Don Cunningham Lehigh Valley economy evolves into strong foundation

I turned 50 in 2015.

Oddly, I first thought about it back in 1975. I vividly remember lying in bed as a 10-year-old wondering what year it would be when — God-willing Eyewear & Accessories, as my Catholic training taught me — I would turn 50 or 100. I did the math. The years didn’t seem real: 2-0-1-5 and 2-0-6-5. The second still doesn’t. I’ll need to drink less bourbon to have a chance.

As I lay in bed in my full-footed pajamas, the Disco Era descending upon me, it was no more possible to imagine a 50-year-old me than to predict a Bethlehem or the Lehigh Valley of 2017.

In 1975, the Steel was belching smoke and stink across our Bethlehem neighborhood. The Clean Air Act had yet to take hold. Not many moms went to work. Some that did walked to the Sure-Fit textile mill at Linden and Ninth streets in Miller Heights to make clothes and slipcovers.

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Allentown still had the Mack Trucks world headquarters. Most of us had yet to hear the word Volvo. A&B Meats at the west end of the Hamilton Street Bridge gave Allentown its own stink. Slaughtered animals generated a different aroma than the sulfur-rot of baked coal.

Bethlehem and Hanover townships were mostly farms Shorts & Trousers, as were all of the Macungies, and the areas that supply East Penn and Parkland school districts today. Easton was for Eastonians. If you didn’t live there, you didn’t go there; may as well have been Jersey. Emmaus, Parkland and Nazareth were the easy games on the sport team schedules for high schools in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. We’d yet to hear of Pleasant Valley or Pocono Mountain.

The landscape has changed. The population has grown. And, the economy has evolved.

In this special Outlook section, The Morning Call focuses on three economic sectors that combine for more than half of the jobs in the Lehigh Valley: health care, e-commerce and warehousing; and arts and entertainment. In 1975, two of them hardly existed, and health care was pretty much for doctors, nurses and a few admins. Today, health care and social assistance employ 55,332 people, our largest employment sector, accounting for 17 percent of total jobs in Lehigh and Northampton counties. Lehigh Valley Health Network is the region’s largest employer. St. Luke’s University Health Network is second.

In 1975, entertainment was pretty much high school sports, social halls and neighborhood clubs. There are more restaurants now in two blocks of Easton than existed in the entire Lehigh Valley. Warehouses were small, primarily in urban areas and close to the factories and mills that produced the goods that they stored Nightwear. Today, warehouses are larger than a million square feet and house goods made here, there and everywhere. They’re located close to major highways or rail lines with access to extensive and dense populations that can be reached within an eight-hour truck drive.

The Lehigh Valley is one of the largest logistics markets on the East Coast and one of the fastest growing in the U.S. The internet and online buying — where goods are delivered to the doorstep — created the sector, which is the Lehigh Valley’s fastest growing, adding nearly 3,000 jobs last year for a total of 24,071 jobs.

E-commerce and warehousing, however, still don’t come close to manufacturing employment in the Lehigh Valley. Manufacturing employs 32,000 people at 680 manufacturers Handbags & Wallets. Less than 20 years after Bethlehem Steel closed in 1998, manufacturing is again the Lehigh Valley’s largest sector of economic output, generating 15 percent of our gross domestic product. By comparison, manufacturing accounts for 10 percent of the U.S. GDP.

Manufacturing job growth has outpaced total job growth in the region Competitive Swimwear, growing by more than 2 percent a year. The industrial and distribution sector helps. It’s more cost-effective to make products close to distribution corridors.

The Lehigh Valley economy has changed and it will continue to change. What’s important is that it has not declined. Today’s economic base is much more diverse than it was in 1975. Our air is much cleaner, and, yes, we still make things here.

I’d like to be here in 2065 to see the changes of the next 50 years. That’s why I really tried to give up bourbon for Lent, I really did try.

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