It’s only seven miles long, but for 75 years MacArthur Road has been the Lehigh Valley’s answer to the Ginza, Rodeo Drive and Fifth Avenue – all while the Valley’s Million Dollar Highway also comes with quirky local history, patriotism and nostalgia.
From the Sumner Avenue Bridge to Direct Kitchen Distributors to the north, 40,000 vehicles a day go up and down the six-lane boulevard of commerce in Whitehall Township and around its four jug handles, a rare traffic design for Greater Lehigh Valley motorists.
Manny, Moe and Jack at the Peps Boys auto supply store at 1901 MacArthur Road have sure observed a lot over the years — the billboard sitters, the birth of the Whitehall Mall, the first Pennsylvania indoor shopping center north of Philadelphia and the end to shopping restrictions on Sundays.
Even in Colonial days, before the first big box store or fast-food restaurant was ever imagined, the area was worth protecting with the building of Fort Deshler during the French and Indian War.
Last year, consumers spent roughly $2 billion in this retail corridor, and appraised property values along MacArthur Road are more than $463 million, according to Whitehall Township’s tax records.
“MacArthur Road has been a main thoroughfare for economic activity in the Lehigh Valley before there was a retail economy here,” said Howard Lieberman, executive director of the Whitehall Township Industrial & Commercial Development Authority. “MacArthur Road is where people shop and where people go. This is where the stores are.”
Named by Whitehall Township commissioners on April 13, 1942, amid a surge of patriotism after the attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur Road is believed to have been the first major landmark to honor Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The already existing road – its roots date to the 1700s – had been known as the North Seventh Street extension, from Allentown.
“It’s always been an important road, and it certainly hasn’t gotten any less important over the years,” Lieberman said.
Lee Rackus, Whitehall Township’s chief of planning, zoning and development, said the township has worked hard over the years to attract businesses with staying power, and if one leaves, another one quickly takes its place.
“No one closes here. There has to be a reason why Macy’s is around when other Macy’s stores have closed in other parts of the country,” she said. “MacArthur Road is synonymous with Lehigh Valley commerce and familiar to everyone. To get to the PPL Center in downtown Allentown, you have to go on MacArthur Road.”
Rackus acknowledged that MacArthur Road has often received a bum rap as commerce grew in other parts of the Lehigh Valley.
“You still hear the common theme that ‘we don’t want to be another MacArthur Road,’ but we’re going to take it back this year,” she said. “Let’s face it. Everyone wants to be on MacArthur Road, a vibrant commercial corridor that keeps on rejuvenating itself. We want to educate people about the history and take the pride back.”
A yearlong celebration is planned, starting with a rededication gala from 6-7 p.m. April 22 at Whitehall Mall, where MacArthur Road’s retail legacy began in 1966.
“We have a lot of history to share. People may not remember that the Lehigh Valley Mall was built on land that once was one of the finest minor league baseball fields in the nation, built by St. Louis Cardinals owner Sam Breadon,” said Alice Lieberman, who is chairing the 75th anniversary committee.
END OF BLUE LAWS
MacArthur Road led to the demise of long-standing blue laws in Pennsylvania when Two Guys department store opened in 1957 and challenged tradition.
A Sunday sales lawsuit gained national attention and reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the blue laws.
“Two Guys was defiant and persisted in its Sunday operations, which angered Max Hess, who vowed to never open his Allentown [department] store on Sunday,” Lieberman said. “Shoppers in the Lehigh Valley, especially cement workers, enjoyed the expanded hours and free parking in Two Guys’ large parking lot.”
Two Guys’ popularity soon whipped up retail fervor, and stores started sprouting up.
“Route 22 pretty much sealed the deal,” Rackus said of the Valley throughway that opened in the 1950s.
Kleckner & Sons, a family-owned appliance and electronics store, is the oldest retail business on MacArthur Road, and its owners still remember the dairy farm across the street where Redner’s Market and townhouses stand today.
“Wolf’s Orchard farm stand, Two Guys, and the large sliding board, which was located behind us across Mickley Road where the corner property at the Whitehall Mall is and the building, of course, the development of the Whitehall Mall, we’ve been here through a lot the growth and change,” said Doreen Cantalini, great-granddaughter of founder Allen A. Kleckner.
Location is key to a successful business, along with consumer traffic and continued retail activity, which drives the consumers to the Whitehall shopping district, she said.
“I believe we will never consider moving our store to a different location,” said Cantalini, noting that the Whitehall Township store with its 11 employees at 2177 MacArthur Road is a stronger sales location compared to Kleckner & Sons’ Emmaus store by a 3-to-1 ratio. “The two shopping malls help drive the consumers into the area.”
EXPOSURE IS VITAL
Traffic on the MacArthur Road corridor has increased with few or no changes to the road to support the relentless traffic, Cantalini said.
“The intersections need to increase the traffic light time for left-hand turns,” Cantalini said. “We were very pleased when they added the jug handle just north of our store because when the traffic is stopped at a red light, we have more exposure.”
The newest kid on the block agreed that MacArthur Road exposure is key to a successful enterprise.
“We thought about Airport Road, but MacArthur Road is where we wanted to be,” said John Velardi, who opened a Chick-fil-A at 2610 MacArthur Road in September with 75 employees. “The big driver is the traffic and the fact that the road is a retail hub of the Lehigh Valley. Historically, it’s where the traffic has been.”
He said the township has been very cooperative to help his restaurant establish better signage, and he’s encouraged by the evening dinner business generated by residents of Whitehall Township and its neighboring municipalities.
From his high school days, Larry Turoscy remembers when MacArthur Road was still a two-lane road, until the arrival of Two Guys created a demand to change to traffic patterns.
Turoscy, who worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation from 1966-84, helped design and build three of the jug handle turnarounds that allow drivers an escape route to reverse course from either direction on MacArthur Road.
“Even back in the 1960s, there were around 30,000 trips a day going north and south,” he said. “One day, I was called in by the district engineer who declared that the left-hand-only turns were not working to accommodate the increasing traffic.
“The jug handles really helped reduce traffic backup, especially during the busy holiday shopping season,” said Turoscy, now director of engineering at Lehigh Engineering of Walnutport. “Although the jug handles were a better idea than left turn lanes, over the years, the increase in traffic now causes delays at all the jug handle locations during peak traffic periods.”
Whitehall Township Mayor Edward Hozza Jr. credits Edward Galligan, the township’s first executive, for lobbying PennDOT to widen MacArthur Road in the 1960s and ultimately paving the way for big box stores.
“The jug handles still may seem something foreign to Lehigh Valley drivers,” he said. “But just say MacArthur Road, and people know it’s a destination unto itself.”
STILL THE PLACE TO BE
Rackus said she receives inquiries all the time from businesses seeking to open on MacArthur Road.
“There are three projects on horizon for 2017, two of them involving recycling of properties. The township has taken a strong position on temporary uses,” Rackus said. “We have dedication to brick and mortar stores. If a proposal seems to take away from the vibrant business along MacArthur Road, the board of commissioners is cautious.”
For a road that started in the 1700s as the “Road from Allentown to Egypt,” MacArthur Road, with its rich retail district, restaurants and services, has evolved into the Lehigh Valley’s golden strip.
“This road has proven so adaptable and viable over the years,” Rackus said. “The road has changed as tastes and habits have changed. Every business wants to be on MacArthur Road.”