Pennsylvania Renaissance

City of Allentown

In 1982, Billy Joel’s hit song Allentown made the Pennsylvania city a poster child for the struggles that American workers face when manufacturing leaves town. Now, three decades later, these challenges are a thing of the past in Allentown.
Business is booming, corporations are moving in, and new developments dot the skyline. Throughout the entire community, a renaissance is underway.

“We are the fastest growing city in Pennsylvania,” Mayor Ed Pawlowski reports. “It is having a tremendous impact on our economy. We have built a million square feet; a brand new arena and hotel, offices, housing, and retail are all being developed downtown,” says Mayor Pawlowski. “And it has all happened in the last 18 months. We are seeing a corporate revitalization and movement back into the urban core.”

Allentown’s riverfront area is also being rejuvenated. “There is going to be another $250 million of development down there with about 600,000 square feet of office, about 200,000 square feet of retail, about 400 new apartment units and a river walk going up and down the waterfront,” the Mayor reports. A new bridge will cross the river to connect Interstate 22 to the city center.

Lehigh Valley Hospital, the largest employer in the area, just built a 270,000 square foot office building downtown housing a new, state of the art exercise and rehab facility. A 10,000 seat arena has just been constructed as well – and hosted over 40,000 people within its opening week. The arena is now home to the Phantoms, AAA affiliate of the Flyers, and the site of A-list concerts; The Eagles and Tom Petty have already performed there, with more big names, like Neil Diamond, on the way. A 160 room Marriott Renaissance has been built beside the arena and six additional office buildings and seven new restaurants are being planned for the area. “It is really creating a whole new environment for the downtown. It was really written off as dead a few years ago and is now back to life.”

Allentown’s extraordinary resilience is due in part to its prime location. “The fact that we are only an hour and twenty minutes away from Manhattan and an hour away from Philadelphia makes us a great location for business as well as to live,” Mayor Pawlowski points out. “We have lots of people who commute back and forth to Manhattan every day; we have lots of people who commute back and forth to Philadelphia every day.

In fact, the entire megalopolis, stretching from Washington DC to Boston, is within reasonable driving distance. Two interstates and a turnpike run alongside town, ready to whisk residents to several of the nation’s largest cities and a regional population that numbers in the tens of millions.

The convenient location makes Allentown an ideal site for distribution operations. “Because we are surrounded by the interstates and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you can really get into New Jersey and New York, up to Boston and down to Delaware in a very short period of time,” Mayor Pawlowski points out. “So it has become a major distribution hub.” As a result, Amazon just built a huge warehouse in Allentown and Zulily is in the process of building a distribution facility next door in Bethlehem.

Other corporations are following suit. Samuel Adams just built a large brewery outside Allentown and National Penn Bank, one of the biggest regional banks in Pennsylvania, just moved its corporate headquarters downtown.

Allentown also has longtime corporate residents who have been in the city for decades. For example, Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL) has been headquartered there since the 1930s. Air Products is located just outside the city, as are Crayola, Buckeye Partners, and Olympus’ US headquarters. “What is amazing is that we are a city of 120,000 people and we have two fortune 500 companies and two fortune 1,000 companies headquartered in our downtown,” Mayor Pawlowski points out. “Philadelphia only has one [Fortune 500 company]. Pittsburgh only has one. We have two.”

Allentown’s business friendly environment helps attract – and keep – these corporations. “The city is incredibly business friendly; we streamlined all our processes. I would say we are probably the easiest city on the east coast to deal with as far as opening up a business or relocating a business, and that is driving lots of development.”

An economic development zone known as the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) has also played a key role in Allentown’s success. “We have a very unique economic development zone that allows us to capture all state taxes for the next 30 years of both public and private development,” the Mayor explains. “We are the only one who has it in the state; we might be the only city that has it in the United States. It is driving mass amounts of new development back into the urban core.”

He explains that, “It takes the TIF concept – the Tax Increment Financing concept – and turns it on its head,” Mayor Pawlowski says of the economic development zone. “I call it a TIF on steroids because it really drives lots of economic activity and takes the whole financing equation off the table in building new buildings. So if somebody – any tenant or a development company – is paying a million dollars in state taxes, they still pay it to the state, but it comes right back to us and we then provide it to the developer to pay for debt service on a property, which allows them to significantly reduce the amount of rents that they charge or significantly reduce their debt service on a property. That has driven millions of square feet of office space and retail and housing back into the urban core.”

Allentown is not focused on business only. The city is also working hard to create a community with a high quality of life for its residents. This starts with a great educational system, and as such, the city boasts a strong K-12 school system and institutions of higher learning are abundant. “Lehigh University is right down the road from us in Bethlehem. Muhlenberg College, which is one of the top 100 private institutions in the country, is here in Allentown, as well as Cedar Crest College. Down the road in Easton is Lafayette College. We have a great university educational environment.”

Allentown also has a great park system. “We have the largest park system of any city our size in the country, with over 2,200 acres of parkland that meanders through the city,” Mayor Pawlowski says. This includes a 50,000 square foot playground – one of the largest in the region. “It is a young person’s Mecca,” he laughs. Allentown also has miles of walking trails to help residents stay fit.

These amenities, in combination with the city’s commitment to business, create a winning destination. “We have great parks, we have great educational institutions, we have an incentive for [business] that is beyond anything else in the state,” the Mayor summarizes. The proof is in the pudding; as the Mayor points out, “We have a billion dollars of new investment that has come into the city over the last two years. We have 4,000 new jobs coming back into the urban core.”

Once famous for its economic challenges after its manufacturing base dried up in the late 1970s, Allentown is now known for its success. This Pennsylvania renaissance town has managed to bring in a wealth of new businesses – and reinvent its economy. “We have an opportunity for corporations that I think is the best deal on the east coast, if not the country,” Mayor Pawlowski asserts. “Allentown is a great place to live, work, and play.”

September 23, 2020, 4:52 AM EDT