Rolling out the carpet for new businesses

For decades, the Lehigh Valley has been known to business leaders for three important qualities.

Location, location and location.

Nestled along Interstate 78 between Philadelphia and New York, the region has always been attractive to companies looking to ship their products up and down the East Coast. That's evidenced by the array of warehouses that sit astride the Valley's highways.

But as the Valley grows in popularity, some of its other strengths are getting attention.

"Companies know the benefits of working with such entities as Lehigh University as well as the region's Ben Franklin Technology Partners team, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., and of course they know the benefits of being within attractive striking distance of New York and Philly in terms of both reaching end markets and reaching talent," said Adam Bruns, managing editor of Site Selection magazine.

It turns out the region also has a productive workforce, lots of professional business resources and suppliers, a welcoming network of economic development and business leaders and a strong selection of education and training options from top-flight universities to technical career centers.

And with the addition of amenities such as the IronPigs minor league baseball team at Coca-Cola Park and the PPL Center hockey arena set to open next year in Allentown, SteelStacks in Bethlehem and the burgeoning restaurant row in Easton, the region is also an easier sell to employees when it comes to quality of life.

The Lehigh Valley again will place high on the magazine's ranking of business growth for mid-size metropolitan areas for 2012, Bruns said.

In recent years, the Valley has seen an encouraging array of new companies moving in, many with the help of state loans, grants and other business incentives, said Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.

"What we are seeing in the new iteration, which is extremely encouraging, is companies looking at doing production, manufacturing and assembly here to go with the logistics piece," Cunningham said.

Notable among those is Ocean Spray, the Massachusetts-based cranberry co-op known primarily for its juices.

Ocean Spray is building a $110 million bottling plant in Upper Macungie Township that is expected to employ 165 people when it opens this year. The 315,000-square-foot facility will replace an aging Ocean Spray juice plant in Bordentown, N.J.

The company is owned by 750 cranberry and grapefruit farmers who run the business with long-term goals, not short-term interests, company President Randy Papadellis said at a recent meeting of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. Because of that, the company will be a presence in the Lehigh Valley for generations, he said.

Food manufacturers

Ocean Spray is one in a string of food processing companies to open new locations in the Lehigh Valley. It's a roster that includes Bimbo Bakeries, the Mexican company whose products include Sara Lee and Entenmann's baked goods.

Bimbo, whose U.S. headquarters is in Horsham Township, Montgomery County, is building a $75 million plant off Route 100 in Upper Macungie. The 240,000-square-foot plant on 30 acres along Boulder Drive is expected to employ 100 people when it opens in 2014.

Beverage companies with plants in Lehigh County include Coca-Cola, Nestle Waters and Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer Co. Candy and nut company A.L. Bazzini, which supplies peanuts to the New York Yankees, moved its production from the Bronx to Upper Macungie in 2011.

SunOpta, a Canadian firm that makes baby food, sports drinks, fruit purees and other products packaged in flexible, resealable pouches, opened its own plant in Upper Macungie last year, renting the facility and employing roughly 50 people.

The trend is good news for the Valley job market because local food manufacturing jobs pay about $15 an hour, more than the average in the fast-growing warehousing industry, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Valley has also seen an expansion in the pharmaceutical packaging industry. While it still pales in comparison to northern New Jersey's roster of major drug makers, the Lehigh Valley has scored two major drug-packing firms.