By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association picked the perfect day to hold its meeting at City Hall — Mayor Tony George announced that two new police officers would be sworn in later in the day.
That came as good news to the representatives of downtown merchants, who always have had a high concern for safety. In fact, Mayor George has stated many times that he feels the key to downtown success and the overall success of the city depends mainly on public safety.
George told the group gathered in council chambers that he began his career with the city some 40 years ago as a beat cop, having worked the downtown beat for years.
“I knew all the downtown businesses,” he said. “I established a good rapport between them and the city. I have always believed that safety is the key to a successful city.”
George told about 30 members of the downtown group to expect increased police visibility in the downtown and throughout the city.
The new officers are James Verdekal III and Sara Chmieleweski. With the two officers sworn in Friday, Police Chief Marcella Lendacky said the force has 82 members. Both officers are ACT 120 certified. Their salaries are $57, 913.
Mayor George said he opted to hire the two new officers before the most recent hiring list expired. The next test results won’t be available for another six months, he said.
Mayor George, at the swearing-in ceremony stated that he was thrilled to have two local high school (GAR) graduates, who were born and raised in the city, and who know the streets of Wilkes-Barre, join the police force.
“We need a vital downtown for the city to survive,” George said. “Despite what you may have heard, I will not neglect the downtown — it’s the city’s stronghold.”
Gus Genetti, owner of the downtown hotel/conference center that bears his name, said people who visit Wilkes-Barre tell him they love the city. He said they like having a downtown department store like Boscov’s and they rave about the businesses and restaurants available.
“Too many people living in the area feel if they come downtown they could get shot,” Genetti said. “That’s just not true. The downtown is better than ever. People from outside the area see the good we have here. We need to see it as well.”
George noted that the city recently shut down Locals 88, a bar on Poplar Street, where two people were shot last week.
“This is what you can expect from my administration,” said George, who campaigned on “law and order.”
George also told the downtown group that he is looking to bring more events to the downtown. He said he is looking for a space large enough to hold a year-round Farmers Market.
John Maday, president of the downtown association, announced the dates of two events: The St. Patrick’s Parade on March 13, and the Easter egg hunt on March 19. Maday said both events draw big crowds to the downtown.
“Before I got involved, I had never been to an Easter egg hunt,” Maday said. “And now I’m a rabbit.” Maday dresses up as the Easter Bunny every year for the event.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, said two new businesses have decided to locate in the downtown: Dino’s Pizza Express on South Main Street is open for business, and Alexander’s Spa & Salon at 88 South Franklin St, will open soon.
“In 2015, we had a net increase of six new storefronts opening,” Newman said. “And that brings us to 50 new businesses in the downtown over the last 10 years.”
Newman said work is progressing on the new City Market on Public Square, with the opening expected in the second quarter of the year.