown, heard site location and research consultant Jay Garner of Garner Economics highlight the region’s formidable list of assets and some of its strongest possibilities for generating additional investment and jobs.

It doesn’t crank out steel like it did in its heyday, but the Lehigh Valley is no Rust Belt writeoff. Its $32 billion economy includes heavy doses of health care and life sciences, advanced logistics and high performance manufacturing. Garner’s firm put together a detailed analysis of the region that the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.  is using as part of its overall strategy for promoting growth. Garner recommends the region focus on targeting four key areas that could leverage the region’s numerous assets: high-performance manufacturing such as industrial machinery and  optics manufacturing; life sciences research and manufacturing; food and beverage production; and high-value business services, such as  data processing, financial services processing and third-party administraton. The region’s efforts to make it more advantageous as a place to start, grow or bring a business have gained notice from the likes of Fourth Economy Consulting, which ranked the region seventh in its population category for growth potential based on factors such as amount of investment, available talent, location and economic diversity. 

And its economy is diverse. The region’s long heritage of manufacturing includes signature products like C.F. Martin Guitars, Binney & Smith’s Crayola colors and Just Born Quality Confections, maker of the Easter staple Peeps candy products, and includes high-value manufacturing in everything from food and beverage products to consumer goods to automotive parts. Health care is a huge employer in the region, and the eds and meds sector represent 65,000 jobs in Lehigh Valley. The sector grew substantially between 2000 and 2012, with much of the growth coming in health care. In 2005, Japanese-based electronics company Olympus brought its North America headquarters to Allentown. Though widely known for its cameras, the company is a major producer of medical instruments, diagnostic imaging systems and life sciences equipment. Lehigh Valley is well past “the Pennsylvania we never found,” as Billy Joel sang, transforming itself into an innovation economy that plays to its numerous advantages, including access to major markets, well developed transportation and infrastructure, a high amount of engineering talent and  an abundance of water.

Lehigh Valley’s transformative economy shares many of the attributes of its Pennsylvania counterparts. In the Oh-Penn region in the western end of the state on the Ohio border, communities like New Castle and Sharon are seeing new opportunities built around energy and manufacturing springing from the enormous Marcellus Shale reserve. The Greater Philadelphia region has a similar story to tell, where innovation in energy, life sciences and biotech,  health care, and information and communications have flourished as the region’s manufacturing base has become more sophisticated and technology driven. It had become fashionable to write off regions like the Lehigh Valley as relics of the Industrial Age past. But these communities are proving that, like the magnificent State Theatre, they can have a second act.

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