The Lehigh Valley went through a simultaneous boom and bust in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic struck hard at service businesses while other industries thrived.

Don Cunningham, chief executive of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., went over the highlights and lowlights of the split economy during his organization's annual report.

"Last year was a bit of a setback for younger workers," Cunningham said during an hour-long recorded presentation that was broadcast on the Internet. Workers at restaurants, hotels and in the arts suffered as Pennsylvania imposed shutdowns to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

Many high-wage earners could work remotely, and some industries, such as online retailing, manufacturers, and healthcare thrived. Meanwhile, some workers had to keep going through the height of the pandemic.

"Heroes emerged among those who never seek the headlines," Cunningham said, citing grocery store workers. He also thanked emergency-service and healthcare workers.

"You keep the Lehigh Valley safe and operating," he said.

"The pandemic that engulfed our lives last March created economic change we don't fully understand yet," Cunningham said. The future may hold more remote work, changes in supply chains and more public spending on medical research.

Many residents may not be aware of the strength of the region's pharmaceutical and medical-device businesses, which pay high wages and are growing, Cunningham said.

The Lehigh Valley's colleges, health networks, quality of life and access to transportation attract that industry, he said. His comments were backed up by a panel of three local executives who said the "life sciences" will play a big role in the region's future.

Kyle Flanigan, chief executive of U.S. Specialty Formulations, said the location was key to bringing his pharmaceutical-manufacturing business to Allentown.

"We scoured the country," he said. "The Lehigh Valley was the choice." Flanigan said access to highways, warehouses and airports was essential for USSF.

"Healthcare in general is a high demand area," said Salvatore Salamone, founder of Saladax Biomedical. "I don't see any holdup in that."

The Lehigh Valley is more business-friendly than New Jersey, Salamone said. His company focuses on "individual medicine," adjusting dosages per person to make pharmaceuticals more effective and less toxic.

Life sciences has taken hold, and is becoming multi-generational, an executive said.

"We're starting to see the children of our first employees coming on board as employees," said Sam Niedbala, chief executive of CryoConcepts LP in Bethlehem. Niedbala was with OraSure Technologies Inc. before founding CryoConcepts, whose products include devices that can freeze and remove warts.

Cunningham said the regional manufacturing industry remains strong, second only to financial services in employment.

"We remain a leading attractive market, competitive on a national level against much larger metropolitan areas," he said. Cunningham said the Lehigh Valley is the 65th largest economy in the U.S., with a larger economy in 2019 than the states of Vermont, Wyoming and Alaska.

The economy's strength is in its balance, he said. That balance helped restore 75% of the jobs lost during the pandemic by the end of 2020, though he said the region has to restore its hospitality businesses and downtowns.

"We want to see every business return to full operation, every person have the opportunity for work," he said.

Cunningham introduced Ed Dougherty as new LVEDC chairman, taking over from Jane Long. Dougherty is a senior vice president of Lehigh Valley Health Network. Neal Koplin of Peoples Security Bank and Trust is vice chairman; Patricia Johnson of Lehigh University will continue as treasurer, and Dan McCarthy of the Lehigh Valley Partnership is the group's secretary.

The LVEDC is a non-profit group that markets the Lehigh Valley to businesses. In 2020, it had revenue of $2.68 million, mostly from a hotel tax Lehigh and Northampton counties assess and from direct government payments. Private-sector contributions accounted for $549,734, according to the organization's website, about 20% of revenue.

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