Lehigh Valley

No zingers in county executive forum on economic development

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Four candidates to lead two Lehigh Valley counties made their cases as to why their leadership would result in economic prosperity during a forum held Tuesday at Coca-Cola Park.

The event was notable for what it lacked - hyperbole, animosity and vitriol - more than any profound economic platforms. There were no memorable zingers or superlative sound bites.

All four men seeking their county's executive position mostly agreed on some themes, to various degrees. They all support a regional strategy to foster economic growth, that leveraging the resources of regional public agencies was essential in accomplishing it, and that as executives they would serve as cheerleaders to attract new businesses to the region and support the ones already here.

However, each candidate would go about it differently.

Northampton County Democratic candidate and former Councilman Lamont McClure provided the only discernable jabs at his opponent, Executive John Brown, for "ignoring" the Slate Belt's economy. The northern region, he maintained, has not recovered from the 2008 economic collapse even though their neighbors to the south have.

"We have a dark spot in the Slate Belt," he said, citing unemployment figures of 9, 10 and even 11 percent there compared to the county figures that hovered between 4 and 5 percent.

To rectify this, McClure told the audience his administration would have a "laser-like intensity" in making the Slate Belt "a better place to be."

A McClure platform would also focus on "keeping young people in the Lehigh Valley" and addressing a lack of skilled labor in the workforce.

Several times during the forum, McClure said that as executive his policies would protect farmland and open space to preserve a quality of life that ran in tandem, not at odds with, regional economic growth. 

Brown, the Republican incumbent, brushed aside McClure's assessment by ignoring it. The incumbent said that it was important that Northampton County was adroitly serving the business community and that the government was "well run."

"One of the things that companies look at is that the governments in the area are financially stable, able to bring their resources that they're going to need when they come in...But the most important part is to be on the same page," he said.

By being on the "same page" Northampton County would then be able to assist boroughs and small townships that "are limited in their resources and sometimes in their ability to articulate or get done what they need to get done overall" to spur economic growth. Brown added that an executive needed a "plan to reach down to help them come up."

Lehigh County Republican candidate and county Commissioner Brad Osborne read many of his responses from prepared statements. He noted that as executive he'd take a "leadership role in economic development by allocating resources and providing clear direction" to the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation and the Lehigh Valley Workforce Investment Board to focus on jobs.

"I would appoint quality development professionals to the boards and help plan to build the infrastructure to support quality economic development," Osborne said. "I will work with our townships and boroughs to help them rethink, or in some cases concentrate their strategies." 

Osborne added that "80 percent of the businesses that come into the Lehigh Valley would be classified as "market driven." While the region has no control over the free market, he told the audience that as executive he would promote and implement the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission's Comprehensive Plan to make sure whatever growth occurred was done smartly. 

"This plan will help define the borders most suited for business development, point out the need for water and sewage infrastructure, and show those areas better suited for open space and farmland preservation," Osborne said.

Phillips Armstrong, the Democratic candidate for Lehigh County executive and president of the Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners, joked about his inexperience using a microphone prior to his opening statement. As Lehigh County executive he said his goal "should be to bring together" various public and private sector groups to attract and retain businesses.

Armstrong was the first candidate Tuesday to mention the role that academic institutions play in supplying a well-trained and capable workforce to accommodate new growth.

"I think we have to bring the schools in on this into one large group here and work together to solve the problem to bring these businesses into our area," Armstrong said. 

He also discussed the importance of business retention programs in Lehigh County. 

"Most of the employment in this area is increased from present employers," he said. "So we have to look at what their needs are and how do we meet those needs."

With the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania significantly reducing economic development funding, more projects now hinge on the ability of local governments to provide support and incentives. The candidates were asked their positions on local tax incentive programs - such as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA) programs.

McClure said that during his nearly one decade as a member of Northampton County Council, he probably supported "all of them" that came before him.

"On balance the benefits were going to outweigh the temporary loss of tax revenue," he said. "Now what I think we need to do is balance out the benefits of those tax increment financing regimes and see if they are they creating jobs. Are they working?" 

Brown said there is a balance between supporting small business owners and also putting together packages that would attract larger employers. Given the problem of limited resources, it's the job of the executive to "think outside the box" to best leverage those resources. He said that organizations such as LVEDC and LVPC "also need additional funding."

Osborne said that "honestly my support for tax incentives would be situational and evaluated on a case-by-case basis."  He added that in any project there is risk on the company's side and risk on the community's side. "You never want to eliminate risk on either side, because risk cements the relationship and makes everyone work to help the other," Osborne said.

He would apply what he called an "if-not-for test" as a determining criteria. 

"If not for the tax incentive the development would not happen. If the development would not happen without the incentive, then I would evaluate the community's interest in hosting the project," Osborne said. 

Armstrong noted that he thought the use of public incentive programs to develop Hamilton Crossings was "an excellent example" of a "definite blighted area where you now have "$20 million worth of new construction." That said, Armstrong said that he and Osborne agreed there must be proper discernment in their allocation.

"These programs do provide the incentives and we need to use them. But I will agree with Brad, they are not pieces of cake to be handed out to everyone in line." 

The forum was moderated by Chris Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College, and hosted by LVEDC. Election Day is November 7.

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