Inside Your Town

Lehigh Valley needs to promote itself better, economic study says

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The Lehigh Valley economic community needs to promote itself better as a potential job creator and make concerted efforts to tell its positive story in order to sell corporations on calling Lehigh and Northampton counties home.

That was just part of the message hammered home Tuesday by Jay Garner, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Garner Economics, who delivered a study commissioned by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. at Arts Quest in Steel Stacks.

"You have to control your own destiny," Garner said. "Nobody is going to do that for you. As a community, you are so asset-rich that you have almost too much to be proud of."

Garner stated that out of 66 business variables targeted in the study, 38 of them were considered positive, 17 were considered neutral and just 11 were considered challenges.

"There's only one other study we've done where there's ever been more positive results and that was in Alabama, near Auburn University" Garner said.

The study, called "A Blueprint for Success: An Economic Development Strategy for Sustainable Growth in the Lehigh Valley," was commissioned by the LVEDC as part of its $34 million Housing and Urban Development grant that is in its final year, according to CEO Don Cunningham.

"We're the 68th biggest metropolitan area of 381 in the country and this study gives us an idea about how we stack up," Cunningham said. "We need to come out of this with targeted strategies of how to compete."

The study measured assets and needed improvements in the Lehigh Valley garnered through feedback from eight focus groups concerning perceptions and opinions about the local business climate. An electronic survey of 82 more participants was also taken.

The Valley's strongest assets for business growth included proximity to metropolitan areas, quality-of-life issues, cost-of-living and access to schools, universities, transportation and developable land.

Yet, not all of the news was rosy, Garner said.

"One of the challenges you have is the perception that the Lehigh Valley is a bunch of old, gritty cities," he said.

The study also suggests that the 62 Lehigh Valley municipalities consolidate bloated government and work to reduce its collective tax burden. Lehigh and Northampton counties have two of the highest property tax rates in the state, even though the business tax rate is friendly, according to the report.

Respondents also noted the need for increased -- and more affordable -- air service from Lehigh Valley International Airport. Many respondents also spoke out for a need of rail service to Philadelphia and New York.

Garner said one weakness the report shows is the problem of finding skilled labor at the personnel and managerial levels.

"It's almost as if you're a victim of your own success," he said.

The study also noted that the average Lehigh Valley wage of $44,683 per job, is an increase of 0.4 percent over the last few years.

"That's flat-lining," Garner said. "It reflects that companies don't pay more than what people are worth. That's a double-edged sword."

Garner would like to see the LVEDC market the Lehigh Valley as a brand name going forward.

"The only time you see 'Lehigh Valley' as a name in the area is on a sign about 20 miles south of here on the Pennsylvania Turnpike," he said. "The Lehigh Valley is not on a map. You have to get smart about making it a good external brand, so companies get smart and know you."

The report said the Valley should target four core businesses to attract: high-performance manufacturing, high-end business services, life science research, and, manufacturing and food and beverage processing.

Conclusions from the report were that the LVEDC hire or promote a chief economic development officer; continue to strengthen business retention and expansion efforts; encourage municipalities to identify a developmental ombudsman and work to balance its current gulf between public and private funding.

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