In revitalized Allentown, many still seeking work

AP News
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Posted: Dec 05, 2009 5:34 PM

President Barack Obama talked about his ideas for job creation in a city whose very name conjures Rust Belt images of shuttered factories, high unemployment and persistent hopelessness.

In truth, Allentown doesn't much resemble the place immortalized in the 1982 Billy Joel song. Yet with its empty storefronts downtown and many of its residents struggling to find work, the city provided a fitting backdrop as Obama launched his "White House to Main Street" tour to build public support for a new jobs agenda.

His stops Friday included a career center, a pet food company, a community college _ and Allentown Metal Works, a manufacturer of steel components that laid off 35 percent of its work force during the recession.

"He asked what he could do," said company CEO Jim Gallagher, who showed Obama around. "And clearly, the answer was HELP."

Help is also what Kent Lauer, 44, a welder, is seeking as he tries to find a job after 14 months of searching. Lauer stopped at the factory after Obama left to see what might be available.

"The economy is pulling itself back together as we speak, but getting the work, and getting people to hire, is the hard part," he said. "It's tough. It's really tough out there."

That's a familiar tune in these parts.

Joel sang about economic despair a quarter-century ago in his smash hit "Allentown," with lyrics that include: "Well we're living here in Allentown/And they're closing all the factories down/Out in Bethlehem they're killing time/Filling out forms/Standing in line."

But the region has in fact staged a comeback.

Hospitals are a big employer; Olympus moved its North American headquarters here; and a number of major companies put distribution centers in the region. Allentown is the new home of the Philadelphia Phillies' Triple A affiliate, while neighboring Bethlehem has redeveloped the former Bethlehem Steel plant _ which once employed as many as 30,000 before going dark in the mid-1990s _ into a glitzy new casino operated by Las Vegas Sands Corp.

The unemployment rate in the Lehigh Valley, which encompasses the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, was 9.3 percent in October _ lower than the national rate but still up from 9.1 percent in September and 5.7 percent in October 2008.

"With a history of rebirth during challenging economic times, Allentown is a fitting setting for a discussion of how companies are adapting and thriving," White House spokeswoman Moira Mack said in advance of Obama's visit.

Christopher Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College, said Allentown's "brand identity" as an economically challenged but hardworking city _ and its location in a big, politically important state _ made it a logical choice for Obama.

"It fits the bill nicely for a president who wants to be seen listening to the economic concerns of average Americans outside of the confines of the Beltway."

John Barto, whose family owns seven Burger King restaurants in the area, said he has gotten more job applications during the economic downturn than he can ever hope to fill. Not long ago, Barto had to assemble burgers and clean toilets himself because jobs were readily available.

"Now there's plenty of people beating down your door looking for a way to feed their family," he said.

Barto, 35, tried to lure Obama into his Allentown-area restaurant with a huge sign, prominently displayed under the BK logo: "Welcome Pres. Obama. Stimulate us. Try a Whopper."

Obama didn't bite, opting instead for a cheeseburger at the landmark Hamilton Family Restaurant, where he dined with the mayor and small-business owners.

Protesting outside, retired nurse Carol DeLong said she faults Obama for the bleak jobs picture.

"He said he was going to create jobs," said DeLong, 66. "Where are they?"

But Lindsay Harren-Lewis, 28, of Allentown, an unemployed minister who is about to start looking for work outside her field, was willing to cut Obama some slack.

"He's doing the best job that he can considering the circumstances," she said.