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Monday, September 19, 2011

LVEDC Needs New Pitch in Northampton County

Every year, LVEDC CEO Phil Mitman takes time out from his busy schedule to tell Lehigh County Commissioners and Northampton County Council members how great things are going. Never mind that little thing called a recession. Unemployment? You won't even find the word listed on LVEDC's webpage, even though the BLS places both counties around 9%. Mitman claims things are just wonderful. Lehigh County is always led to believe it's doing a little better than Northampton County, and vice versa.

For a long time, Mitman has been treated like a visiting celebrity here in the People's Republic of Northampton County. After all, he is a Bixler. I don't think his family came over on the Mayflower, but it was the proud owner of America's oldest jewelry store on Easton's centre square, which is round. I bought my engagement ring there in 1788. The Easton store closed its doors in 2009, after Mitman had sold it.

Mitman's colonial pedigree, and his engaging personality, likely meant a lot to the puppet masters at the Lehigh Valley Partnership, our unelected aristocracy, when they selected him to lead the Lehigh Valley's economic development nonprofit. Though funded in large part by hotel tax from both counties, as well as other public monies, LVEDC has historically been shrouded in secrecy. It started catching lots of heat after unsuccessfully attempting to gag a number of local luminaries, including Express Times publisher Martin Till.

It's never a good idea to aggravate someone who buys his ink by the drum.

Enter Phil Mitman. He was going to change all that with a "climate of collaboration."  Then $100,000 went down the toilet for a passenger rail study that told us what we already knew - it costs too much. Then they all nearly fell for an ill-fated attempt by Mayor Ed Pawlowski to relocate to downtown Allentown. Despite 7 AM meetings, another attempt to muzzle public officials and cheer leading by Lee Butz, whose building was designated as LVEDC's new home, the public spotlight ruined everything. Word kept leaking out, despite an insistence on goofy secrecy pledges.

So much for collaboration.

Then came the tweet heard round the world. In an attempt to reach out to the Twitterati, LVEDC actually hired a social networker who one Friday posted this:
"We start summer hours today. That means most of the staff leave at noon, many to hit the links. Do you observe summer hours? What do you do?"
Oh, I don't know. Some of us are standing in unemployment lines. Others are actually having trouble putting food on the table.

When I reposted that tweet here, LVEDC's initial reaction was to slam me. Their Propaganda Minister, Steve Althouse, delivered a missive to various news outlets and totally played goofy Jonathan Geeting, who holds himself out as an expert on ... well ... everything.

Althouse was careful to exclude me.

Unlike Geeting, The Morning Call's Scott Kraus painted an accurate picture of what had happened, which included the termination of the tweeter and some incredibly goofy explanations by Phil "Fore!" Mitman. Columnist Bill White followed that with a "Step Away From the Smartphone" parody.

Needless to say, LVEDC has pretty much stopped tweeting.

I'm concerned about the money. Their online financial statements fail to tell me how much their employees are getting paid. But according to Guidestar, which has LVEDC's 2009 and 2008 reports to the IRS, I know that Mitman was paid $134,366 in 2009. This is about 14% more than his $117,788 2008 salary. In the midst of a recession, total employee expenses amounted to $1,280,937 in 2009. In addition, $80,263 was spent for conferences and conventions, and another $15,993 for travel.

I asked LVEDC's CFO, Jean Mateff, to provide details about those travel expenses. She said she'd get back to me.

That was in June.

Summer hours, I guess.

With all this in the background, a dapper Phil Mitman stood before Northampton County Council on Thursday night, with VP Pete Reinke standing by his side. When he did this two years ago, only the Northampton County Bulldog - Ron Angle - questioned him. Last year, it was pretty much Angle again, all by his lonesome. But on Thursday night, everyone had questions. Mitman was unable to make lemonade out of lemons.

He attempted to state that the LVEDC created 1,743 new jobs in the Lehigh Valley during the first six months of 2011. But the usually quiet Mike Dowd wasn't buying the bullshit. After noting that many of the jobs created were really just retained jobs, Dowd pointed out that there were 809 new jobs in Lehigh County, but only 223 in Northampton County.

Why the disparity?

Mitman will get back to us on that.

Lamont McClure wanted to know whether the reason for this disparity is because, comparatively speaking, Northampton County delivers a smaller share (34%) of the hotel tax than Lehigh. Mitman denied that has anything to do with it, but was unable to really explain the disparity.

Mitman was asked what his outfit does to help mom-and-pop small businesses, the backbone of our economy. He sends them to CACLV's Rising Tide Loans.

Mitman's backup, Pete Reinke, explained there are four "prospects:" (1) "Project Gravity," a 5,000 sq ft warehouse that might hire 220 employees; (2) a controversial alternative fuel company coming to Plainfield Tp, which will convert 16' high grass called "miscanthus gigantus" to fuel, bringing 50 jobs; (3) a biofarm chemical producer in the Slate Belt, which will bring 55 to 250 jobs in 3 years; and (4) an electric connectors company bringing 54 to 125 jobs.

Then later, Phil Mitman stated there were 17 prospects.

Which is it?

Council Prez John Cusick asked about Euclidean University, a proposal in East Allen Township that you first heard about on this very blog. Reinke told Cusick that LVEDC is not working with Michael Parlamis, who's been called a "pillar of the community" by The New York Times. Then he went on to snark the whole idea and attack Parlamis' integrity, suggesting that he was trying to do the same thing with a tract owned by Chester, New York. Had Reinke really done his homework, as Mitman claimed, he would know that the New York municipality decided to sell the property to someone else.

If LVEDC's intention was to portray itself as a job creator, it failed. Badly. But whether LVEDC can be dismantled, as Angle would like, is a much more complicated question that would likely involve the state senate, which enacted the hotel tax legislation. The puppet masters at The Lehigh Valley Partnership have friends there.


Anonymous said...

If ya gonna call it, ya gota call it!

"Their Propaganda Minister, Steve Althouse, delivered a missive"

Althouse former longtime ET reporter and editor should have been included in that sentence.

Jon Geeting said...

I really don't know why you keep getting the history wrong here, but to review:

- There is nothing wrong with companies having a summer hours policy, as long as everyone is working a total of 40 hours a week, and you have not shown that anyone was not working 40 hours a week. You're making accusations, but you don't have the smoking gun.

- The fracas around LVEDC was because of them firing Vanessa Williams, not because they had a summer hours policy. You want this to be about summer hours, but it's about Vanessa Miller getting fired unjustly.

- The question of whether Phil Mitman is doing a good job as head of LVEDC is a completely separate question from whether it's worth having LVEDC at all. There are plenty of quality economic development organizations around the country that work very well.

- I think Bernie's readers should understand this as Bernie priming them for political attacks on LVEDC from Ron Angle. Angle's probably going to try to run a right wing populist campaign against the "blue bloods" and the "puppet masters" (a popular anti-Semitic dogwhistle term) who he will say are not doing enough for the Slate Belt.

Silly season has definitely started.

Anonymous said...

Williams wrote in a social media style. Seems like LVEDC wanted to join the "in crowd" that includes Fortune 500s but didn't give Williams any rules or regulations. She did what she thought she was to do, create casual conversation.

Thanks for trying to get their salaries.

Anonymous said...

If you're priming us for another Angle episode, it's going to show Bernie.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Geeting once again proves he is a total moron when it comes to anything local. After allowing himself to be completely played by the LVEDC Propaganda Minister, who was the editor at the now defunct Allentown Times, he goes on to criticize the use of the word "puppetmaster" as anti-Semitic.

That's completely bizarre and comes from a bizarre person who has no idea what he is talking about. The term "puppet master" was used in reference to the unelected aristocracy pulling the strings at LVEDC, i.e. the Lehigh Valley Partnership. At one time they were referred to as the Big Eight. And last time I checked, and I don't consider religion particularly important, these guys (and they are ALL guys) were WASPS, i.e. white Anglo Saxon pricks.

And Geeting should be aware that unlike him, who allowed himself to be played by Althouse, I allow nobody, not even Angle, to dictate to me what I write or do not write. I have not even discussed this matter with Angle.

The only thing that is silly here is Geeting.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Ironically, the whole point of this blog is that it is no longer just Angle who is questioning the LVEDC, but other Council members as well.

Anonymous said...

I thought I had a sharp ear for socio-political dog whistles. I must confess to being completely unaware of "puppet master"'s call to arms. Those stingy wasps are ruthless, very crafty and always out to make a buck on the unsuspecting. Good thing kooks like Geeting are keeping hair trigger sentry.

Anonymous said...

It's evident of poor leadership and really not knowing what you're doing, but there has to be a statistically valid reason as to why Lehigh County has more companies moving there than in Northampton.

We're assuming the two counties are equal, with available land near highways, available infrastructure, amenable property owners willing to sell land to companies, workforce, transit options if they care...

We're assuming that LVEDC is somehow favoring one county over the other? What if Northampton County just isn't competitive in the areas that matter to businesses?

Bernie O'Hare said...

That certainly is a possible answer, but it seems unlikely bc the two counties are so similar in so many ways.

Anonymous said...

When you look at some of Lehigh County's recent job "acquisitions", they are in either:

1. The Route 100 corridor with five minute access to an East-West Interstate and pre-treatment capabilities coupled with Class A warehouse space;

2. Stabler Center, which has Class A office space, and plenty of it, also with five minute access to the East-West Interstate.

Just generally speaking, does Northampton County have either of those two things in excess of one or two properties?

I think there's too much emphasis or blame being put on LVEDC. That organization is neither that competent nor that flush with resources to play the kingmaker like some allege they are doing.

Anonymous said...

Some of this is accurate some only partially so. LVEDC is a Partnership baby. But right now the Partnership is sitting back a bit because there is a pissing war going on between LVEDC and the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has been trying to get a piece of the hotel tax action for years. They also want the credit for any job creation, so a rivalry has been going on for some time now. The Tourism group is just a paper entity that prints brochures no one sees and collects money to pay their salaries and backdoor some to LVEDC. Tony Iannelli wants in.

Why do you think Ron Angle became Iannelli's new best friend. Hell he is now contributing to his campaign, puts him on the show, etc. In private Iannelli laughs at Angle but he has never been shy about using and disposing of people so he and Angle are a perfect pair. This conflict of interest is why so many people are upset about all the Chamber staff in elected positions in local governments, including the right reverend Dowd. Interesting how he inserted himself in this fight. Did he disclose his interest?

Bottom line is there's a Darwinian struggle going on and the Partnership, businessmen and former exec's all, are letting evolution decide the outcomes since they own both combatants. One thing you can count on in this struggle, the only sore loser is the working stiff tax payer.

If you want a tip, don't be surprised if you see Mitman retire soon and Don (of the valley) Cunningham or Johnny (Casino) Callahan as the new LVRDC chief if LVEDC survives.

Stay tuned, this has been blog free Lehigh Valley.

Bernie O'Hare said...

4:21, I am aware that LC has had a marginally better area for economic development. I am also aware that the Elmer Gates' and the Charles Snellings of this world, the puppet masters in the LVP, are very pro-Lehigh County. Iannelli doid want money fr his Main Street program, one of the bright lights in our local economic development, and one that has helped many small businesses. I am unaware that he has any intentions beyond that. If he does, good for him.

Bernie O'Hare said...

5:06, several months ago, I suggested here that the LVEDC might very well go to Cunningham or Callahan. I would prefer Cunningham.Callahan would be Mitman II.

I am very well aware that LVEDC is a creature of the LVP. So is RenewLV and a number of other groups.

I am uncertain whether the conflagration between LVEDC and the Chamber is an intense as you make it out. if it were, I think TI would already be running the show.

Anonymous said...

"I am uncertain whether the conflagration between LVEDC and the Chamber is an intense as you make it out"

it is

Anonymous said...

Absolutely!! A major reason why Iannelli got so into political races, spending big dollars and all. Why do you think Dowd was put on alert.

Since the Partnership owns both these groups, they will let it play out. The only way they step in is if there is a chance of any of the Partnership boys losing power or money. Otherwise, the pawns can go at it, as long as the government dollars are flowing to someone when the dust settles.

For someone so on top of thing, I would think you know this already Mr. O'Hare.