Don Cunningham said today he would relish his opportunity to create new jobs and expand the Valley’s tax base in a “sustainable way,” as the head of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.
The current Lehigh County executive and former mayor of Bethlehem today was officially named the next president and chief executive officer of the LVEDC. He said he will recruit new business and “more importantly, grow businesses here.”
Redeveloping brown fields – which still includes the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. site, where he played a key role in establishing a plan for reuse when he was mayor – will be a priority.
The Valley’s urban cores will also be a focus. He said his views on the Allentown arena project and the controversial Neighborhood Improvement Zone taxing district are in line with LVEDC’s board of directors, which issued a statement in support of the project and special taxing zone last week.
Cunningham will officially step aside as Lehigh County executive on July 8 and take over leadership duties of LVEDC the day after that. The official announcement was made during a news conference at the LVEDC’s offices in Bethlehem.
“I’m excited by the opportunity to serve LVEDC and continue to serve the Lehigh Valley,” said Cunningham, who has worked exclusively in the public sector since 1998.
He left the mayor’s office in 2003, two years before his second term expired, to become secretary of the state Department of General Services under former Gov. Ed Rendell. He was elected county executive in 2005.
“In all three of those jobs, economic development was at the core of what I needed to do and it’s what I love to do the most,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham said he is leaning toward picking Tom Muller, the county’s director of administration, as his interim successor. The county commissioners will then have less than two months to pick another successor to finish Cunningham’s term.
Under the provisions of the Lehigh County Home Rule Charter, that person must be a Democrat because Cunningham was elected as a Democrat.
"The LVEDC's decision to hire Don Cunningham as its new president and CEO makes every sense for an organization dedicated to marketing the Lehigh Valley as a premier place to work and live,” said Brad Osborne, chairman of the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners.
“Don is home grown, loves the Lehigh Valley and brings knowledge, experience and results to his new role. Most importantly, Don is committed to bringing economic vitality to the Lehigh Valley, and with the support of partnering community leaders, he will succeed."
Osborne will address the mandatory process for filling the Lehigh County executive position in a press conference Friday.
In a resignation statement issued after the news conference, Cunningham said: “I’m a lucky guy. The voters and Gov. Ed Rendell gave me a chance to serve the people of my hometown of Bethlehem, Lehigh County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I never felt like I was going to work because I was doing what I loved.”
But with his second and county home-rule charter-mandated final term as county executive ending in 2013, he needed to look for new opportunities.
“One of the challenges with the public sector work I always seem to pick is that the clock is ticking from the day you start,” Cunningham said. “And, while I’m not at the final buzzer in my current position, I have entered the fourth quarter.
“With two kids in college and another one heading there in two years, I don’t have the luxury to wait until the final day.”
Cunningham had been considering returning to his home town to once again run for mayor, but that is now no longer under consideration, he said.
Don Bernhard, chairman of LVEDC’s board, said Cunningham easily stood out as the best candidate for the job, even among candidates who have run similar organizations across the country. His communications skills, in particular, set him apart.
“The most common question we had was … ‘Who do we want talking for LVEDC?’” Bernhard said. “It was really, really clear that Don was the one person we wanted in that role.”
Cunningham replaces Phil Mitman, who left in January to become the executive director of the Easton Area Industrial Land Development Co. Inc.
Cunningham will earn $120,000, with the potential to earn $10,000 in performance bonuses, Bernhard said. He will run a staff of 18 people for an organization that has a $2.4 million annual budget.
In Lehigh County, Cunningham has been earning $75,000 a year running a county with 3,000 full- and part-time employees and an annual budget of $389 million.
South Whitehall Patch Editor Mary Ellen Alu contributed to this story.