By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Diamond City Partnership Executive Director Larry Newman says Downtown Wilkes-Barre is doing much better than it was a decade ago, but for now, he said it is a work in progress.
“By every objective measure — storefronts filled, restaurants opened, new housing units, new business start-ups, visitor numbers, metrics for cleanliness and safety — downtown is doing better than it was a decade ago,” Newman said. “However, we know that we still have a lot of work to do.”
Newman recently released the Diamond City Partnership’s Downtown Action Plan that is built around six goals. Newman says real progress has been made toward each goal in 2018.
“Some of the factors affecting downtown’s vitality are undeniably beyond anyone’s control, but many others are based on choices and decisions that we make right here,” Newman said.
So, Newman continued, when it comes to making new investments, “we’re going to continue to push to ensure that those choices strengthen downtown as a whole and leverage its core assets — walkability, historic buildings, the colleges, the riverfront, our anchor businesses, and our live/work mix — to the fullest extent possible.”
Newman said DCP intends to continue to create more reasons to come downtown, and to create a more consistently hospitable and attractive public environment that knits everything together and encourages more people to walk around.
“And, we always need to remember that downtown revitalization isn’t so much about building new buildings or parks or parking facilities, but about effectively and strategically managing and maintaining all of the assets, big and small, that we already possess in order to maximize our center city’s potential,” Newman said.
So as we enter the final week of 2018 and head toward 2019, Newman said it’s an appropriate time to look back at the past year in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Goal 1: Downtown will be a safe, clean, and attractive place to live, work, shop and visit.
Newman said day in and day out, DCP’s BID Clean Team worked to maintain and improve the downtown’s physical environment. During 2018, Newman said the Clean Team:
• Removed 2,240 pounds of trash from downtown sidewalks and gutters.
• Eliminated 96 graffiti tags and 236 gum spots.
• Maintained 186 hanging flower baskets.
• Cleared snow and ice from ADA curb cuts, power-washed sidewalks, and provided directions to more than 100 motorists and pedestrians.
Additionally, Newman said the BID funded more than 400 hours of supplemental downtown patrols by Wilkes-Barre police officers on special detail.
Newman said the data was affirmed through the results of DCP’s 2018 Perception & Use Survey, conducted earlier this year, which showed that two-thirds of the 650 survey respondents — including 71 percent of downtown workers and 94 percent of downtown business owners — believe that downtown Wilkes-Barre is headed in the right direction, overwhelmingly reporting that center city is cleaner, safer, and more vibrant.
Newman said the real validation, however, was the renewal of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre BID for a new 10-year term, starting on Jan. 1, 2019.
Newman added that 2018 also saw tangible evidence of the collaborative effort to reinvent Public Square, with work underway on the first phase of the park’s rehabilitation.
“The initial landscape and furniture improvements have already made a difference in the park’s appearance and function,” Newman said. “DCP is now working with the city to plan the next phase, in order to ensure that Public Square achieves its full potential as one of downtown’s signature civic spaces.”
Goal 2: Downtown will be the region’s “walk-to-everything” urban neighborhood of choice.
Newman said the downtown continued to attract residential development in 2018.
• 48 more apartments are now occupied in The Bank at Franklin and Market Streets, with another dozen on the way.
• At 19 North River St., work began on the rehabilitation of the long-vacant Sterling Annex building into more apartment units.
• In September, the Downtown Residents Association showcased center-city living through their 2018 Historic House Tour, which opened the doors of five different downtown homes and two apartments to the public.
And, Newman said, downtown’s new residents were joined by new businesses.
“For the fourteenth consecutive year, our center city enjoyed a net gain in occupied storefronts,” Newman said. “This year’s downtown business openings included Istanbul Grill, Pour Coffee House, Studio 570 Salon, PA Cyber, Tazza Shawarma Grill, and more.”
Goal 3: Downtown will be the region’s “Innovation District:” its hub for business, start-up activity, and entrepreneurship.
From the speakers featured during the “Spotlight” series to the excitement of “Pitch” events to the “101” video fundamentals for fledgling entrepreneurs, Newman said the Chamber’s THINK Center — the meeting place for downtown’s start-up sector — hosted another great year of programming under the “Wilkes-Barre Connect” umbrella in 2018.
“Across the street from the THINK Center, Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies began a phased move into its new corporate home offices at 39 Public Square,” Newman said. “And the year also brought the announcement of plans by local serial entrepreneur Kris Jones to create the region’s first start-up accelerator program right here in downtown Wilkes-Barre.”
Goal 4: Downtown will be the region’s college neighborhood.
Newman said 2018 saw King’s College begin the transformation of North Franklin Street’s historic Spring Brook Water Company building into the Mulligan Center for Engineering, and the rehabilitation of North Street’s landmark former Memorial Presbyterian Church into a new campus chapel and center for community service.
At the other end of Downtown, Newman said Wilkes University rebuilt the core of its campus with the $3.5 million South Campus Gateway and the adjoining $8 million Mark Engineering Center, featuring new lab space for the university’s nanotechnology, additive manufacturing and bio-engineering programs.
Goal 5: Downtown’s historic architecture, walkability, riverfront, and colleges will be the cornerstones of its enhanced visitor experience.
Summer rains couldn’t stop this year’s River Common programming, said Newman.
“From Shakespeare to Chalkfest, jazz concerts to environmental education, the public was treated to one riverfront event after another, thanks to the partnership between the Riverfront Parks Committee, King’s College, Wilkes University, Luzerne County, and DCP,” he said.
On South River Street, the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society raised funds to purchase the Lord Butler house — the city’s oldest documented residence, dating to 1796 — and save it from demolition. Newly painted and secured, the Butler house is now headed toward restoration and new life as a house museum.
The Irem Temple Restoration Project continued to make strides, completing a code analysis and pricing report to guide the rehabilitation of the landmark Irem Temple, and opening its own “Public Square Pop-Up” exhibit at One South Main Street.
Goal6: Downtown will be a regional center of arts, culture, dining, and entertainment.
In 2018, Newman said “Art Block” was launched — the new name for downtown Wilkes-Barre’s Third Friday art walk, with musical acts and place-specific installation art, like July’s “Tape Art” mural, accompanying this monthly arts open house, which showcases center city’s galleries and venues.
Partnerships between the City of Wilkes-Barre, the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, and DCP ensured a full range of seasonal downtown events — parades, Farmers Market, Easter Egg Hunt, Trick-or-Treating, Holiday Market, Small Business Saturday, and more.
And, for the second year in a row, DCP’s Downtown Holiday Pop-Up Shops, organized in partnership with the Chamber, Wilkes-Barre City, and DWBBA, expanded the center city holiday shopping experience, while providing regional retailers with new opportunities to test-drive downtown storefronts.
“It all adds up to another good year in downtown Wilkes-Barre,” Newman said. “Our center city has continued to improve.”