Aside from its proximity to major highways, Lehigh and Northampton counties are rich in a number of assets.
However, according to an economic development report, more needs to be done to continue to attract top-notch talent and companies so the region can compete on a global level.
Jay Garner, proprietor of Garner Economics LLC, presented the report, titled "A Blueprint for Success: An Economic Development Strategy," at ArtsQuest at SteelStacks in Bethlehem on Thursday before members of Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. and a group of business professionals. Garner is a national site selector and economic development consultant based in Atlanta.
LVEDC is at a crucial point in helping reshape the region's business "product," according to the report. By taking a leadership position, the economic development group will continue to make the region a place to attract quality talent and companies.
"Economic development is wealth-building," Garner said. This wealth is built by creating investments from hunters (people who recruit businesses), gardeners (entrepreneurs) and nurturers, those who support existing businesses, he said.
While the goal of the report was to create an economic development strategy, its focus is pragmatic and realistic, with a shelf-life of five years, Garner said, noting that changes in technology and the business world are rapid.
"You will not find an effective economic development process in the U.S. that was created by consensus," he said.
The report showed the Lehigh Valley metropolitan area, defined by the federal government as the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton metro-statistical area, as being the 68th largest metro area in the U.S. out of 381 metro areas.
"The Lehigh Valley region is asset rich, that is tremendous, that is something to exploit," Garner said.
Based on the report, the region has 38 assets, 11 challenges and 17 items in the neutral category, which could be determined as an average variable, Garner said. The Lehigh Valley was evaluated against a list of 66 criteria from a site-selection perspective, according to Garner.
Assets include the region's high broadband speeds and availability, central location for the major regional market, availability of water and sewer capacity, involvement of both public and private sectors and proximity to major universities and colleges. The region has more physicians than the national average, which is another positive, Garner said.
Businesses take each of these factors into account when looking at new sites, according to Garner.
Weaknesses include finding skilled labor.
"We hear that wherever we go, it's a serious issue nationally," Garner said, whose company performs economic development reports for regions throughout the U.S.
Other weaknesses, or challenges, include the level of air pollution, availability of suitable industrial space, high local-property taxes, high corporate income taxes and the level of traffic-carrying capacity of local streets and highways.
The report also measured the Lehigh Valley's labor and economic trends against three benchmark economies: Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) and the counties of Guilford and Forsyth in North Carolina. The LVEDC project team selected these benchmark economies, according to Garner.
Garner also consulted LVEDC stakeholders to get their perceptions and opinions of the region's business climate.
The top items that most said they would like to see the region's leadership tackle to strengthen its ability to attract top companies included creating a strategic plan to support the region's infrastructure, developing passenger rail service to New York City and Philadelphia, consolidating government and providing incentives for existing businesses to expand in the region.
SUBSIDIZE AIR TRAVEL
Many focus group participants and electronic survey respondents noted a lack of air connectivity and affordable rates out of Lehigh Valley International Airport.
One solution outlined in the report is to advocate for more funding for the existing airline subsidy. While the airport has a subsidy in place, it is not funded to a level where it can be effective, according to the report.
"In terms of when you look at recruiting corporate offices or any type of business that depends on air travel, our airport would ideally have a greater number of airlines that connect to other cities," said Don Cunningham, CEO and president of LVEDC.
A guaranteed subsidy to attract airlines to LVIA would lead to the development of a broader range of business air travel, Cunningham said.
FOUNDATION FOR THE FUTURE
To strengthen its ability to attract companies, the report's recommendations for LVEDC included hiring or promoting a chief economic development officer, opening a foreign direct investment office abroad and creating a Workforce Alliance Leadership group.
Cunningham said LVEDC is starting to work on a three-year strategy and should complete it at the beginning of June. While the strategy would incorporate some of these recommendations, the organization still has to comprehend and digest the data, he added.
"The challenge with some of this is it requires more money which we don't have right now," Cunningham said.
He described the report as a great foundation for helping LVEDC take its economic development strategy to the next level and compete on a global stage.
"I think having an international recruitment presence is important," Cunningham said. "It is a global economy and the Lehigh Valley should look at opportunities that it hadn't considered in the past."
The report is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's $3.4 million grant received in November 2011 for the Envision Lehigh Valley study. Envision Lehigh Valley is an outreach effort of Renew Lehigh Valley, a nonprofit geared toward creating a sustainable region.