A report from the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. shows that the growth in the region’s hospitality and leisure sector outperforms 20 major metropolitan areas of the U.S.
In a report released Wednesday, the organization compared job growth in the leisure and hospitality sectors and found Lehigh and Northampton counties had 33,500 leisure and hospitality jobs in December 2014, a 2,600 increase over the 30,900 in that industry in December 2013. That’s a jump of 8.41 percent.
After comparing the Lehigh Valley to other major metro areas where leisure and hospitality comprise a large portion of the local economy and compiling a list, LVEDC found that the Lehigh Valley had the highest percentage increase in the list.
Others included Orlando (6.98 percent), Savannah (5.31 percent), San Francisco (4.67 percent), Atlanta (3.57 percent), Los Angeles (2.69 percent), Las Vegas (0.94 percent), New Orleans (a 1.24 percent drop) and Atlantic City (an 18.26 percent drop).
From the perspective of looking at raw numbers, 2014 was a busier year than 2013, with an increase in the number of visitors, said Mike Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley.
“Hotel occupancy rates were up year over year,” Stershic said this morning. “We sold about 8 percent more hotel rooms, so that might generate more hiring, and, similarly, you’ve got restaurants that have opened up throughout the region.”
“The growth in the last year reflected heavily in what was happening in downtown Allentown,” Don Cunningham, president and CEO of LVEDC, said today. “So much came online in Allentown at once.”
As an example, downtown Allentown saw significant growth in job creation for the leisure and hospitality region with the opening of PPL Center in September 2014, which includes an arena for hockey, concerts and other events and the adjacent Renaissance Hotel, which opened last month.
The opening of Roar Social House, The Hamilton Kitchen & Bar, Chickie’s and Pete’s in 2014 and The Dime in January are just some of the new restaurants added to the city’s downtown core, which bolstered growth in the leisure sector.
Allentown is a big driver of that leisure and hospitality growth, particularly since the hiring for the employees at the Renaissance Hotel would have started in December as they were being trained for the January opening, Stershic said.
FUTURE GROWTH EXPECTED
Additionally, the labor market for these industries includes not just Lehigh and Northampton counties, Stershic said. As an example, the large Poconos resort projects that are under construction and expected to open this year, such as Camelback and Kalahari, are close enough to draw employees from the Lehigh Valley in addition to the counties in the Poconos.
Future leisure and hospitality growth can be seen with one hotel under construction, the Motel 6 on Tilghman Street in Lower Macungie Township, and another expected to begin construction this year, a business hotel in Upper Saucon Township, Stershic said.
“I think you’ll see continued strength in the leisure and hospitality industries,” Stershic said. “There’s going to be a need for well-trained employees.”
The revitalization of the cities over the last five years has spurred job growth across the Lehigh Valley.
“In today’s economy, jobs are critical for the entire region, not just where they are created,” Cunningham said.
Since the Sands Casino Resort opened in Bethlehem in 2009, the city has seen numerous developments in the tourism, hospitality and entertainment industry, including the opening of the Sands Hotel in 2011, the Sands Event Center in 2012 and a proposed convention center to be built on the former Bethlehem Steel land. The city’s first distillery, Social Still, also opened in 2014.
“Because of the casino being in South Bethlehem and the restaurants in Easton and what’s taking place in downtown Allentown, there’s been a lot of growth in hospitality and entertainment sectors,” Cunningham said.
More growth in the hospitality and leisure sector is expected in Bethlehem with upcoming projects that are in the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone. The CRIZ is a tax incentive program aimed at spurring economic development available in only two cities in the state: Bethlehem and Lancaster.
Easton continues to see strong growth in the leisure and hospitality sector.
The Crayola Experience brings in about 350,000 to 400,000 visitors to downtown Easton each year, said Kim Kmetz, Easton Main Street Manager. Other drivers include the State Theatre, which brings in about 150,000 visitors each year, and Lafayette College, which draws about another 100,000, she said.
The city has about 30 restaurants and three new ones expected to open this year, including Coal Fired Pizza, Full of Crepe and another that should open on the first floor of the intermodal center under construction where City Hall will be, Kmetz said.
The downtown’s Grand Eastonian Hotel has many rooms that are only committed to long-term stay and she sees a strong need for a hotel in the city that can accommodate the large number of visitors to the downtown each year looking for overnight stays.