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Netizen Corp. adds to its executive team

Akhil Handa

 

Allentown-based cybersecurity firm, Netizen Corp. has named Akhil Handa as its new chief operating officer.

Experienced as a senior executive in the federal and defense markets, Handa has had leadership roles and has worked in cybersecurity engineering and management.

He will oversee company operations, strategic relationships and solutions engineering based out of the firm’s Washington, D.C. office.

Other leadership changes at the firm include the promotion of Doug Ross to chief strategy officer. He was previously Netizen’s director of business development. Before joining the firm he was president and founder of SPARC LLC and Morgan6 LLC, where he earned more than $1 billion in federal contracts.

He will be based out of Netizen’s Charleston, South Carolina office.

Emily Dietrich Withmer has been promoted to director of human resources and legal affairs. Previously Netizen’s administration officer, Withmer has been an attorney since 2001. She will be based out of Netizen’s Allentown headquarters.

Shop owners hope Christmas sales clear up COVID-19 woes

Allison Clothing Company on Penn Avenue in West Reading is known for their hand tye-dyed clothing that Allison sold out of her home prior to opening her store. Photo by Susan L. Angstadt

 

West Reading shop owner, Allison Shannon, says she was lucky. The owner of Allison Clothing Company & Boutique started expanding her online presence just before the pandemic closed in.

By the time businesses were being closed down she had her entire inventory of hand-dyed clothing, gifts and artisanal body products, including jewelry, teas, body scrubs and oils available online.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “We haven’t really had a glitch because we sell the things people are craving to make them feel better.”

Shannon is an example of small business owners across the Lehigh Valley who are expressing optimism about the holiday shopping season. While shop owners interviewed for this story say they may not be able to make up their losses from earlier this year, they’re hopeful December will bolster their bottom lines. And, so far, they’re seeing promising signs that it will.

Some are adapting to holiday shopping during COVID-19, trying new ways to bring in business. Others say they are sticking to their tried-and-true business model and hoping loyal shoppers will still support them.

Shannon has gone above and beyond for her regulars. While she ships many of the products they may want to buy, she has even hand-delivered purchases to customers’ porches when they aren’t too far off her nightly commute home.

She still gets people in her store. In fact, she said this year’s Small Business Saturday was her busiest yet. “I don’t know how it’s going to go for the rest of the month,” she said.

Shannon likes to carry things that people won’t find in other Berks County stores. She hopes it makes her a go-to destination.

Taking a mulligan

In Allentown, Charles Smith, owner of C. Leslie Smith silversmith and gift shop, is sticking to the business plan that has kept the family-owned business open since 1955. Yes, 2020 has been a particularly tough year for his store, like all retailers, but they’ve weathered tough times before in their nearly 70 years and he believes they’ll make it through this, too.

“I’m going to call this year a mulligan,” Smith said. “Business is down all across the board all year. We just have to make do with the limited shopping.”

The store saw a surge around Thanksgiving, and they do traditionally get busier as Christmas gets closer, but his store doesn’t have events like Black Friday to give it an extra boost. “I hope we will get a stronger surge in December, but I have no false expectations,” Smith said.

With mail delivery becoming less reliable this year, he hopes more people will chose in-store shopping to make sure they get gifts for their loved ones on time.

For a gift shop, C. Leslie Smith is actually pretty spacious and wide open with 6,500 square feet of floor space, making it easier for customers to social distance. At the same time, the store doesn’t draw in the crowds that big box stores do, which he hopes will make people consider it a safe choice for shopping.

To compensate for slumping sales, Smith has been more careful in selecting inventory for the store. “I’m trying to buy more from smaller artists. Otherwise, we’ll be losing them too,” he said.

One thing he won’t, or rather can’t change, is adding more online ordering. As a silversmith he does a great deal of custom work, and that’s something he that should be done with personal consultations. He doesn’t want to impact the quality of the service he’s offering.

Tourism doing well

In the Poconos, shops that benefit from tourism are doing fairly well, according to the owner of the Pocono Candle Shop in East Stroudsburg. The store, which has long had a strong online presence, has been getting plenty of online orders as well as people coming into the shop.

The shop’s biggest COVID-related problem was its supply chain, not sales. The shop couldn’t get the wax granules for its popular “make your own candle” feature, which draws in families each holiday season and allows kids to make gift candles for family members. That might put a dent in destination shopping, but worse, leaves a lot of disappointed children.

In Bethlehem, Neville Gardner, owner of Donegal Square, a Celtic-themed gift shop, has dual challenges. His store contains a restaurant and pub, McCarthy’s Red Stag Pub. Restaurants are among the Industries hit hardest by the pandemic. The pub  has been McCarthy’s biggest concern.

But owning the building he’s in and having a long-time loyal following has helped him adapt to the pandemic and get people through the door.

Seating is the biggest issue for McCarthy’s. Restaurants in Pennsylvania are limited to 50% seating capacity, which is hard on smaller establishments like his. During the summer he did fine with outdoor dining, but now that the cold months are here he’s grateful to have extra retail space where he can add dining space. He’s also opened the Lafayette Room as additional dining space and will be opening a second dining space soon.

“With the 50% seating that should bring us up to where we would be normally,” Gardner said.

McCarthy’s is important to the retail end of his business, because it brings in shoppers who like to browse for gifts after taking in a meal at the pub. He offers special dine and shop nights where customers can make restaurant reservations and then come into Donegal Square after hours to shop.

He’s made changes directly to his retail operations as well. During December he’s offering appointment shopping for people concerned about crowds. Small groups of friends can sign up to come in and shop together and no more than two or three groups will be let in the store during that time.

“People want an opportunity to shop safely,” Gardner said.

And while Donegal Square already has a large online shopping presence, his staff is going the extra mile to help make the shopping experience personal – even remotely. His staff can help guests shop over video platforms like FaceTime and Zoom.

“Our staff will work with you. Are you interested in scarves? Well, here’s 20 scarves. Do you want to look at jewelry? Here’s some jewelry,” he said.

The staff can then ring up the orders by credit card and ship them to the customer.

Overall, the business has been doing extremely well considering the circumstances, he said.

He gives credit to Donegal Square’s presence at ArtsQuest’s annual Christkindlmarkt for bringing in a great deal of holiday-season business not only through their presence at the market, but from people who stop by the store after visiting it.

“It’s been very good for us. We’re seeing maybe 3,000, 4,000 people a weekend,” Gardner said.

Meanwhile, expenses are up as the store and pub take extra precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19, which so far they’ve done successfully. If the store has a good December, and the pandemic lasts for a few more months, he’ll be OK.

“We’ve been here for 35 years. We’re not going anywhere,” he said, but it’s scary.

New Salon’s design adds a little COVID comfort

A new day spa recently opened just west of Allentown.

Designed by Sage Design-Build Inc. of South Whitehall Township, the spa not only gives residents of the Lehigh Valley a new place to get their hair and nails done, but it will give them the option to do it safely.

Flourish Salon & Spa, owner Carmen Huddleston worked with Sage to design and construct a unique privacy space.

Joe Landrigan, president of Sage, said the space was initially intended for customers requiring additional assistance.

“I think that was always part of Carmen’s vision,” he said. “They would use it for people who wanted a little more quiet and privacy.”

But now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the area can also offer a separate space with those with other health and safety concerns who want to be cautious about infection.

“It was always part of the project but as the design progressed it went from the original plan for it to just be an area for privacy. She saw the added benefit,” he said.

He said the main salon looks like most other salons would, but the separate room allows a client to have their services all in one room with the stylist coming to them so there is less interaction with other people.

The full-service day spa, at 5036 Hamilton Blvd. in Lower Macungie Township, was a fit out of an existing space in a building that also houses the restaurant Notch. The spa offers traditional day spa services including hair, nail, facial, eyelash and waxing services.

A Conversation With: Greg L. Butz, president and CEO of Alvin H. Butz, Inc. and The Butz Family of Companies of Allentown

Greg Butz –

 

LVB: It’s been a wild year. How has your company dealt with the way the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the construction industry?

Butz: I will say first off that we’ve been very fortunate to date.

When the shut-down began, 90% of our projects never stopped because they were either deemed essential or received waivers.  For example, our healthcare projects across the state were mostly allowed to continue, including at LVHN where we are doing renovations in the Radiology Oncology lab, and at Penn State Health Hampden Medical Center, a 300,000-square-foot, acute care hospital in Cumberland County.  On May 1, the few remaining projects were back underway.

Prior to starting up all sites, we spent a significant amount of time developing project specific protocols based on CDC, PA DOH Guidelines and independent research so that when construction could start up, we were ready.

All of the projects considered the issues at hand relative to the world, federal, and state guidelines as well as the individual project circumstances before returning to work and did so in safe and as seamless manner as possible.

LVB: Are things getting back to normal?

Butz: I think we are in a new kind of normal.  All of the safety guidelines we put in place in the beginning of the year are still in place. Some have been refined and expanded upon.  I believe some of them will stay in place even when we are well out of the pandemic because they’ve been so effective.  We’ve implemented new technologies with some of those safety precautions which I don’t see us going away from.

While activity for future project pursuits slowed at the start of the pandemic, recent activity has picked up dramatically.

Several new large projects will be starting in the spring and ongoing projects will take us into 2022 so the future looks very bright.

LVB: How have you adapted?

Butz:  Besides the safety measure outlined above on our jobsites, we’ve adapted similar safety practices in our offices, and we’ve gone virtual with certain aspects of our business.  Since our business was deemed essential, we returned to our offices early on in the pandemic and expect to stay that way.  While we were able to keep our projects running, collaboration, creativity and maintaining our culture can suffer while working remotely, so we’re happy to be back in the offices.

LVB: What do you think Butz’s major accomplishments have been for the year?

Butz:  I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to keep our projects on schedule and within budget while at the same time keeping everybody safe.  We actually started a $250 million greenfield hospital project in the middle of the pandemic and expect 2020 to be our best year ever.

I’m also proud that we did not have to lay off anyone due to financial fall-out from COVID and that every one of our employees pulled together to quickly adapt to a virtual world and keep things running and that Butz was able to make a significant contribution the United Way of the Lehigh Valley’s COVID Relief Fund, and also provide financial support to our clients in the non-profit world.

LVB: What are you looking forward to for construction in 2021?

Butz: I am looking forward to seeing the continuous innovation in the industry with technology and lean concepts that our teams have been working to implement on most of our projects. It’s exciting to see how those techniques provide value to our owners and help save money while delivering the highest quality building.

Allentown’s former Cosmopolitan restaurant is up for auction

The former Cosmopolitan in Allentown is going up for auction next week. PHOTO/FILE –

 

A now closed downtown Allentown restaurant building is hitting the auction block.

Originally Sal’s Spaghetti House on North Sixth Street before it was converted to a fine dining establishment about 10 years ago, is listed on Ten-X.com with a starting bid of $900,000.

The 125-seat upscale American-style restaurant debuted as the Cosmopolitan in 2010 and was converted to the fine dining seafood grill, Hook, in 2015, to meet what owner Bill Grube said was an under-served niche in downtown dining options. There was also a rooftop night club known as the Wave atop the six-story building.

Grube later retired and closed the restaurant in 2017. The building had been on the market since.

According to the auction website the building comes with its furniture, fixtures and equipment. It also features two elevators, employee locker rooms, party rooms an enclosed rooftop night club area and outdoor patio.

The building is within the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

The online auction will run Nov. 17 to Nov. 19.

Two firms partner to build apartments in Lehigh Parkway

Rendering of 1649 Lehigh Parkway East –

 

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for later this month on a new apartment complex in the Lehigh Parkway in Allentown.

Serfass Construction of North Whitehall Township and the Scully Co. of Jenkintown are partnering on the project to build two five-story buildings at 1649 Lehigh Parkway East, just north of the Regency Apartments off of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

It will have 160 units with a mix of studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom units.

The apartment buildings will feature a fitness center. There will also be a clubroom with a coffee bar and table games, a bike room, a pet washing and grooming station and an outdoor fire pit.

Rent will range from around $1,300 to around $2,200 per month.

Kevin Serfass of Serfass Construction said they were attracted to the spot because of its location within the Lehigh Parkway. He noted the property will provide views of the Little Lehigh Creek and easy access to hiking and biking as well as the city’s Frisbee golf course, which the apartments will be near.

He said the building they are constructing was designed by its architectural firm, Bonsall Shafferman, to fit into the setting.

“The overall construction is made to feel more like the natural setting around it so it will seem like it was always part of the park,” he said.

Jessica Scully of the Scully Co. noted that much of the new apartment buildings going up in the Allentown area are all in the city center area. This property gives their future tenants the option of living in a greener part of the city while still being very close to the restaurants and other amenities of the downtown.

“There’s a lot of great new product but all of it is in the downtown. Here you can just jump in your car and be downtown in minutes, but you have hiking and biking,” she said.

The Lehigh Parkway East apartments project is the first project the two companies are partnering on, but both said they hope to partner on more, similar projects in the region.

“We have a lot in common,” Serfass said. Both companies are third-generation, family-owned businesses with a similar culture.

With Serfass focusing on design build and Scully Co. focusing on apartment management, the partnership seems like a good fit, Scully said.

“We really clicked. They filled in that variable, that piece we needed that was so important,” she said.

The groundbreaking ceremony will be held Nov. 19 at the site.

Allentown joins national Bank On initiative to increase bank access

Access to banking is a major problem for low-income people in many of the nation’s urban areas.

Allentown is no exception.

So now the city is working with a group of stakeholders in the community to participate in the national Bank On movement to help residents find safe and affordable banking products and to understand how to use them.

The local Bank On Coalition is a partnership of the City of Allentown, United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, the Financial Literacy Center, the FDIC, People First, First Commonwealth Federal Credit Union and QNB Bank.

According to numbers provided by the city from advocacy group Prosperity Now, 37% of households in Allentown are unbanked or underbanked, meaning they rely on alternative financial services like check cashers, payday lenders and pawn shops for their financial transactions – options that can be significantly more costly.

“One of the big components is financial literacy,” said Tom William, operations manager for the Allentown Department of Community and Economic Development. “We have to reach out in a greater, more effective manner to bring financial literacy to the under-banked population.”

He said the coalition will break down some of the barriers residents from other countries and regions may have, including the fact that they don’t trust banks, or understand how banking works.

That’s a problem because banking access can be critical to financial stability. The coalition wants these groups to understand that a basic banking account is a first step into maintaining finances by depositing earnings securely, paying bills more efficiently, accessing credit and saving for emergencies.

“Tens of millions of people who can least afford it are spending billions of dollars to do what many of us do for free without even thinking about it – pay bills or make purchases, safely and automatically deposit and access our income, and save,” said Jonathan Mintz, president and CEO of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, which organizes the Bank On movement. “We’re excited about what Bank On coalitions can accomplish and are proud to add our support to Bank On Allentown’s critical work helping people access safe, affordable accounts.”

Besides helping residents gain financial literacy, banking access is an important component of the Bank On plan.

“The coalition will be coming up with an action plan and what the goals are to increase access to banking,” Williams said.

He said much of that is getting banks to agree to offer affordable and safe bank accounts that will allow people with little banking background to get started without having to worry about things like racking up overdraft fees if they’re not sure yet what they’re doing.

Bank On Allentown will work to expand access to such financial products and services to residents who are currently taking their money outside of the mainstream financial system.

“Here in Allentown, as many as 60% of households are facing serious financial instability with no savings for an emergency. For our families to be strong, we need strong, financial solutions. We applaud all of the partners who are stepping up to bring Bank On to Allentown,” said Marci Martinez-Howey, senior director of finance for the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.

Bank On Allentown joins nearly 90 local Bank On coalitions across the country.

Alvin H. Butz Inc. wins national awards for two Pa. construction projects

Alvin H. Butz Inc. of Allentown received a 2020 CMAA Award for its work on the new Parkland elementary school. PHOTO/SUBMITTED –

 

The Butz Family of Companies, headquartered in Allentown, received two 2020 Construction Management Association of America National Project Achievement Awards for recent construction projects.

One of the awards was for the Parkland School District Veterans Memorial Elementary School, which received an award for Education Projects less than $50 million.

The Mount Nittany Health Cardiovascular Pavilion Project received an award for Healthcare Projects less than $50 million.

Alvin H. Butz Inc. of Allentown was the construction manager for the Parkland project. KBCA Architects of Center Valley was the architect.

The 88,000-square-foot elementary school has a capacity of 700 students and is constructed on a scenic 18-acre site.  The school was designed to incorporate high-efficiency systems.

Alexander Building Construction of Hershey was the construction manager for the Mount Nittany project in State College.

The project consisted of a 26,381 square foot addition and overbuild above a fully occupied emergency room.

The CMAA annual awards program recognizes excellence in the construction management field.  CMAA judges look for examples of the successful application of construction management principles and standards.

The 2020 awards brings the number of CMAA National Project Achievement awards received by the Butz Family Company to nine.

Capital BlueCross plans health and wellness center in downtown Allentown

An artist’s rendering of the renovated offices. SUBMITTED

 

Capital BlueCross plans to open a health and wellness center at its offices in downtown Allentown as part of a renovation and expansion project.

The Harrisburg-based health insurer said work has begun on its Lehigh Valley offices at 1221 Hamilton St. and plans to have the project done by February. The expansion effort on the three-story building will include a new façade and a full interior remodeling in addition to the new health and wellness center.

Ann Baum, market president Capital BlueCross said the renovations will make the building fit into the redevelopment efforts going on in the downtown area.

“This is part of a renaissance in downtown Allentown,” Baum said. “We wanted to lend our hand to the redevelopment of the largest city in the Lehigh Valley. We’re committed to the health and well-being of the people and communities here, so this makeover is not just to provide a great space for our employees – it’s to provide a great space for the people of Allentown.”

Once the new health and wellness center is complete members and the public can visit for one-on-one consultations related to health plans or Medicare options.

The can also meet with a health coach, get biometric screenings and attend health care-related seminars.

This will be the health insurer’s second health and wellness center in the Lehigh Valley. It has a similar center in the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley.

It also has health and wellness centers in Cumberland and Franklin counties.

Allentown Economic Development Corp. hires financial controller

Robert Haas –

The former Chief Financial Officer of the Swain School in Allentown was hired by the Allentown Economic Development Corp. as its new financial controller.

Robert Hass joins the AEDC after serving at Swain for 19 years. Before that he was controller at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown. He replaces Ken Vance, who is retiring after serving as CFO for nearly eight years. Vance will stay on for an undetermined amount of time to help in the transition.

“We are very excited to welcome Robert Haas to the AEDC team,” said Executive Director Scott Unger. “Bob’s prior experience makes him a unique hire and an ideal fit for the position here. He wore several hats in his previous roles, so he has the competency to manage AEDC’s fiscal operations, which can be complex.”

Haas will be overseeing financials for the AEDC incubation program, loan programs, property development and general management.

The AEDC is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1979. It oversees the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, Urban Made and Urban Sites, programs.

Accounting firm RLB names William Bloss managing partner

William E. Bloss –

 

RLB Accountants of Allentown has named William E. Bloss as its managing partner. He will take over for Martin C. Levin, who has served as managing partner since the firm was formed in 2009.

“Bill has been an essential driver of RLB’s development trajectory for more than a decade,” said Levin.  “During that time we have grown significantly in staff depth while incorporating advanced accounting technologies into our client service offerings.  His insights and energy will be essential as we continue RLB’s growth and pursuit of progressively higher standards of client service into the future.”

Bloss has been a principal shareholder of the firm since its founding. Before that he served as a senior accountant with Levin Saychak Accountants.

An Easton area native, Bloss holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from DeSales University in Center Valley. He is an active member of the board of governors of Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, serving as chair of the Healthcare Committee and a member of the Public Policy Committee.

He is a member of the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

In addition to its Allentown headquarters, RLB has offices in Easton and Stroudsburg.

Da Vinci gets $5.6M loan for Allentown science center project

The Da Vinci Science Center’s plan to build a science and technology learning center in downtown Allentown received a $5.6 million funding boost from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Center officials called the HUD Section 108 loan a major milestone in the project’s development.

“We thank HUD and the City of Allentown for supporting our vision to create a 21st-century science center that will improve access to high-quality STEAM education, drive economic development, and enhance the quality of life for residents of the Lehigh Valley,” Lin Erickson, executive director and CEO of the Da Vinci Science Center said in a release.

The science center, planned for a space on North Eighth Street near the PPL Center, will offer a range of programs focused on school children and their family members.

Allentown Mayor Ray O’Connell said the center will be a good draw to the downtown area.

“The new science center will open-up Da Vinci to tens of thousands of new visitors and expand their mission of bringing science to life and lives to science,” he said. “This project has the potential to be transformative, setting the future direction of our city for decade.”

The project is within the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which will also help with the project’s funding.

The new center was originally planned as a more than $100 million project along the Waterfront in the City of Easton, but those plans fell through. The main Da Vinci Science Center is on the campus of Cedar Crest College in Allentown.

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