Business is booming for small and large companies alike in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton.
For the third year in a row, the Lehigh Valley is the fastest-growing market in the Northeast behind New York, Philadelphia and Boston, said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.
Cunningham said the Lehigh Valley has a lot to offer.
“South Bethlehem is a gateway center, Allentown’s downtown has been adding lots of corporate offices and apartments, and Easton has really taken off as a nightlife, restaurants and arts destination,” Cunningham said. “Across all sectors, we’ve seen consistent growth.”
He also noted the critical shift in the Lehigh Valley’s economy.
“Twenty years ago, when the steel industry was just ending, people had written off the Lehigh Valley as more of a remnant of yesterday’s economy,” Cunningham said. “Now, we’re quickly transitioning into a leading role in the economy of today and tomorrow.”
Michael Lichtenberger, principal and COO of enTrust Merchant Services, said quality of life is one of the most attractive things about the Lehigh Valley.
Lichtenberger coached Lehigh’s ice hockey team from 1999-2012. He left the team to work for his company, enTrust Merchant Services, full-time.
Growing up in Upstate New York, he said the Lehigh Valley reminds him a lot of what Buffalo was like in his childhood.
“It’s not the big city, but it’s not a small town either,” Cunningham said. “It has a lot of amenities that people like: walking trails, quick access to nature and rivers, a safe downtown and cultural arts. It has translated to a lot of companies wanting to be here.”
Tony Iannelli, the president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said regional politics don’t seem to get in the way of a forward-thinking economic mindset.
“Business is more confident than it has been,” Iannelli said. “I think that Democrats and Republicans both feel that this administration is pro-business and looking to support them.”
The past year has procured many positive manufacturing projects in the Lehigh Valley.
Hearst Corporation recently announced they were moving to downtown Easton, said Mark Lysynecky, city director of finance for Easton.
The potential sale of Bethlehem’s Sands Casino, which will increase hospitality, has a sale price of $1.3 billion, said Alicia Karner, director of Community and Economic Development for the Bethlehem Revitalization and Improvement Authority.
South Bethlehem has been active in other ways, too.
“The Mix Juice building office and commercial building, located at Third and New Street on the South Side, was a new construction project that solved the relocation of some of Lehigh’s offices and some medical services from St. Luke’s, as well as restaurants,” Karner said. “We have $7.4 billion annually from manufacturing — that’s impressive.”
President Donald Trump’s 20 percent reduction in taxable net income seems to have made a positive effect on some businesses.
“The tax cuts have certainly put more cash onto the balance sheet of companies,” Cunningham said. “There’s definitely more willingness to expand.”
Though Iannelli isn’t sure how much of a bump the tax cuts have really had, the mindset behind them is what was important.
“What they did from a psychological standpoint is show businesses that they’re going to get support from the public sector,” Iannelli said.
Lysynecky said some prices on goods have increased as a result of the nationwide tariffs put in place at the national level, including tariffs on China and on steel and aluminum.
“I think it’s affected some costs in certain company’s supply chains, with certain parts or ingredients as it gets passed along to the consumers and the price of products,” Cunningham said. “It hasn’t gotten to the point where it impacts a company’s ability to operate, reducing employment or anything like that, however.”
The cost of construction is also growing. Karner said the more construction activity there is, the more challenging it is to get materials to construct.
She said she also thinks the development that has occurred has brought an increase in income.
Iannelli, Lichtenberger and Cunningham all agreed that one of the biggest issues is trying to find employees to fill all the jobs. The unemployment rate nationwide is 3.8 percent, and 4.0 percent in Pennsylvania, for February 2019.
As of January 2019, the unemployment rate was 4.4 percent for the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton region, according to the United States Department of Labor.
“There’s so much growth and so much demand for qualified help, but a shortage of people wanting to take those different jobs,” Lichtenberger said.
There is a growing rift between what workers want from their companies and what their companies want to give.
“Because of the growth of jobs at all different skill levels we have seen the minimum wage rise,” Cunningham said. “Any industrial job of low skill in the Lehigh Valley will pay probably at least $15 an hour. In order to attract workers and keep workers, companies have to pay better. It doesn’t mean they’re happy about that.”
Karner said Bethlehem is an affordable mid-sized city to call home in terms of living.
“The median sales price of homes in the time frame we did the analysis, 2015-2017, was about $155,000,” Karner said. “When you look at the median income of families in the city, that is an attainable price point.”