When it comes to the hallways of a manufacturing incubator, rarely a day goes by when they’re not filled with the buzzing of heavy equipment and the hum of activity.

But earlier this month, the usual commotion came to a brief halt as the hallways of AEDC’s Bridgeworks Enterprise Center were filled with new sounds and a new form of excitement: the footsteps of a group of delegates, led by a special guest from the White House, Mr. Douglas Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Inside the Allentown business incubator, Emhoff was joined by Congresswoman Susan Wild and Natalie Cofield, Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Women’s Business Ownership. The group met with two incubation clients, before holding a roundtable discussion with small business owners. The visit was conducted as part of the White House Administration’s “Getting America Back on Track” tour in support of President Biden’s $4 trillion infrastructure plan. To prepare for the private event, AEDC staff worked with the White House travel team to ensure that the facility met all the safety measures, COVID testing, and site setup requirements. 

AEDC’s Executive Director Scott Unger led the delegates through the Bridgeworks building, where they passed all 11 manufacturing company suites, the coworking space, and the flex offices. While on the tour, Unger discussed the impact of the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center, AEDC’s small business incubation program, and the organization’s mission to support urban manufacturing. He also had the opportunity to detail the history of the Bridgeworks building itself, having been owned by AEDC for over 30 years and serving as a Mack Trucks manufacturing plant prior.

“The visit from Mr. Emhoff was a great opportunity to highlight the significant impact our manufacturing entrepreneurs make in terms of job creation and innovation in Allentown and the region,” said Unger. In 2020, the number of clients in the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center grew to a total of 11 companies, earning nearly $16 million in revenue, a 33% increase from 2019. Collectively, the 11 manufacturing businesses employ 39 full-time employees and another 33 as either part-time or contracted employees. Salaries, wages, and contractor fees paid to employees totaled $2,432,194, a 16 percent increase over 2019.

Lighting the Way

The Second Gentleman first stopped at LightLab International Allentown LLC, where he spoke to owners Michael Grather and Tracey Silvert about the company’s photometry and testing lab. Running their business out of the Bridgeworks facility for the past 6 years, Grather and Silvert are accustomed to giving lab tours to students set on entrepreneurship. According to Silvert, hosting a group including Mr. Emhoff, Congresswoman Wild, and Natalie Cofield was a new and distinct honor for the business partners.

As he detailed the lab’s various testing equipment, Grather explained that during the pandemic, the owners invested in the measurement of ultraviolet energy (specifically in the UV-C region). Grather continued that the investment was an intentional move to support an industry promising to protect society from future pandemics, a pursuit that was well-received by the government officials.

Mead Manufacturing

Next, Emhoff stopped at The Colony Meadery, an incubation client of the Bridgeworks program since 2013. Co-owners Greg Heller-LaBelle and Mike Manning are well known for their honey-based libations, having received numerous awards since the business launched.

Heller-LaBelle and Manning led the government officials through the meadery’s tasting room and into their adjoining manufacturing space. During the visit, the partners discussed manufacturing techniques, the fermentation process and described how the mead industry has grown. But like all beverage manufacturers, their business took a massive hit during the pandemic closures, with customers no longer able to visit on-site. Heller-LaBelle noted that the multiple rounds of funding through the Paycheck Protection Program are what kept their business afloat.

“It was a tremendous honor to get to speak with the Second Gentleman about the boom in the mead industry and what we’ve seen during COVID-19.” – Heller-LaBelle

Small Business Owners Discuss COVID Relief

After hearing from the two local manufacturers, the delegates flowed into the Bridgeworks coworking space for a roundtable discussion on the impact of the American Rescue Plan’s relief efforts. The session featured six small business owners from throughout the Lehigh Valley, including Dr. Kyle Flanigan of US Specialty Formulations, Emilio and Melissa Oma of Las Brasas Restaurant, Emma Ville of A Storybook Party, and Rebecca Migdal and Andy Laties of Book and Puppet. As the three government officials posed various questions, the business owners all had the chance to detail their individual experiences operating during the pandemic. Owners described their unique struggles, and ultimately, their relief to have received support through government funding packages.

US Specialty Formulations owner Kyle Flanigan offered remarks about his own challenges supporting employees during the pandemic before discussing his company’s coronavirus vaccine development and rollout. Bridgeworks Incubation Program Manager David Dunn worked closely with Flanigan in securing financing for his company through AEDC’s Urban Made program. Dunn was extremely pleased to see Flanigan as a part of the roundtable discussion. 

“The event was an opportunity for the Biden Administration to put boots on the ground and talk to small businesses face to face about the issues affecting their recovery from the COVID pandemic.” – Dunn

Strong Entrepreneurial Spirit Inside Bridgeworks Facility

During the listening session, the Second Gentleman commented on the impressive entrepreneurial spirit present within the facility and the strong sense of hope and community. Once thanking the participants, Emhoff informed them that he’d be able to share their individual stories at home that night and discuss them over dinner with his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Following the conclusion of the roundtable, Emhoff conducted brief interviews with the media and posed for photos before departing the Bridgeworks facility. “In our roles at AEDC, we talk every day about the impactful work done by our local manufacturers,” said Erin Hudson, Marketing and Communications Specialist. “Today we had the opportunity to share that impact directly with a guest from the White House. It was an honor to host Mr. Emhoff and his team.”

Back to Work

Days later, the buzz of the distinguished guests, the motorcade, secret service agents, Allentown Police Department, and press pool have all since disappeared. In its place, the familiar hum of a bustling facility has resumed. It’s back to business as usual inside the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center; the innovating work of Allentown’s manufacturers continues!

Lauren Matthews