Innovation in economic development marketing:

How the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation Drives Itself Out of the Shadows

Photo of Dave Parsell
Dave Parsell
July 26, 2023

In the foothills east of the Appalachians, there’s a 40-mile stretch of land. It’s sandwiched between two mountain ridges – Blue to the north, South to the south – and a river, sharing its name, runs all the way through it.

The summers are hot and wet. The winters are glacial. But the most remarkable thing about that stretch of Pennsylvanian land – known today as the Lehigh Valley – isn’t its weather. It’s its history.

Up until the end of the 20th century, the Valley’s three major cities – Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton – reigned supreme. Their economic presence was unmistakable: businesses fueled by natural resources and businessmen fueled by the allure of potential.

Their business models were simple: extract commodities, manufacture, transport. Blessed by geology and bordered by river, that’s just what they did – and did, and did, and did. Until they emerged as an epicenter of industry nationwide.

“People don’t realize how important [the] area was,” says author Martha Capwell Fox. It wasn’t just an exaggerated ascent or a fleeting success story, she writes in her book, Geography, Geology, and Genius: How Coal and Canals Ignited the American Industrial Revolution – “[It] was the driver of the U.S. economy.”

But as the region’s success snowballed, its drive to keep advancing did too. And that’s where Bethlehem Steel enters the picture.

The Rise

A corporation, a community employer, a superpower – Bethlehem Steel was as immense as it was local. Its resume was impressive: armor supplier to the U.S. Armed Forces; steel supplier for the Golden Gate Bridge; shipbuilder responsible for 20% of the Navy’s fleet.

With hundreds of thousands of employees, it was more than just a household name – it was an image of American manufacturing as a whole. Masterful. Reliable. Limitless.

Fueled by that image, the company – and the region – soared. Until they didn’t.

The Fall

The cost of importing foreign steel dropped. The price-points of smaller domestic manufacturers followed suit. With mounting debts and massive facilities to manage, corporate superpowers – like Bethlehem Steel – could no longer compete.  

The descent was gradual, but for locals, it felt immediate. Losses in the billions. Defunct pensions. Facility shutdowns and mass layoffs and disgruntled employees in court.

In his famed song “Allentown,” Billy Joel sings the bleakness into sound. “Well we’re living here in Allentown / And they’re closing all the factories down / Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time.”

Once radiating abundance and promise, the Lehigh Valley had grown still. Left to its own devices, its future seemed desolate.

Only, it hadn’t been left to its own devices.

The Unity

In the mid-1990’s, local business leaders began sensing danger. They looked around at the industry evaporating before them, at the closures of mills and the dissolution of corporations, and realized that something had to be done.

So they came together. And that’s when the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation was born.

Twenty-seven years later, the Lehigh Valley EDC is a public-private organization. It consists of leadership from the region’s municipal governments and biggest employers, from community organizations and educational institutions, and its primary purpose is thinking about the future – and taking action to shape it.

“We’re a coalition of the willing,” describes George Lewis, the organization’s VP of Marketing, Communication, and Research, underscoring the mandate of the region. In the Lehigh Valley, there’s no room for passivity or resignation; being willing to try – to question and learn and evolve – is king.

But evolving to stay on the cutting-edge of change isn’t always easy – especially when you’re located in the shadows of your biggest competitors. With the whirlwind of New York City a mere 91 miles to the east and the bustle of Philadelphia a quick 62 miles to the south, proving that its region can keep up – that the Lehigh Valley can offer expansive returns to companies and to talent alike – has taken more than just will. It’s taken resilience.

Which, as it turns out, the Valley has in spades.

The Why

To the untrained eye, the Lehigh Valley’s location might look like its heaviest cross to bear: surrounded by urban powerhouses of industry and vitality, how could it possibly stand apart?

For the region’s organization, the answer is as singular as it is emphatic. Access.

First, there are the consumers: within a day’s drive to 100 million people in the U.S., the region is spitting distance from the largest consumer market in the Northeast.

Second, there’s industry: the Valley is located in the heart of key sector superclusters, including everything from life sciences and pharmaceuticals to advanced manufacturing; from professional and creative services to beverage production.

Third, there’s cost: all of that access doesn’t come at a premium. Unlike in NYC or Philly, operating and living costs don’t eradicate the value of having the access to begin with; companies can afford to build and grow, and employees can afford to put down roots and thrive.

But in order for the appeal of that value to land and breed sustainable outcomes, the region has to make itself as attractive as possible. And that comes down to strategy.

The How

The Lehigh Valley’s economic development strategy is straightforward: stay committed to evolving based on emerging needs – without losing sight of regional cohesion.

Regional cohesion “stems back to our board leadership, the partnership concept,” Lewis explains. City mayors, county executives, and representatives from councils and committees all sit on the board – ensuring cooperation at the institutional level. After all, it’s that buy-in that facilitates wide-scale symbiosis, helping the region advance on an ongoing basis.

“It really is ‘the rising tide raises all boats’ idea,” Lewis says. “We have a growing awareness that projects in one part of the Valley help all of the Valley create job opportunities,” incentivizing the community to not just cooperate but collaborate.

And then there’s the flexible lens of where to focus economic development. Today, the Valley holds a steady gaze on the traditional business attraction & expansion model, while allocating more and more resources to the talent side of the equation.

“Over the past seven years, we’ve seen the focus of economic development shift to talent,” Lewis says. “Every conversation we have with a prospect or a company that’s already here – it starts with labor.”

Will we be able to find the talent we need? Will we be able to retain them? To train them?

According to Lewis, talent is the biggest challenge facing the EDC today – which is why he and his team have been busy preparing for it.

The Shift

Like the Valley’s business leaders foresaw the need to unite in the 90’s, its EDC foresaw the need to shift gears in the 2010’s – putting in the legwork to establish talent-based solutions ahead of time.

First, they commissioned a research project. Led by Oxford Economics, the resulting recommendation was to bring the region’s business and education communities closer together.

Next, they launched a talent council. Involving educational representatives (from all levels: public schools, community colleges, universities) and employer representatives (from all levels: massive corporations, mom-and-pop operations), its purpose was to forge channels and create opportunities.

Today, it boasts over 200 participants. It’s singlehandedly granted students more practical career guidance than ever before, and it’s empowered businesses to have a direct hand in steering the future of the regional workforce.

While Lewis points to the college internship program and the dialogue between talent recruiters and career development coaches as two shining examples of the council’s impact, it’s clear that what wows him most is the organizational paradigm that inspired the strategy in the first place.

“It’s playing the long game,” he says  – the exact sentiment that’s driven the Lehigh Valley forward for the last two decades.

The Relations

While regimented in its perseverance to grow, the Valley doesn’t come with the same effortless flashiness – or lore – of its neighbors. In order to let companies and talent in on its value, it’s got to tell them.

Which takes us to the region’s award-winning devotion to storytelling.

Always looking to boost awareness, the Lehigh Valley EDC has historically leveraged the power of traditional marketing channels – both print and online – to tell its story. But while before the pandemic, garnering attention from its target audience led to on-site visits, after the pandemic, holding onto that attention came down to its digital communications.

And that meant the organization’s website became its lifeline for staying relevant. For proving its value and depicting its distinctiveness – when the energy of the Valley was unable to speak for it.

While the website had always been a pillar of its storytelling strategy, in 2020, it became everything. It had been due for a remodel, but with its audience of site selectors and decision-makers now homebound, scouring the web, Lewis and his team realized a remodel wouldn’t be enough.

To stay competitive, they’d have to rebuild.`

The Future

Today, the Lehigh Valley EDC is excited about its commitment to evolving – in its overall development strategy and in its approach to storytelling.

Its new website – containing more data, more video, and more interactive features than ever before – is about to launch. Its pages are filled with facts and tools to help give viewers the clearest picture possible, and its character – the ever-vibrant, ever-growing, ever-determined spirit we’ve come to know – consistently shines through.

As a nod to the region’s ethos of staying on the cutting-edge, Lewis and his team ensured Localintel’s digital tools were part of the rebuild. “[They] cover so many of the important topics that companies and individuals want to know about,” Lewis tells us, “that we felt we’d be grossly underutilizing their power if we put them in just one place on the site.”

So they didn’t. They integrated the Logistics Advantages tool on one page, to build strong visual support for the Valley’s business-centric benefits. They added the Quality of Life Advantages tool – Lewis’ personal favorite – to another, speaking right to talent attraction and retention.

The outcome is a site that’s as comprehensive as it is distinctly of the Valley.

Through the good times and the bad, amid all the changing needs and competition, it tells the story of a region that’s remained flexible – and astute. Of a region that’s prioritized staying relevant and holding its ground, and of a region that will endure, as it always has.

The Lehigh Valley has been relegated to the shadows before – both in its history and in its location. But today, with the force of its Economic Development Corporation behind it, it’s carving out a new fate. One that’ll keep evolving and advancing – forever more.

We trust you’ve found this article useful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us should you have any questions.

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