Steel Hub’s Comeback Preceded Trump, but He Benefits

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Just a few blocks from the rusted 16-story blast furnaces that once fired hulking steel beams for the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, OraSure Technologies each day produces thousands of thumbnail-size pads made to spit on.

These oral swabs, part of a home H.I.V. test kit, are products of a matrix of manufacturers, financial companies and health care institutions powering the Lehigh Valley’s $41 billion economy.

The region’s success distinguishes it from onetime industrial dynamos in the Northeast and Midwest that have struggled to replace shuttered plants and vanishing jobs. While many midsize and smaller cities have lost out to the superstars — large urban metropolises that gulp up scads of employers, workers and customers — the Lehigh Valley is booming.

“There’s jobs everywhere,” said Stephen Polczer, 46, as he inspected assembled swabs. Mr. Polczer, outfitted with a blue mesh apron for his beard and a head cap, started at the biomedical company less than two months ago, drawn by a $17-an-hour wage for manufacturing technicians and a four-day workweek.

The economic renaissance has been more than a decade in the making in this eastern stretch of Pennsylvania, and it has much to do with location, luck and local leaders.

“It’s transcended presidents and administrations,” said Don Cunningham, the president and chief executive of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership. In the last five years, employers created 26,000 additional jobs. “It began under Obama and continued under Trump,” he said.

The valley’s political affinities have been less steady recently. The area includes Northampton County, one of the few counties nationwide — and among only three in the state — that voted for Barack Obama twice before giving Donald J. Trump a plurality in 2016. That pivot, in a county that a Republican presidential candidate had not won since 1988, helped Mr. Trump capture Pennsylvania by less than one percentage point.

Mr. Trump’s message on trade and defending jobs resonated in the Lehigh Valley, where there are memories of how foreign competition clobbered the local steel and cement industries.

Whenever the rebound began, people here are feeling more secure economically, and many credit the president. “The economy is 100 times better,” Mr. Polczer said, “and it has a lot to do with President Trump.”

A junction for interstate highways and rail lines, the Lehigh Valley is within an eight-hour drive of one-third of American consumers. That has helped attract an army of warehouses and distribution centers built by Amazon, Walmart, FedEx and UPS as they scramble to keep up with the explosion of online shopping.

A network of nearby universities, community colleges and vocational high schools pumps out workers with a range of skills. And there is more available land, cheaper housing and lower taxes than in neighboring New Jersey, Philadelphia or New York City.

Local and state officials laid the groundwork for a possible revival after Bethlehem’s colossal mills closed completely in 1998. They built industrial and office parks, and offered millions of dollars in tax credits and abatements to lure companies to Northampton and Lehigh Counties.

More recent development efforts have centered on creating urban playgrounds of restaurants, bars, entertainment and culture that will attract millennial workers.

The valley’s three small cities, Bethlehem, Easton and Allentown, are within 15 miles of one another. Among them, residents can find an ice hockey rink, concert venues and music festivals, a casino, arts walks, breweries, a minor-league baseball park, golf courses and new downtown apartments.

Freshpet joined a growing cluster of food and beverage companies, including Boston Beer, Nestlé Purina, Ocean Spray and Just Born (maker of the chick-shaped marshmallow treat Peeps), when it took over an old dairy factory in Northampton County in 2013. Sales of Freshpet’s refrigerated meals for dogs and cats — made from giant vats of slow-cooked meat, vegetables and fruit that can be smelled before entering the parking lot — grew 27 percent in the last year.

Now the company is building a $100 million facility in its own backyard that will ultimately add 150 people to the payroll. The state and county kicked in $900,000 in grants and tax credits.

A couple of blocks away in the same Hanover Township industrial park, Stuffed Puffs — chocolate-filled marshmallows that first appeared in stores in May — broke ground in November on a 150,000-square-foot manufacturing plant that will employ 134 people.

The venture is backed by Factory, a business innovation center for growing food and beverage companies founded by Richard Thompson, a former chief executive at Freshpet. Hoisting up a couple of bags, he explained that the creator of Stuffed Puffs had “spent seven years figuring out how to put the chocolate inside the marshmallow.”

With support from a New York hedge fund, Mr. Thompson opened the center in 2019. “I looked everywhere from Boston to Jacksonville,” he said, before choosing a site once occupied by Bethlehem Steel.

Building 96, a former tool-and-die shop built during World War II, is now, after a $10 million overhaul, Factory’s airy headquarters. The site offers a sensory lab, a podcasting studio, a kitchen, a packaging center and a stage. For offices, he hauled in bright red shipping containers from Port Newark and put them on wheels that bring to mind mobile dorm rooms. There’s also a simulated golfing range and a climbing wall, as well as a gondola cabin from a ski lift and a firepit surrounded by Adirondack chairs to hang out.

Just to the north in rural Upper Mount Bethel Township, Air Liquide opened a plant in 2018 to produce specialty chemicals for semiconductors, and construction on an adjoining facility has started.

Tony Stump began working there over the summer in a full-time maintenance job for $26.50 an hour, plus benefits.

He moved from Apollo, a former coal-mining town about 35 miles from Pittsburgh, to take the job. “It’s like two different worlds,” he said.

“There’s a lot of job opportunities,” Mr. Stump said of the Pittsburgh area, “but it’s harder to make a good wage.”

At his previous job, Mr. Stump made $15 an hour and had not had a raise in seven years. “There’s no way to survive,” he said.

Many of the jobs available are like the one Mr. Stump left behind. “They’re not real good jobs,” said Tom Sedor, 78. A third-generation steelworker on both sides of his family, Mr. Sedor sat with a group of other retirees in a small storefront office in the mall that houses the Steelworkers’ Archives, an oral history project.

The rich and the well-educated techies are doing well, but the working class and the poor “are the ones that are really getting hammered,” Mr. Sedor said. “It hasn’t trickled down to them.”

Although the area’s median income is more than $65,000, a new report from the United Way of Pennsylvania found that 30 percent of the households in Northampton County and 25 percent in Lehigh County could be counted among the working poor.

The steelworkers, both Democrats and Republicans, who crowded into the Wind Creek office don’t like Mr. Trump, whom they characterized as anti-union. But Mr. Sedor acknowledged that a lot of other retired steelworkers voted for him over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Hillary and the Democratic Party didn’t pay enough attention to trade,” Mr. Sedor said. Many of the men he meets for breakfast or sees in the union hall are still behind the president. “They’re adamant about it because of trade,” he said.

There were other motivations as well, the group agreed. “They also loved what Trump was saying about immigrants and gun control,” said Lester Clore, a 33-year veteran of Bethlehem Steel, referring to the president’s pledge to keep out immigrants and oppose gun restrictions.

In Pennsylvania, enough working-class Democrats and moderate suburban Republicans joined with enthusiastic conservative rural voters to help swing the election to Mr. Trump.

Whether this coalition will form again in 2020, and turn out in sufficient numbers to return him to the White House, is the question. As the recent clash between the United States and Iran demonstrated, foreign events could quickly overshadow domestic ones. And the economy’s stable progress could unexpectedly reverse.

Since the last presidential election, the Democrats have had a wave of victories in the Lehigh Valley, sweeping local elections. A Democrat won a reconfigured congressional seat in 2018 after a moderate Republican retired. In statewide elections, the Democratic governor and senator were both re-elected with hearty margins.

Although it is a quintessentially purple area, registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans in both Northampton and Lehigh Counties.

According to one recent statewide poll, 57 percent of those surveyed said they did not think the president deserved re-election.

But Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, said that across Pennsylvania, the president remained popular among those who said they had voted for him.

“I don’t see an obvious reason they wouldn’t turn out to the ballot box in 2020 to support him,” he said.

Walter Dealtrey Jr., president and chief executive of Service Tire Truck Centers in Bethlehem, is a registered Republican who said he and many people he knew often split their votes between the parties. He voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, and for Representative Susan Wild, a Democrat, last year.

He does not care for Mr. Trump’s personal style, but he said, “As far as the economy, I would keep riding the horse that works.”

Recent polling by The New York Times/Siena College found that in Pennsylvania and five other battleground states, nearly two-thirds of voters with a similar pattern — supporting Mr. Trump in 2016 and a Democrat in the midterms — said they intended to back the president.

Among the more than 30 business owners, professionals and employees interviewed in the two counties, many said their votes were still up for grabs. But “Medicare for all,” free public college tuition and other left-leaning proposals championed by candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont aroused more skepticism than enthusiasm.

The Democrats named as possibilities were all moderates, like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; or the latest entrant, the billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg.

“I think there’s going to be a strong pull for Democrats in the county to come home if they can,” said John Kincaid, a government professor at Lafayette College in Easton. But the Democrats will need to offer more than someone-who-is-not-Trump.

“If Warren or Sanders is the candidate,” he said, “it’s going to be harder to bring those Democrats who voted for Trump over.”

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