The Lehigh Valley may be attached to its legacy as a place that makes stuff — steel, cement,
But the rest of the world, it seems, has come to see the region as something quite different: a distribution hub.
This happens to be a great place for goods made elsewhere to be sorted, packaged and delivered to destinations throughout the densely populated Northeast. Indeed, the combined Lehigh Valley and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area is among the top 10 distribution hubs in the country, according to Area Development, an industry publication.
The problems associated with distribution are well documented. Warehouses tend to create relatively few jobs considering the amount of land they consume. What's more, most of those jobs are of the low-skill variety, so they don't pay well. And warehouses generate truck traffic, which clogs local roadways and pollutes the air.
So the question for the Valley is what, if anything, should it do about distribution?
The simplest answer — and the first one to occur to some residents — is to stop distribution from coming here in the first place. Experts on the subject, however, say that's not realistic.
"The first thing to understand is, the marketplace rules," said
After that, it's a matter of zoning, which is in the hands of local government. "There's no arena of central control," Cunningham said. "You can look at the Lehigh Valley as a two-county region, but in reality, it's 62 sovereign governments."
In recent years, acres upon acres of cornfields have been paved over to make way for warehouses, and the pace of development shows no sign of abating. On the west side of the Valley, David Jaindl is overcoming legal hurdles to turn 700 acres of Lower Macungie Township green space into a mixed-use project that could include up to about 4 million square feet of industrial space. To the east, Charles Chrin has plans to develop a wide swath of Palmer Township, thanks to a new $40 million Route 33 interchange Chrin has helped finance.
Smack in the middle of those two sites, on a remote part of the former
Distribution alone "is not going to create … an enduring business sector or much prosperity," cautioned Bill Fulton, vice president of policy for Smart Growth America, an advocacy group in
The region, therefore, has to convince the companies that build the warehouses to make different kinds of investments, as well, he said. "It's a question of positioning yourself for the higher-end jobs."
Cunningham echoed that point, illustrating the concept with a few hypotheticals:
Warehouses can become assembly plants which, in turn, can be become manufacturing plants. And if a company is manufacturing in the Valley, why shouldn't it establish a research and development facility here, as well?
It's an evolution, according to Cunningham, that is already under way in at least one corner of the region's economy: the food and beverage industry. He mentioned some of the companies, including
"This is a good problem to have," Cunningham, a former Lehigh County executive, said of the Valley's growing stature as a distribution hub. "The good news is that there is a lot of outside interest in the Lehigh Valley."