Don Cunningham

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Don Cunningham
Executive of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania
In office
Preceded by Jane Ervin
Succeeded by Bill Hansell
Pennsylvania Secretary of General Services
In office
Succeeded by James Creedon
9th Mayor of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
In office
Preceded by Paul Marcincin (interim)
Succeeded by James Delgrosso
Bethlehem City Councilman
In office
Preceded by Richard Szulborski
Succeeded by Magdalena Szabo
Personal details
Born December 13, 1965
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Political party Democratic Party

Donald "Don" Cunningham Jr. is the current president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC). He previously served as executive of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of General Services, and as mayor and councilman of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

As mayor, Cunningham is credited with leading an economic renaissance in Bethlehem, rejuvenating the city's two downtowns and helping kick-start Bethlehem's economy after the collapse of Bethlehem Steel.[1] As the twice-elected Lehigh County executive, Cunningham restructured county operations to make economic growth and community regionalization the focus of his administration. Several major Lehigh Valley projects came to fruition during his tenure, including Coca-Cola Park, Boston Beer Company's largest brewery, and new Ocean Spray manufacturing operations.

Cunningham was appointed to his position at LVEDC in July 2012. Before his political career, he also worked in corporate communications at PPL Corporation and as director of media and marketing operations at Moravian College. Cunningham received a bachelor's degree in journalism from Shippensburg University and a master's degree in political science from Villanova University.

Early life and career[edit]

Don Cunningham Jr. was born on December 13, 1965, to parents Don Sr. and Valerie Cunningham.[2] His family had lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for five generations,[3] and his father and grandfather were both steel workers at Bethlehem Steel.[4] After 13 years in the Bethlehem Area School District, he graduated from the Freedom High School in 1983. During his time at Freedom he played football, ran track, worked on the student newspaper, and was the front man for a teenage rock band.[5] Cunningham would later be inducted into the Freedom High School's hall of fame, entitled the "Circle of Excellence," in 2001.[6] After high school, Cunningham was educated in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, where he went to Shippensburg University and earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Journalism and a minor in government in 1987. He then worked his way through graduate school, finishing summa cum laude with a Master of Arts Degree in political science from Villanova University (1991).[7]

Before seeking public office, Cunningham worked as a correspondent with The Philadelphia Inquirer and as a reporter with the Globe-Times of Bethlehem, where he worked from 1988 to 1992,[6][8] covering city government.[9] Afterward he worked as a spokesman for Moravian College, also in Bethlehem, from 1992 to 1993. He then worked as a senior information specialist at the PPL Corporation, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Allentown, Pennsylvania.[6] Cunningham wrote in-house publications for the company.[9]

Bethlehem council and mayor[edit]

In 1995, Cunningham was elected to Bethlehem City Council along with two other political newcomers, Democrats Robert Donchez and James Gregory,[4] defeating two veteran councilmen in what The Morning Call newspaper called "a new era for City Democrats".[3] He served as chairman of the council's Parks and Public Property Committee.[8] In January 1997, during his first council term, Cunningham announced his intention to run for mayor of Bethlehem,[8] a post held since 1988 by Ken Smith.[9] Donchez served as his campaign chairman.[3] Cunningham described himself as among a new generation of young leaders in Bethlehem.[8] His candidacy was supported by such politicians as U.S. Rep Paul McHale and Pennsylvania Rep. T. J. Rooney.[8] Cunningham raised about $20,000 before the end of the Democratic primary election, outpacing his opponent, Northampton County Councilwoman Cindy Marakovits, about two-to-one. Cunningham defeated Marakovits in the Democratic primary by a vote count of 3,384 to 2,916, and went on to face Republican Councilman Otto Ehrsam in the general election.[3]

Ehrsham was a 67-year-old Bethlehem Steel retiree who had been on council for 20 years.[4][9] While Ehrsam made his experience a focal point of his campaign, Cunningham ran on a platform of fresh ideas, new programs, and ways to stabilize the city's finances.[4] He presented voters with a 25-page platform for change that called for a return to blue-collar roots, creating jobs through economic development, restructing the public works department, improving city service and customer service, and reducing expenses with modern business practices.[3][4] Cunningham defeated Ehrsam in the general election after capturing 62 percent of the vote, collecting 6,336 to Ehrsam's 3,919 votes. The Morning Call called it "one of the most decisive victories in a Bethlehem mayoral race".[4] Voter turnout was approximately 50 percent, and Cunningham polled well in Republican and swing wards, where Democrats occasionally vote for Republican candidates.[4] At age 31, Cunningham became the youngest elected mayor in the city's history,[4][8] breaking a previous record held by Gordon Mowrer, who was 37 when elected in 1973.[8] Cunningham was re-elected to a second term in 2001.[10]

Cunningham was inaugurated during a particularly difficult time in Bethlehem's history. At the time, the city's largest employer, Bethlehem Steel, had just closed in 1996, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs and a significant portion the city's tax base. During his tenure, Cunningham guided more than $1 billion of new development and the creation of 2,500 new jobs into the city. As mayor, Cunningham proposed five city budgets, only one of which had a tax increase, which was 5.5 percent in 2003, his final year in the office.[11] Cunningham advocated public-private partnerships and developed new and innovative programs to improve public safety and the delivery of neighborhood services. He also fostered development initiatives to compensate for the loss of taxes from Bethlehem Steel, leading to successful projects in the city's historic downtown and South Side business district, the latter of which Bethlehem civic organizations felt had been long-neglected.[12]

Among his specific accomplishments, Cunningham engineered the construction of a parking deck at Main and North streets, which led to the development of Liberty Center, a $13 million commercial and office complex in a once-vacant at Broad and Main streets. Additionally, he leveraged $1 million in federal money to open a previously-failed Broad Street pedestrian mall, which had stalled on the east end of the city's Broad Street. The street was opened in 2012 and vacant storefronts became filled,[12] leading to expanded downtown development in an eight-block commercial corridor. Several Bethlehem structures were redeveloped, including the Radisson Hotel Bethlehem; the historic Union Station, which became medical offices; and the Orr's Department Store, which became the Main Street Commons. His tenure also saw the construction of the $85 million Moravian Village retirement community; a $20 million Campus Square dormitory and retail complex at Lehigh University; and a $60 million seven-floor expansion to Lehigh Valley Hospital. As his time as mayor came to a close, redevelopment had on the 550-acre Bethlehem Commerce Center industrial park and the 120-acre Bethlehem Works retail, entertainment and residential area.[13]

Cunningham was president of the National League of Cities during his time as mayor.[12] He was recognized for his innovations in the delivery of local government services by both the U.S. Conference of Mayors (1999) and former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.[10] In 2000, the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist political reform organization, named Cunningham one of the "100 Hundred to Watch" among Democrats across the nation, and one of the Top 10 new Democrats under the age of 40.[14] Pennsylvania Senator Lisa Boscola said under Cunningham's leadership, the once-troubled city of Bethlehem "moved out of the shadow of Bethlehem Steel and into a future that is bright and full of promise".[15] In a 2009 column, Morning Call columnist Bill White declared Cunningham the best ever mayor among Lehigh Valley's three cities of Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton.[16] Near the end of Cunningham's mayoral tenure, speculation arose that he would run for a seat vacated by Pat Toomey on the United States House of Representatives, representing Pennsylvania's 15th congressional district, but Cunningham ruled it out because it would mean too much time away from his family.[1]

Secretary of General Services[edit]

Cunningham became a short-list candidate for the cabinet of Governor Ed Rendell. Initial discussions centered around the secretary position for the Department of Community and Economic Development. In December 2002, Cunningham cut short his trip to a National League of Cities conference in Salt Lake City to fly to Philadelphia and discuss the post with Rendell.[12] Cunningham and Rendell had previously met through the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, near the end of Rendell's tenure as mayor of Philadelphia, and they had been friends since.[1][12] Rendell said economic development of the state's urban core was one of the top issues of his administration, and that he had "tremendous respect" for Cunningham and his accomplishments in Bethlehem. Likewise, Cunningham said he had modeled his administration's economic development plan for Bethlehem in part after the prototype Rendell used as mayor of Philadelphia.[12] In January 2003, it was announced Rendell had tapped Cunningham for a secretary position, but with the Department of General Services, not the Department of Community and Economic Development. Although Cunningham was a candidate for both posts, Rendell said his track record of success in Bethlehem despite the loss of Bethlehem Steel would serve him well in maintaining the state's costs. Rendell also said Cunningham would be in the forefront of an effort to contain spending in the state government, which was facing a $2 billion budget deficit. Rendell said of Cunningham: "You might be looking at the only two people in Pennsylvania who know how to cut costs."[17]

Cunningham's appointment was unanimously approved by the Pennsylvania Senate on February 11, 2003, by a vote of 46-0, making him Rendell's first cabinet secretary to be confirmed. He formally resigned as Bethlehem mayor afterward, with city business administrator Dennis Reichard becoming the acting mayor.[15] In 2003, Cunningham resigned as Mayor of Bethlehem to become Secretary of the Department of General Services under Governor Ed Rendell.[18] Cunningham earned $110,000 annually in the state position.[19] As secretary of the Department of General Services, Cunningham oversaw 1,300 employees and was responsible for the management of more than 11,000 state-owned buildings, including the State Capitol and Governor's Mansion. In total, the department managed 6.7 million square feet of office space, 117 acres of state grounds and roadways, and 1,350 Commonwealth leases at an annual cost of $110 million.[20] As secretary, Cunningham oversaw $4 billion of Pennsylvania's budget,[21] including his department's own budget of $141.6 million. Within his first month in the post, Rendell tasked him with reducing that budget by 10 percent.[1]

As secretary, Cunningham oversaw the design and construction of the non-highway capital construction projects in Pennsylvania, as well as the state's minority and women-owned business contracting program and the Bureau of Commonwealth Media Services.[22] Additionally, he served as the state’s real estate agent and insurance broker, and doubled the state's property insurance coverage while reducing premiums nearly by half, saving more than $4 million annually. He also ran the Governor's management and productivity initiative, which saved the state $500 million in operating costs. Cunningham also led initiatives to sell surplus state property, with the intention of saving taxpayer money, putting the properties back onto tax rolls, and creating community and economic development opportunities. He urged local governments and school districts in Pennsylvania to buy equipment from state contracts, thus realizing financial savings, and also consolidated warehouse facilities in Harrisburg from 17 buildings to four, for an annual saving of $4 million. In addition to his secretary position, Cunningham served on the State Public School Building Authority, the Pennsylvania Higher Educational Facilities Authority, the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council, the PENNVEST board, the Capitol Preservation Committee, and the Agricultural Land Preservation Interagency Committee during his time in Rendell's administration.[22]

Lehigh County executive[edit]

Starting in early 2005, Cunningham was heavily courted by Lehigh Valley democrats to run for executive of Lehigh County.[19][23] No Democrat had ever won the executive's office since the county's home rule charter went into effect in 1978,[19] and Lehigh County Democratic Committee Chairman Charles F. Smith Jr. called Cunningham the party's "dream candidate".[24] Cunningham announced his candidacy for the position in March, and he formally resigned from the Rendell administration on April 8. He ran with no opposition in the Democratic primary,[25] clearing the way for a challenge against Republican Executive Jane R. Ervin, who was seeking a second four-year term.[19] During his campaign, Cunningham strongly criticized Ervin for a 69 percent county tax increase in 2003, calling it "unconscionable" declaring that a change in leadership was necessary.[25] Cunningham raised other campaign issues as the election continued, including crime prevention, the cost of a planned courthouse expansion, and priorities in county construction projects. Ervin responded aggressively to Cunningham's campaign, raising questions about his record in Bethlehem and Rendell's administration and defending her tax increase as the right thing to do for the county.[26] Cunningham defeated Ervin by a margin of 33,263 to 20,721, capturing 62 percent of the vote,[27] becoming the first Democrat ever elected to the executive post.[26] He had spent roughly $500,000 in the election.[28] The county executive position paid $65,000 annually, a 41 percent cut from Cunningham's salary as a cabinet secretary.[19]

As county executive, Cunningham was responsible for a workforce of about 3,000 full- and part-time employees and a budget of roughly $400 million.[21] Despite an economic recession during much of his tenure, Lehigh County experienced no tax increases, no net growth in government, reduced health care costs, and spending below inflation rates during Cunningham's first term in office.[29] Cunningham managed the county courthouse renovations at a cost of $62 million, less than the $83 million that had been projected.[30] Cunningham governed on a philosophy of regional partnerships with local municipalities and the business community to drive community development and economic growth.[21] Despite the national recession, several major development projects and corporate relocations came to fruition during Cunningham's tenure, including the Boston Beer Company establishing their largest brewery in Upper Macungie Township,[31] Olympus Corporation opening its headquarters in Upper Saucon Township;[32] Ocean Spray establishing manufacturing operation in Upper Macungie Township;[33] and Coca-Cola Park, the baseball stadium for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, opening in Allentown.[34] Cunningham also funded open space preservation,[30] negotiated contracts to stem rising health care costs,[35] repaired more than 20 bridges, established a new 911 center, built the county's first drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility,[36] and helped municipalities with higher crime rates hire more police officers.[37]

In 2007, Cunningham endorsed Hillary Clinton in her campaign for U.S. President. In April 2008, Cunningham was the top vote-getter in the 15th congressional district to serve as a delegate Hillary Clinton to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.[38][39] Cunningham announced as early as 2007 that he was seriously considered a run for Pennsylvania governor in 2010.[40] However, in June 2009, Cunningham announced he would not seek the post due to family concerns and time restraint, and so he could focus on his job as county executive. Cunningham had raised about $725,000 for the possible campaign by that point, lower than the $3.5 million political analysts predicted was necessary, and far behind the $4.1 million perceived frontrunner Dan Onorato had raised by that time.[41]

In 2009, Cunningham was challenged in his re-election campaign by Scott Ott,[30] a Republican political newcomer associated with the conservative Tea Party movement.[42] Ott accused Cunningham of avoiding a county tax increase only by depleting a tax relief fund established during Jane Ervin's administration, leaving the county in a position where future tax hikes would be necessary.[30] For his part, Cunningham accused Ott of using scare tactics in his campaign and said he lacked the experience to lead the county.[37] He also argued Republican county commissioners had actually increased spending.[29] Cunningham defeated Ott in the general election by a voter count of 21,063 to 20,201, capturing 51 percent of the vote to Ott's 49 percent.[43] In 2010, a 16.1 percent tax increase was proposed as part of the county budget, with Cunningham said was necessary due to difficult financial times, but would avoid the need to sell assets, deplete savings, impose massive layoffs, or reduce government services to the point that the problem would grow worse in subsequent years.[44] It was the first county tax increase since 2003. The budget was ultimately passed.[45] In 2011, Ott was elected to the county's board of commissioners in 2011, along with a slate of fellow conservatives who ran together on a ticket of reform, which heavily criticized the 16 percent county tax increase during their campaigns.[45][46]

Although the board had always been Republican-majority during Cunningham's tenure, he had a particularly difficult relationship with the commissioners after the 2011 election. For example, Cunningham unsuccessfully attempted to veto a county-wide reassessment that commissioners approved, arguing it should have been delayed at least a year to allow time for the market to become less volatile.[36] By the time Cunningham departed from office, Lehigh County had an Aa1 bond rating and $25 million cash reserve. Additionally, the county had realized $60 million in health care cost savings, and had its smallest workforce since 1990.[36]

Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation[edit]

In May 2012, Cunningham was approached for the position of president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), which promotes economic development and business growth in the Lehigh Valley. The organization convened a search committee and identified Cunningham as the ideal candidate.[47] LVEDC Chairman Don Bernhard said Cunningham was selected based on his "decision-making skills, leadership and influence, relationship skills, teaming and governance," as well as his extensive knowledge of the Lehigh Valley.[48] Cunningham accepted the position, resigning as Lehigh County executive with a year-and-a-half remaining in his second term.[49] He replaced Phil Mitman, a former Easton mayor who had been LVEDC President and CEO for five years before resigning for a post at the Easton Area Industrial Land Development Co. Inc.[50] Former Lehigh County Commissioner Bill Hansell was appointed county executive to replace Cunningham.[51] Cunningham started with an annual salary of $120,000 in the position.[52]

Upon starting at LVEDC, Cunningham said he would focus less on bureaucratic processes and more on results and aggressively marketing the Lehigh Valley. He vowed to increase the agency's role in emerging business markets, bring more information- and technology-based companies into the organization, grow the regional business base, and engage with government partners.[52] Cunningham spent the first six months of his tenure meeting with Lehigh Valley stakeholders and business leaders, identifying their needs and concerns.[53] He then commissioned Garner Economics, an Atlanta-based economic consulting firm, to conduct an analysis of the region and recommend economic development and marketing strategies for the Lehigh Valley. The study identified the economic strengths and weaknesses of the region and defined a regional approach for development and growth.[54] LVEDC also adopted a three-year strategic plan in 2014 outlining the organization's mission, vision, values, principles, and priorities.[53]

The Lehigh Valley has seen new investments from national companies during Cunningham's tenure at LVEDC, including Bimbo Bakeries, Ice River Springs, Zulily, Kraft Foods,[55] Safran,[56] and two Walmart e-commerce distribution centers.[57] The Lehigh Valley has been the fastest growing region in Pennsylvania during his time, and in 2015 was ranked by Site Selection magazine the top-performing region for economic development in the Northeastern United States among metropolitan areas with a population between 200,000 and 1 million. It marked the seventh consecutive year the Lehigh Valley had made Site Selection's top 10 list, making it one of only two regions to have that distinction, along with Dayton, Ohio.[58]


  1. ^ a b c d Micek, John L. (March 15, 2003). "Cunningham starts new state post by taking a bite out of his budget: Rendell's secretary of General Services had to slice it by 10 percent". The Morning Call. p. B1. 
  2. ^ Bradford, Tina (December 28, 1997). "Inaugural ball set Jan. 2 for Bethlehem mayor-elect". The Morning Call. p. E07. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Jordan, Tracy (May 21, 1997). "Demos pick Cunningham to be mayoral candidate: Veteran Republican councilman Otto Ehrsam was unopposed for his party's nomination". The Morning Call. p. A01. Retrieved October 15, 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Jordan, Tracy (October 15, 2015). "Cunningham elected mayor: In beating Ehrsam, the 31-year-old becomes youngest mayor in Bethlehem's history". The Morning Call. p. A01. Retrieved October 15, 2015. 
  5. ^ Reaman, Denise (March 26, 1998). "Mayor returns to Freedom halls: Don Cunningham, class of '83, speaks at partners in education day". The Morning Call. p. B01. 
  6. ^ a b c "Way to Go!". The Morning Call. February 15, 2001. p. B5. 
  7. ^ Hartzell, Dan (October 31, 2005). "Tax rate just the tip of the iceberg: Courthouse expansion, baseball stadium also key issues in Lehigh County executive race". The Morning Call. p. B1. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Patton, Susan Ruiz (January 6, 1997). "Cunningham will enter mayoral race: Democratic councilman will announce Wednesday". p. B01. 
  9. ^ a b c d Jordan, Tracy (January 9, 1997). "Mayoral candidate touts blue-collar roots: Don Cunningham tells campaign backers the city must 'redefine itself'". The Morning Call. p. B03. 
  10. ^ a b Don Cunningham for Lehigh County Executive
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  18. ^ Don Cunningham for Lehigh County Executive
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  31. ^ Isherwood, Darryl R. (February 12, 2009). "Cunningham: County is in 'sound' shape: Annual address: He announces grants for 10 more police". The Morning Call. p. B1. 
  32. ^ Blumenau, Kurt (July 21, 2006). "Focus on Olympus: Valley center open 400 company officials, dignitaries attend kickoff in Upper Saucon". The Morning Call. p. A1. 
  33. ^ Portnoy, Jenna (March 25, 2011). "Ocean Spray may help quench Lehigh Valley's thirst for jobs: Company's bottling and processing plant outside Trenton, N.J., might relocate here". The Morning Call. p. A1. 
  34. ^ Schuler, Jeff (December 19, 2007). "IronPigs to open park against Phillies: An exhibition appearance by major league team is no longer required, but it's scheduled". The Morning Call. p. A1. 
  35. ^ Malone, JD (July 6, 2012). "Exiting Cunningham touts record: Lehigh County executive, who is leaving today to take over at LVEDC, says he accomplished most of his goals while in office". The Morning Call. p. A6. 
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  38. ^ Isherwood, Darryl R. (April 10, 2008). "Democratic delegate candidates also on ballot: Five will be elected to go to national convention in Denver". The Morning Call. p. A4. 
  39. ^ "April, 22 2008 General Primary Election". Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. 2008. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
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  42. ^ Kraus, Scott (January 12, 2010). "GOP gets full-time help in Lehigh County: Scott Ott hired as executive director as volunteer chairmanship becomes open". The Morning Call. p. A6. 
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  45. ^ a b Kraus, Scott (May 18, 2011). "Browning loses primary challenge: All four members of fiscal conservative slate, headed by Scott Ott, prevail in Lehigh commissioner race". The Morning Call. p. A5. 
  46. ^ McEvoy, Colin (January 4, 2012). "Lehigh County Commissioners select new chairman after five failed rounds of voting". The Express-Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  47. ^ McEvoy, Colin (May 23, 2012). "Don Cunningham gains recommendation to lead Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., sources say". The Express-Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  48. ^ Zanki, Tom (May 30, 2012). "Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. names Don Cunningham CEO". The Express-Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  49. ^ Marcus, Samantha (May 30, 2012). "Cunningham to take over as LVEDC chief executive: Commissioner Dan McCarthy intends to apply for Lehigh County executive vacancy". The Morning Call. p. A5. 
  50. ^ "EDITORIAL: Cunningham a solid candidate for LVEDC job". The Express-Times. May 25, 2012. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  51. ^ McEvoy, Colin (August 8, 2012). "Bill Hansell appointed acting Lehigh County executive - UPDATE". The Express-Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  52. ^ a b Kraus, Scott (May 31, 2012). "Cunningham: 'It's about results': Lehigh County executive says his focus will be on jobs when he becomes LVEDC president and CEO on July 9". The Morning Call. p. A5. 
  53. ^ a b Althouse, Stephen (August 26, 2014). "LVEDC Adopts 2014-2017 Strategic Plan". Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  54. ^ Kraus, Scott (February 20, 2015). "Study calls for 1-cent Lehigh Valley sales tax: Levy is among consultant's recommendations to grow local economy". The Morning Call. p. A1. 
  55. ^ Althouse, Stephen (March 4, 2014). "Lehigh Valley ranked 2nd in U.S. for economic development". Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  56. ^ Harris, Jon (October 16, 2015). "Lehigh Valley lands aircraft wheel repair company". The Morning Call. p. A19. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  57. ^ Olanoff, Lynn (March 1, 2015). "Lehigh Valley a top 25 U.S. location for warehouses, study says". The Express-Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 
  58. ^ McEvoy, Colin (March 2, 2015). "Lehigh Valley Ranked Top Region for Economic Development in the Northeast". Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation. Retrieved October 16, 2015. 

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