Northampton county wants to encourage more manufacturing and fewer warehouses


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” Charles Dickens

“A Tale of Two Cities” was set in France and England during the late 1700s but its opening aptly describes our entire country in 2022.

Our current condition is one of extremes. While many struggle to pay for rent, food and gas, others wait for months with cash in hand, desperate to buy new cars or home improvement materials. While this dichotomy has been frustrating, not to mention frightening, Northampton County has weathered the chaos better than many other areas of the nation.

The Lehigh Valley is one of the fastest-growing regions in the state. According to data from the 2020 census, Northampton County is in the top 25% of population growth nationwide. We are a prime destination due to our high quality of life: a thriving business community, an extensive park and trail system, good schools and easy access to major metropolitan areas.

Drive through our county and you’ll recognize it as a great place to do business. In the last five years, 75 projects were completed in our county, representing $1.6 billion in investment and creating or retaining nearly 9,000 jobs.

However rising food and gas prices account for a 40-year high in consumer price inflation. Higher prices are sending more working families to food banks. Over the past two years, Northampton County provided $16.6 million in rental assistance and $1.6 million in utility assistance to 5,018 residents. Since 2014, we’ve recorded a 155% increase in opioid deaths.

When I read “A Tale of Two Cities,” I assumed the battle between chaos and order was a literary one, not an economic conundrum I would have to navigate as county executive.

Our polarized conditions underscore that we need to balance future development with a strategy of smart economic growth that includes supporting our businesses, supporting our workers and protecting our quality of life. The best place to start with this is by addressing warehouse development.

In the last six years, 27.9 million square feet of new warehouse space was approved for building in the Lehigh Valley; another 16.5 million square feet remains in the approval pipeline. The need for warehouses has been driven by the pandemic and America’s changing shopping habits.

Northampton County, with its interstate highways and close proximity to major metropolitan areas, is a prime location for distribution centers. But while those businesses provide jobs and economic activity, I believe we have reached our saturation point with that model and it is in our interest to encourage more manufacturing sites such as Martin guitar and Bowery Farming.

Martin guitar is a family-owned business and has been making musical instruments in the Nazareth area since 1833. In 2021, the company built and opened its own temperature-controlled warehouse to store the woods and equipment needed to craft some of the best guitars in the world. In May 2022 Bowery Farming opened an indoor vertical farm in Bethlehem, where 70 employees grow, harvest and ship greens, herbs and berries within a 200-mile radius.

Both of these businesses — one old, one new — showcase smart economic development with quality products for the public and skilled jobs for employees. These businesses make commodities that add to the quality of our lives; they don’t just ship something in from Factory A and send it down the highway to Destination B.

Manufacturing jobs pay better than warehouse work, which is important in a time where people are struggling to afford housing. In the Lehigh Valley the average salary for a full-time distribution center worker is $54,663 per year; for someone in manufacturing it’s $69,399 per year. And while salary data is useful it has to be considered in relation to the cost of living.

In the past two years, the cost of a house in Northampton County has risen by 41.5%. A household would need to earn $70,000 per year to afford a moderately priced home in Northampton County — a figure that prices out many moderate-income families.

Smart development would mean making sure there is enough affordable housing for those people who work in warehouses and distribution centers. Based on data from Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, there were 2,748 units either planned or permitted in 2019 and 2020, but no development was identified as affordable to low-income residents. This needs to change.

It makes no sense to keep building warehouses in an area where there aren’t enough residences to house the workers necessary to their success. Forcing workers to commute leads to increasing traffic and decreasing air quality.

Pennsylvania may be a right-to-develop state, but holding onto our quality of life requires proper planning. As we move forward, we need to bring order to the chaos, encouraging those industries that provide skilled jobs and fair wages. We need to protect the quality of our air and continue to preserve farmland and open space to make sure future generations enjoy the same or better quality of life than we have now.

Lamont McClure is the Northampton County executive.


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