By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — In the 1970s and 1980s, retail shopping moved from Main Street to the malls.
The trend continued as big-box stores such as Kmart, Walmart and Target started popping up on the outskirts of cities.
The next part of the buying evolution occurred from the 1990s into the next century via internet shopping, in which consumers could sit in front of their computers and order just about anything.
And now, as malls struggle to retain anchor stores, not to mention smaller specialty shops, a revival of sorts has occurred — at least in some areas — through a return to Main Street.
While Luzerne County still has its mall and its big-box stores and shopping centers, a few downtowns, especially, are thriving.
Wilkes-Barre, Pittston and Luzerne are examples of how a downtown can flourish. All you need is a good plan and the funding needed to get the job done and bring people back to Main Street.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, the steward of downtown Wilkes-Barre, said downtowns haven’t been the preferred destination for shoppers for nearly 50 years, but he sees the trend reversing.
Newman, who has worked in the downtown revitalization business for more than 30 years, said there is no cookie-cutter solution to bringing a downtown back. He said he has seen what works and what doesn’t, not just in Wilkes-Barre but across the country.
According to Newman, what works:
• Planning and building a comprehensive strategy.
• Improving incrementally; taking small steps.
• Capitalizing and building on existing strengths.
What doesn’t work:
• Pedestrian malls.
• Downtown shopping malls.
• Relying on projects and not process.
“In Wilkes-Barre, we didn’t put all of our eggs in one basket,” Newman said. “We built on our strengths — two downtown colleges, our historical buildings, and a beautiful river running through the center of the city.”
Newman said the city also has become home to many new residents. He said several downtown residential projects have attracted people of all ages.
Add to that 40-plus more occupied storefronts since 2005, twice as many restaurants since that time, and 112 new housing units thanks to six separate projects that saw more than $10 million of private funds invested, and you can see a big change in Wilkes-Barre.
With the addition of the R/C Movies 14 theater multiplex, the Barnes & Noble bookstore, the continued success of the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, and the fact that center city is the top employer in the county, Newman said the incremental plan is working.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George, who has held the office since January 2016, said the key to bringing the downtown back has been a collaboration among the Diamond City Partnership, the city, and the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce.
“No man is an island,” George said. “We all work together, and that effort is really starting to pan out.”
During his campaign for mayor, George said keeping the downtown safe and clean were his main priorities. Now, a police officer is stationed downtown at all times, and Diamond City has a staff that constantly cleans the city’s streets and sidewalks.
George, noting he would like to see more events held downtown, said the city applied for a $1 million grant to refurbish the center of Public Square but received only $200,000. He said a plan is being formulated to decide how specifically to use that money.
“The more people that come downtown, the better it is for our businesses,” he said.
Michelle Kalinowski was standing in line earlier this month, waiting to order lunch at Circles on the Square, a downtown fixture on Public Square for 30 years.
Kalinowski has worked at Pepperjam, an internet marketing agency just a few doors away, for more than three years. She said she likes what’s happening downtown.
“You can see they are trying to revitalize (it),” she said. “You can see the hard work being done.”
Kalinowski, 32, said new condominiums and apartments that have become available in several downtown buildings are attractive to young professionals.
“A lot of them want to work and live in town,” she said. “The new housing units will help keep a lot of younger people here.”
Despite the pluses, Kalinowski said she still sees several “issues” in the city, including a lot of people who need help.
“I don’t know if that will ever change,” she said.
Kalinowski then pointed to more positives downtown, including Rodano’s and Franklin’s restaurants, the Kirby Center, and the Movies 14 complex.
Newman also said having a downtown department store like Boscov’s is a luxury not enjoyed by most cities in the United States. He said with the recent million-dollar remodeling reinvestment in the store, Boscov’s sees value in being downtown.
He also said that with so many college students and downtown residents — many of them senior citizens — having several destinations within walking distance of their residences is important.
Newman said Wilkes-Barre and other Main streets, like those in Luzerne and Pittston, have achieved success by using the same incremental approach.
“The playbooks are the same,” he said. “We have all been built on singles and doubles and not by swinging for the fences. There is something about having an organizational structure that allows for a plan that is sustained over decades.”
Newman said he has applied the Downtown Four Point Approach as fashioned by the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, for which he serves as chairman.
The four points are design, promotion, organization and economic vitality. Newman said the approach is working in Wilkes-Barre, but he quickly noted the goal is far from achieved.
“We can never be satisfied,” Newman said. “Every day I walk around the downtown and I notice things that still need to be done. But I always step back and see where we are today as compared to where we were 10 years ago.”
He said his initial goal was to start the ball rolling to a better downtown.
“The ball is definitely rolling,” he said. “But I’d say we are halfway home.”
Newman said gaps need to be filled. For instance, he would like to see the park in the middle of Public Square redone. And there are parcels he would love to see developed, most notably the site at River and Market streets, where the Hotel Sterling once stood.
“We will never have a successful, economically healthy community without the presence of a healthy, vibrant downtown,” Newman said. “Because when people judge communities, they start on Main Street.”
Main Street in the city of Pittston and in the borough of Luzerne look quite different than they did decades ago — and both for the better. Specialty shops, restaurants, health care facilities, convenience stores and professional offices line both sides of the communities’ main thoroughfares.
Jane Sabatelle and her son, Jason, own and operate Sabatelle’s Fine Food Market on South Main Street in Pittston, where the market offers everything from hoagies and sandwiches to fresh meats and homemade pasta and, as its business card says, “all the good stuff.”
Jane and her husband, Rocky, opened the store in 1978, and as they approach their 40th year in the same location, they couldn’t be more pleased with the way the downtown has improved.
“Pittston is just a community-minded place,” Jane said. “The people here are very, very loyal and family oriented.”
She said her store has always had its niche downtown, attracting not only local customers, but visitors from places like Harrisburg and Bethlehem.
“This Main Street is like the towns of old,” Sabatelle said. “The customers like our reliability, our quality and our speedy service.”
She said the new look of Pittston’s Main Street — new sidewalks, lighting, facades, murals and more — has been a perk for businesses.
“People come here and see what’s going on, and they want to come back,” Sabatelle said.
On Main Street here, several stores line both sides of the thoroughfare. One store — Nucleus Raw Foods — epitomizes what small-town Main Streets have become — unique specialty stores that offer products that might be difficult to find elsewhere.
Dan McGrogan, who grew up in New Jersey, owns Nucleus, at 63 Main St. He’s been in Luzerne since February 2014.
McGrogan, 36, said his business started out of his garage in 2013, delivering juices and raw snacks to locals. He moved to Luzerne because he loves its dynamic.
“It’s affordable, convenient, has hiking trails and awesome merchants,” McGrogan said.
At Nucleus, he said the only ingredients used are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and spices. All of the cuisine is gluten-free, organic, raw (dehydrated at low temperatures), soy free and vegan. He sells banana-based smoothies, apple-based juices, snacks, and he offers a full menu. The top-selling menu items are the Nucleus Burger and tacos.
McGrogan said he opened his store to help people. He said having the opportunity to feed his neighbors the highest quality foods possible is extremely rewarding for him.
Not far from McGrogan’s store is My Sister’s Closet, a women’s apparel and accessories consignment shop that’s been in Luzerne for 17 years. Owner Karen Brown said she moved her store from Kingston because she likes the small-town atmosphere of Luzerne. Her daughter has a store — Rumor Has It — just down the street.
A customer, Izzi Naperkowski of Dallas, said she likes to shop in the Luzerne stores.
“People actually get to know you and who you are,” she said. “And I like the bargains.”
Brown, 56, said a lot of new stores have opened in Luzerne since she’s been there, and many have stayed.
“It’s a great town,” she said. “It’s like the way it used to be when I was a kid.”