Steel Hub’s Comeback Preceded Trump, but He Benefits

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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.

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.

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.

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