Sluggish economy is almost behind us

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In Palmer Township, Chrin Co. is building an industrial development off Route 33 that is expected to create 5,000 jobs.
In Palmer Township, Chrin Co. is building an industrial development off Route 33 that is expected to create 5,000 jobs. - (Photo By Courtesy of Jones Lang LaSalle)

There are plenty of signs pointing to the dawn of a better day in the Greater Lehigh Valley as new businesses emerge, the population grows and expectations rise for job creation and sustainability.

“I have a favorable outlook of the economy moving forward. Quality of life wins out in the Lehigh Valley. We have good schools, infrastructure and a skilled workforce to name a few key indicators of growth,” said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. “We continue to see an interest from companies outside the region wanting to move to the Valley.”

Cunningham cited the latest U.S. Census Bureau report, which shows Lehigh County to be the fastest growing county in Pennsylvania in terms of population growth. And late last year, economic development consultant Fourth Economy Consulting ranked Lehigh County seventh among large-sized American counties poised for growth this year.

A recent study by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission projected population growth to surge to 873,954 in the Lehigh Valley by 2040. It also projected a 37.7 percent growth in full-and-part-time jobs in Lehigh and Northampton counties over the course of the next 30 years. This growth, the Planning Commission said, was higher than the 34.7 percent gain nationally in the same time period.

An aging population will mean significant growth in health care, while other career paths anticipated to do well over the next three decades include construction workers, computer professionals, business managers and financial experts.

According to Fourth Economy's report, key indicators of a thriving economy are wage and employment growth, education levels, drive times, home values, minority business ownership and agricultural and manufacturing capabilities.

Cunningham reported that the biggest challenge for the Lehigh Valley, with population on the rise, is maintaining and creating jobs to support the people moving into the area.

“To use a little Wall Street lingo, we are in a bull market. The market is definitely growing, and we really did not lose ground in the recession compared to other areas,” he said. “It is really hard to forecast job growth, but we have some large companies coming online this year.”

WAREHOUSES, DISTRIBUTION CENTERS

Cunningham cited examples that included several large-scale warehousing and distribution projects, including two large highly-publicized companies taking up residence in Upper Macungie Township. Juice-maker Ocean Spray is building a bottling facility for $110 million and adding about 165 jobs to the area, while Bimbo Bakeries USA is investing $75 million to construct a bakery location that will employ about 100 workers.

Also, in Palmer Township, Chrin Co. has broken ground for a major industrial development project off Route 33 that is expected to create 5,000 jobs when it is completed.

Cunningham said that job growth in the Lehigh Valley is difficult to capture because so many people work in the Lehigh Valley but live in other states such as New Jersey, for example.

There also appears to be noteworthy improvement in the real estate market, as last month, Prudential Patt, White Real Estate released its market report showing a 19 percent increase in home sales this February over February a year ago.

The report showed that 363 homes were sold in Lehigh and Northampton counties while 588 homes were under contract but had yet to close in February, which was a 23.8 percent increase from the same time last year. The median price of a home was $150,000, up 3.4 percent from a year earlier.

5 PERCENT INCREASE IN HIRING

Area economists also seem to paint a hopeful picture of the Lehigh Valley for 2013.

Bethlehem-based economist Kamran Afshar of Kamran Afshar Associates Inc., for example, projected a 4.8 percent increase in hiring over last year as companies indicate that they anticipate hiring more people in the next six months than they have over the last six months.

“Businesses surveyed say that in the last six months they have hired four-tenths of an employee, and while this may not seem like a significant number, it is better than what they said a year ago,” Afshar said. “All indications are that businesses are getting larger and larger.

“This is very positive considering conditions. ... We are very slowly climbing upwards” in the Lehigh Valley.

To put things into perspective on how far the Lehigh Valley has come, Afshar noted that in 2009, with the region in recession, most businesses said that they had downsized or were not hiring that year.

According to a Manpower Employment Outlook survey posted to the Pennsylvania CareerLink Lehigh Valley website, Lehigh Valley employers expect to hire at a strong pace by the second quarter this year.

From April to June, 19 percent of companies interviewed plan to hire more employees and another 72 percent say they plan to retain their current workforce levels.

In the coming year, job prospects are best in construction, manufacturing of durable and nondurable goods, transportation, utilities, retail and business services.

JOB CREATION IN BERKS

In Berks County, there were a few thousand jobs created in 2012 and at least the same amount is anticipated for this year, according to Jon Scott, president and CEO of Greater Reading Economic Partnership.

He said both Pet Smart and Dollar General have announced construction plans at Berks Park off of Interstate 78 in Bethel Township. The construction of these two multi-million dollar projects will create hundreds of construction jobs, and when complete, each distribution center will employ at least 500 people.

“We are talking at least 1,100 jobs in total with those two projects plus another nine projects in the works that will provide jobs in high tech manufacturing, fabrication, restaurant services and retail,” Scott said.

At present, companies are in various stages of hiring, and the challenge is in finding people trained in manufacturing and similar skilled labor, he added.

“It is a fair assessment to say that things are on the upswing. … We have about 109 active leads and prospects, which means companies are looking at Berks County,” Scott said.

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