By Jennifer Learn-Andes, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — A quest to make the city’s downtown a hub for hi-tech jobs was bolstered Friday with the announcement of a $2 million state grant to help create a new innovation center in a vacant former bank.
“I think it’s going to be at the heart of bringing this city back to life,” state Gov. Tom Wolf said during the announcement. “It’s symbolic of, I think, a real renaissance in this area.”
The gathering was in front of the city-owned former First National Bank property on Public Square, which is slated to become a new center for budding technology businesses as part of an initiative dubbed “Innovation Squared.”
The initiative teamed up representatives of area colleges and universities and private and public sector entities in a unified push to attract hi-tech and “knowledge-based” companies, said State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township.
“We’re creating the entrepreneurial ecosystem to foster that development, to bring in new investment and to help those homegrown entrepreneurs realize their dreams and visions,” Yudichak told the area officials and economic development representatives attending the announcement.
He and other speakers held up Pepperjam, which is part of the initiative, as evidence the plan is not a pipe dream.
Formerly known as eBay Enterprise, Pepperjam is an Internet marketing company with more than 2,000 retail clients, Yudichak said. Michael Jones, the company’s chief executive officer, chose to headquarter the global company in the city’s downtown, with plans to expand from 75 to 200 local jobs.
Yudichak said a new innovation center is needed in the Public Square bank building because Pepperjam’s expansion will occupy all available space on both upper floors of the current innovation center above the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore.
Developer George Albert plans to buy the Public Square bank building, which has been empty since the late 1970s.
Albert, who stood in the audience, said he has started working with city officials to negotiate a purchase price.
His company, Albert Holdings I LLC, also purchased the current Innovation Center @ Wilkes-Barre that houses Pepperjam and the book store, in August. Albert Holdings paid the Greater Wilkes-Barre Development Corp., an arm of the chamber, $2.6 million for the property.
Albert’s plans for the former bank building involve development of a private investment fund to root fledgling technology businesses at the property and help them expand, possibly to other vacant downtown structures.
He said he is particularly interested in businesses in the growing fields of virtual reality and biomedical nanotechnology.
The $2 million Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program state earmark was awarded to the city, and city officials must submit detailed documentation to receive reimbursement after work is completed, said governor’s office spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan.
Additional applications are required to narrow down the specific work that will be eligible for the funding, but the initial scope involves the acquisition of the former bank building and renovation of both that building and the current innovation center, Sheridan said.
During Friday’s announcement, Joseph A. Boylan, vice president of economic development at the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry, described Innovation Squared as a movement to “drive and grow our local economy from within.”
The initiative led to creation of the Wilkes-Barre THINK Center, a 6,000 square-foot technology workshop and multimedia center below Barnes & Noble that local entrepreneurs can use for training, conferences, virtual meetings and lectures aimed at “turning ideas and concepts into businesses,” he said.
A network called Wilkes-Barre Connect also is set to launch next month providing existing and prospective businesses with resources to expand, he said.
“It really is an exciting time in Wilkes-Barre,” Yudichak said after reiterating the projects.
The former bank building “represents the glory of Wilkes-Barre’s architecture, of the days gone by and the days that will be,” he said.
“It will soon be filled with a mix and a multitude of new startup companies trying to be and aspiring to be the next Pepperjam here in the city of Wilkes-Barre,” Yudichak said.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, said Northeastern Pennsylvania has the “brain power” and “will” to become a hi-tech hub.
“This is a great example of when all of us work together we can accomplish such great things,” Pashinski said. “It’s not just the money. It’s the ideas. It’s the people that want to make this place better.”
The city has received more than $1.3 million in gambling revenue to stabilize and renovate the bank building it bought in a Luzerne County delinquent-tax sale in 2005 for $225,000, records show.
Albert also is among a group of investors who purchased the deteriorating historic New Jersey Central train station a few blocks away at the corner of Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard for $1.2 million in June.