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Don Cunningham column: New generations drive new economies

What a difference a generation can make.

I spent the early part of my life in a row house in west Bethlehem, across the street from my great-grandmother, a block away from my grandparents.

But, it was the early 1970s and moving up was moving out. I still remember my parents’ excitement when they built a house in Bethlehem Township and moved us from that little rowhouse to a little ranch house. We packed up our leisure suits, knee-high sweat socks and eight-track tapes and headed for the suburbs.

We had arrived. We had a yard and a driveway.

This need for a yard big enough to buy a gas-powered lawn mower to cut it seemed to embody the American dream of my dad’s post-WWII generation. Oddly, however, it became my job to cut the lawn once I turned 13. This also appeared to be part of my old man’s American dream.

I remember marveling when I learned my Jewish friends at 13 had bar mitzvahs with big parties where extended family showed up and brought gifts to recognize reaching manhood. My working class Catholic equivalent of the bar mitzvah was “being allowed” to cut the grass, and then getting to drink a 16-ounce Schlitz in a returnable bottle from the garage refrigerator, which was nearly as big as a VW Bug and never contained a case of beer that cost more than $4.99. All in all, my life in the suburbs was grand, but I think the grass thing scarred me.

When I started a family, we bought a rowhouse three doors from where I began life. My great-grandmother had since passed. My great-aunt now lived in that house across the street. The grass took five minutes to cut with a push mower where my legs made the blades turn.

My generation had some pioneers in the movement back to cities. Our kids’ generation has the settlers. I have children and a stepson. They live in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and Bethlehem. Our nest is empty. They are part of the trend of the younger generation living in cities, helping to revive urban America.

It is happening here in the Lehigh Valley. Developers are rushing to build more market-rate apartments in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. And, it ain’t our generation’s market rate. Downtown apartments rent for $1,300 per month or more, for a one bedroom. That’s double what our monthly mortgage payment was on that rowhome, which included taxes and an insurance escrow.

As those prices indicate, college-educated professionals, who in past generations avoided cities for the suburbs, are leading the new urban trend. Marriage and family often come later in life. Their 20s are like an extension of college but with money. Brewpubs, restaurants and entertainment venues are the beneficiaries. Somehow there’s always money for this, according to my children.

The attitudes, predilections and desires of a generation redirect the way an economy develops. The Lehigh Valley has the opportunity to grow as a corporate office market as young professionals come here — or stay here — for our rapidly changing cities.

The Lehigh Valley has long been home to some major corporations such as Air Products, PPL, Olympus, B. Braun, Lutron and Guardian. The real estate and insurance and professional service sectors combined generate $10 billion a year of our annual $37 billion economic output in Lehigh and Northampton counties. While the region is better known as an industrial and manufacturing center, there has been steady growth in professional and office jobs, particularly in health care.

The region would be a great home for the new Amazon co-headquarters.

The top quality colleges and universities in the Lehigh Valley have long been a magnet for students — and entrepreneurs — who bring their talent and ideas here to learn and to develop. The recent transformation of the downtowns of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton with the addition of high-quality restaurants, bars and entertainment venues and new urban amenities like walking trails is a magnet not only for young professionals but retirees seeking urban life. In addition, the older generations, who travel in from suburban townships, drive the success of new restaurants and buy concert tickets.

The name of the game is talent. Companies will stay — and go — where quality workers are or want to be. Attracting the right people with the right skills drives the right kind of growth, whether it’s office professionals or manufacturing workers. That’s why the return of professional offices, downtown attractions and new residential units in Allentown is important for the entire Lehigh Valley. The urban core — particularly that of a region’s largest city — is often the destination for visitors and companies. If it’s not healthy, it’s not good for anyone in the region.

We have turned a corner in the Lehigh Valley and we have our younger generations to thank in part. It’s important for us to remind ourselves of this when we hear our 20-somethings, still loaded with student loans, talk about the band they just went to see, the new brewpub around the corner or a great new Pho restaurant. As I grit my teeth, I just think of them as little economic engines.

It seems like just yesterday that their mom and I could only afford to go out to eat once a pay, usually either Jack Creek, which is now gone, or Friendly’s. But, I’m sure that seemed extravagant to my dad who took us out to eat once or twice per year, usually a diner, and only after I cut the grass.

Don Cunningham is the president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. His column can be found on the Business Cycle. He can be reached at news@lehighvalley.org.

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