By Larry Newman, for The Citizens Voice
20 years ago, Downtown Wilkes-Barre was in crisis.
It was a crisis in slow motion – and it felt like death by a thousand cuts.
Wilkes-Barre’s central business district – the once-undisputed commercial hub of the Wyoming Valley – had been completely rebuilt following the 1972 flood – but over the course of a decade, all of that post-Agnes progress seemed to have come undone.
One after another, retailers had closed their doors or headed for the suburbs. Mergers absorbed the regional banks that had anchored downtown office buildings. Many professional firms also found reasons to depart. The King’s and Wilkes campuses were islands separated from the rest of the city.
Downtown – once synonymous with sidewalks and streets crowded with shoppers, workers, and anyone who wanted to be in the center of things – had become a trash-strewn shadow of its former self.
Community leaders made a concerted effort to turn the tide, but their initial enthusiasm ultimately gave way to acrimony and frustration.
There were endless arguments about possible solutions: free parking; more parking; some singular development project that could magically “fix” things. Others simply wrote off Wilkes-Barre’s central business district as a lost cause – hopelessly dirty, dangerous, and dysfunctional.
This was the context for the Diamond City Partnership’s 2001 founding – the result of almost 1,000 citizens working together to craft a new vision for Downtown Wilkes-Barre.
DCP became the nonprofit keeper of that vision, convening stakeholders around a comprehensive plan for a more vibrant central city, and systematically working with those partners to turn the plan into action.
In 2007, our commercial property owners voted to create the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District (BID) – which gave DCP the ability to provide a full range of place management services to the city’s commercial core.
What were the results of DCP’s deliberate, incremental approach? From 2007 through 2020, Downtown Wilkes-Barre saw a net gain of 55 occupied storefronts; 216 new market-rate housing units (with 30 more coming online in 2021), and more than $200 million in private investment. It had become a college town, a startup hub, and a regional destination for dining and entertainment.
In DCP’s last Perception Survey before the COVID-19 pandemic, two-thirds of all respondents – and 94% of downtown business owners – told us that Downtown Wilkes-Barre was “headed in the right direction.”
Now, Downtown Wilkes-Barre confronts a new crisis – one that feels as daunting as what we had confronted 20 years ago.
Successful downtowns bring people together, but COVID turned every gathering into a public health threat. At the start of 2020, more than 11,000 people worked Downtown – three months later, the office buildings were empty. So were the F.M. Kirby Center, Movies 14, the college campuses, and our stores and restaurants. Wilkes-Barre’s economic engine, responsible for generating more than one-fourth of its total tax revenue, was largely silenced.
Today, as DCP marks its 20th anniversary, it must pilot a new downtown recovery. However, the same principles that guided the previous revival will allow us to rebound again.
Here’s a guiding irony of the digital age: when work can increasingly be done from anywhere, a community’s “quality of place” – the specific set of characteristics that make it attractive and desirable –is what drives its economic competitiveness.
In other words: if we cultivate a downtown environment where people want to spend time, visitors, residents, office tenants, and new businesses will follow.
That’s done by focusing on the basics of good city-making – creating a place that’s clean, safe, attractive, walkable, and designed for people – while continuing to build on Downtown’s most important assets: its mixed-use urban environment; its Public Square and riverfront; its remarkable historic architecture; its colleges and universities; its arts venues.
While the specific functions of Main Streets evolve, the qualities that attract people and investment to city centers are timeless.
It’s worth noting that, even as COVID restrictions emptied Downtown, its residential landlords experienced no slowdown in demand for their new apartments.
After more than a year of drive-through living, people are longing for opportunities to be together once again.
So, as vaccinations continue and restrictions ease, DCP will be reanimating Downtown spaces with outdoor events. We will continue to improve the physical environment by creating a comfortable pedestrian experience, restoring historic buildings, and investing in the quality of the public realm. We will continue to support businesses with resources, advocacy, and assistance. And, we will use our newly secured Main Street designation to full advantage.
DCP has accomplished a lot during 20 years. Now, it’s time to roll up our sleeves once more – and we aren’t going to stop until Downtown Wilkes-Barre is again a vibrant point of pride for our entire community.
LARRY NEWMAN is Executive Director, Diamond City Partnership.