By Sarah Hite Hando, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
Local business leaders say Northeastern Pennsylvania is a perfect place for companies to set up shop. With its proximity to several of the country’s largest cities and easy access to major transportation veins such as Interstates 81, 80 and 84 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it seems like a no-brainer for companies to flock to the Wyoming Valley.
But the location has always been the same. So why have globally recognized businesses such as Amazon established a presence in the area?
Van Genderen said he believes companies are looking at what he calls the ABCs of surveying a potential business location: academic capital, business value propositions and community.
“If those all line up, you could really leverage that,” he said.
Academic capital refers to the ability of local educational facilities to be involved with the economic development of an area.
In Wilkes-Barre, King’s College and Wilkes University have expanded their footprints downtown and have had their largest incoming freshman classes this year, and businesses have taken notice.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, the steward of downtown revitalization in Wilkes-Barre, said the higher-education facilities are a key component to the city’s competitive advantage over other areas.
He said companies such as internet marketing agency Pepperjam have moved downtown to attract college students, and private investments made to create housing downtown also are part of that impact.
Business value propositions are reasons why a company should do business in the area, Van Genderen said, citing the transportation grid, the job market, and the work ethic of Wyoming Valley residents.
Mikitish agrees, especially because of the region’s strong association with the coal mining industry.
“Imagine how hard these men had to work to live and to raise their families,” she said. “So the work ethic that’s been instilled in the families in Northeastern Pennsylvania is, in many cases, second to none.”
Community is another important pillar for businesses to consider whether to set up shop here.
Lombardo said a major reason why he has worked so hard on rebuilding Pittston’s downtown is because he is from this area and firmly believes the people make it a great place to live.
Current Pittston Mayor Jason Klush, who took office in 2010, noted several projects that have contributed to the city’s revitalization during his tenure. Among them: the Geisinger CareWorks building on North Main Street, the apartment condos on Kennedy Boulevard, and the refurbishment of the Newrose and Napoli’s Pizza buildings on South Main Street.
When he looks at what’s been completed in his 7 1/2 years as mayor, Klush said it’s hard to think of one project he’s most proud of.
“We’ve brought the pride back to Pittston, and people want to be downtown,” he said. ” … There are people all over who talk about Pittston, and they use us as an example for other towns with what we’ve done and accomplished. You need a whole team to get things done, and you can’t say one project has done the job. It’s been all of the projects that have turned (Pittston) around.”
Mikitish said the revitalization of Main Street helped to re-energize the area, but an “incredible sense of community” has always been felt.
She also said the increased demand for shipped goods plays a part in why companies have settled here.
Mikitish cited tenants at CenterPoint as proof: Isuzu Commercial Trucking, Boden USA, FedEx, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Greiner Packaging, along with Amazon.
“So it’s exciting that in NEPA, certainly within the last 10 to 15 years, we’re not just attracting business, we’re attracting big business,” Mikitish said.
Other perks include business-friendly tax programs that help support the local economy.
Tenants at CenterPoint are subject to the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance act, an abatement program that allows local municipalities to give tax-exempt status to businesses that develop in deteriorated areas.
The Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program aims to help tech-based businesses flourish.
Companies located in a KIZ can apply for and receive tax credits if they’ve been in operation for less than eight years and fall under specified industry categories, such as information technology/new media, health care and others.
The Keystone Opportunity Zone is another program that allows state and local tax exemption for businesses that develop in undeveloped or underutilized areas to promote economic growth.
According to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, as of January 2015, the program had created nearly 10,000 jobs, and applicants had invested more than $1.5 billion in private capital in properties with the KOZ designation.
Change and challenges
In 2015, the Diamond City Partnership developed a five-year action plan for downtown Wilkes-Barre, which included five “big goals” to accomplish.
In 2017, much of that work has been finished or is in the process of being completed, such as rehabilitating the New Jersey Central train station and marketing the downtown as the “Innovation District.”
Newman’s explanation? Realistic expectations.
“There’s a reason why you choose those particular goals,” he said. “It’s because you think they are achievable. It’s because you know there’s already momentum. Rather than trying to be something we’re not, we’re trying to build off of and embrace the things that give us a competitive advantage as a downtown.”
Lombardo believes in the same strategy. The more goals that can be successfully completed, the more confidence that can be built. As confidence rises, more businesses and companies are willing to venture into the area.
He said improving and building on the city’s infrastructure, from fixing street lights to creating murals, also have an effect on the businesses’ and residents’ confidence.
“It’s all about image,” Lombardo said. “It’s about looking like it matters the way we look.”
Van Genderen said he believes the changes that have occurred in the past few years have helped swing the area into a positive momentum, but residents need to be open-minded about the future.
“I like the name Diamond City. It’s going to be a new, re-cut, re-polished Diamond City,” he said. “It will be different, but we need to embrace the change and prepare for it.”