Rolling out the carpet for new businesses

Daiichi Sankyo, which opened in 2012, employs about 80 people in Bethlehem Township.

In February 2012, the company purchased the 140,000-square-foot Amcor facility in Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VI for $10.2 million. The state offered $3.6 million in assistance to lure the company, on the condition that it employ at least 82 people at the end of three years.

Japan's third-largest pharmaceutical company, Daiichi Sankyo focuses on branded cardiovascular and cancer therapy drugs.

Quality Packaging Specialists International moved its facility from Bergen County, N.J., to Industrial Park Way in Lower Macungie Township. It moved into an existing 157,000-square-foot warehouse, where it planned $10 million in improvements, according to the state. The state offered the company $3.4 million in loans and grants to lure it to Pennsylvania.

With headquarters in Burlington, N.J., QPSI offers packaging and supply-chain services to various companies, mostly in the pharmaceutical, personal care, confection, consumer packaged goods, and electronics industries. Its customers include Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble and Bethlehem candy-maker Just Born.

Bringing in those companies should help the Valley expand its appeal beyond food processing and packaging by demonstrating some of its benefits as a business location, including a reasonable cost for operations, Cunningham said.

"The reality of our economy in the Lehigh Valley is we can still be a manufacturer and a producer of goods, but it is going to be medical supplies, food and beverage, it is in consumer products," Cunningham said. "Things where the link to distribution to a large part of the East Coast metropolis is important."

The Valley is already home to roughly 1,200 manufacturers out of about 15,000 businesses, he said.

The region has already scored a few wins in the manufacturing sector. Westport Axle opened a new truck chassis manufacturing plant in Upper Macungie to supply Mack Trucks' factory in Lower Macungie. The facility, which replaces a similar plant in Lancaster that closed last year, employs more than 250 people earning on average between $15 and $16 an hour.

Georgia-based Pratt Industries opened a corrugated packaging plant in Lower Macungie that employs about 100 people. And Windkits, a Bergen County, N.J.-based manufacturer of windmill blade components, relocated its manufacturing facility to Upper Macungie in 2011, bringing with it about 20 jobs.

Trained workers

In order to continue that trend, the Lehigh Valley will need to produce more trained machinists, machinery mechanics and workers with other high-tech manufacturing skills.

"Workforce needs are changing at a rapid pace," said Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. "You need tradespeople, engineering and architecture, basic economics and math. That could be one question, both regionally and nationally. Will our workforce keep up with the very defined technical needs of the 21st century?"

Institutions such as Lehigh Carbon and Northampton community colleges and Lehigh County Technical Career Institute stand ready to help, said Jan Klevis, the career institute's director of post-secondary and career and workforce education.

The institute already does lots of custom training for companies in the Valley, such as medical device-maker B. Braun, whose high-tech manufacturing needs require sophisticated technical skills.

"We have been doing a lot of incumbent worker training. Hundreds of them are coming through and we are bridging that skills gap," Klevis said. "We have the programs, we have the best equipment available, instructional staff that is second to none. It is just getting the word out to the public that these are good, family-sustaining jobs."

That's not to say white-collar jobs are out of the picture. The Valley has seen the addition of several major corporate headquarters in recent years to office parks in places like Upper Saucon Township, and more recently to Allentown's downtown Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

The zone offers developers generous tax incentives to build and fill office buildings alongside a proposed arena in Allentown's long-struggling Hamilton Street business district.

National Penn Bancshares has committed to move its corporate headquarters with 275 employees to downtown Allentown from Boyertown, Berks County, in 2014. It's been joined in that commitment there by a number of smaller Lehigh Valley companies.

"The new Neighborhood Improvement Zone is stoking momentum, part of a national trend of downtown renewal projects," said Bruns, of Site Selection magazine.

The Valley also has a strong supply of urban and suburban office and industrial parks, some with tax benefits, that help to lure new employers, Cunningham said. They include the Chrin Commerce Center in Palmer Township, multiple Lehigh Valley Industrial Park locations and others.

Olympus' North American headquarters is the region's biggest economic development win. But since that company moved here in 2005, the Valley has also scored Avantor Performance Materials, which moved across the river from New Jersey to Upper Saucon's Stabler Corporate Center in 2011.

Last year, Creditsafe, a company that offers online access to business credit reports, opened an office in South Whitehall Township, employing a workforce of 50 that the company predicts could grow to 300.

It all adds up to a renewed confidence within the Lehigh Valley business community.

"I think there is a swagger about the Valley that we never had before," Iannelli said. "In the past, we were very self-deprecating on a good day, hugely critical on a bad day."

scott.kraus@mcall.com

610-820-6745