Thursday, August 30, 2007

Op-Ed on Lehigh Valley Downtowns

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to share an Op-Ed regarding the importance of downtown's in today's Morning Call. The Op-Ed can be accessed here. I'm ATTEMPTING to be modest here, but I wrote it. If you can't access the link, the story is below. My only regret is that I couldn't write about more of our Boroughs!

Enjoy!

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Valley's boroughs offer more than one-stop malls
By Michael Schlossberg
August 30, 2007

The Lehigh Valley is exploding with new people and businesses, gaining an average of 25 new residents a day. The result has been an explosion of jobs and economic activity. Once known for Bethlehem Steel and other manufacturing companies, the Lehigh Valley is rapidly transforming into a professional and service haven for the entire mid-Atlantic region.

The growth that comes with this development does not come without its challenges. Population in our cities and boroughs has remained relatively stagnant while the population of our townships has exploded. In 1960, the population of Allentown was about 108,000, while the population of Lower Macungie was about 4,000. Today, Allentown's population is an estimated 106,000 (a decrease of about 2 percent) while Lower Macungie's is estimated to be 26,000 (an increase of about 550 percent, making it the fastest growing municipality in Pennsylvania). Meanwhile, since the 1970s, Pennsylvania has lost an amount of open space that is roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Malls and big-box stores like Walmart have seen their business explode, while downtown businesses have withered away. Office and professional services have moved from the urban core to massive and faceless industrial parks, isolated from their communities.

Despite these trends, downtowns remain of the utmost importance to the health of the Lehigh Valley. Nationwide, downtown businesses still provide 30 percent of all jobs and 40 percent of tax revenue for government. They also represent a type of business that nation-wide chains can never replicate: local businesses that know your community inside and out. These stores have a local flavor; their products and shops will be different from any store you will ever be in again.
On average, downtown merchants and restaurants pay their employees better than their nationwide counterparts. Accordingly, every time you shop locally, you are helping contribute to a thriving local economy.

It is important to remember that the urban sections of the Lehigh Valley are more than just Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. Indeed, there are 28 boroughs that over 97,000 of Lehigh Valley residents call home. These boroughs range in size from 300 to 11,000, but all contain their own distinct character, business district and events. A walk through Emmaus (recently named Money Magazine's 87th best place to live in America) will yield a rich array of homes, public parks, historical properties and over 100 different restaurants and businesses. Macungie boasts a thriving Main Street filled with unique shops, two yearly festivals (Das Awkscht Fescht and the Wheels of Time), Macungie Memorial Park and a weekly farmers market that is in its first year. A visit to the Hellertown guarantees good eating, with 35 restaurants and eateries located within 1.5 square miles.

Across the country, it looks as if the tides of business and consumer preference are turning back toward Main Street. According to revitalization statistics, more than $41.6 billion have been reinvested in improving Main Street properties in 2006 alone. During the same year, over 75,000 new businesses were created, with nearly 350,000 new jobs. Locally, through the Main Street and Elm Street programs run by Pennsylvania, all three cities and 10 boroughs are receiving state funding to cover expenses related to urban revitalization.

Private and public partnerships have emerged, and these partnerships are critical to the success of any downtown area. Lehigh and Northampton counties, the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce Foundation have combined efforts to form the Borough Business Revitalization Program, a regional pilot Main Street program that has resulted in nine boroughs sharing two Main Street coordinators. This program has also administered a fa├žade grant program, whereby state money is used as an incentive for exterior improvements. Utilizing state money, as well as other public and private funds, more than $130,000 will be infused into Lehigh and Northampton properties.

Also, Lehigh County's Department of Community and Economic Development created two grant programs for Main Street Initiatives and has awarded $134,712 to seven municipalities for streetscape beautification efforts. Northampton County will be following suit.

People across the Valley (and really, across the country) are starting to realize that downtowns just offer more than any mall or massive one-stop shopping center can ever deliver.

Michael Schlossberg is the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce borough business revitalization coordinator for Alburtis, Coopersburg, Hellertown & Macungie.

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