By Jennifer Learn-Andes, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
The River Common recreation area in downtown Wilkes-Barre deserves more attention and appreciation, several officials said during a Monday announcement of proposed new funding.
“Look at this beautiful park,” said Larry Newman, head of the Diamond City Partnership downtown revitalization alliance. “It is high time that we as a community took full advantage of this asset — this gift that we have been given as a community.”
The Luzerne County-owned park along the Susquehanna River underwent a $23 million revamping unveiled in 2009 that included a new 750-seat amphitheater, fishing pier/landing, and extensive landscaping.
Critics have complained the park is insufficiently maintained and underutilized.
The county is responsible for park maintenance, which has declined due to the elimination of an outside landscaping contract to save money and past county building and ground layoffs that have made it more difficult for staffers to keep up with mowing.
Beefing up programming has always been a challenge because the county relies on the all-volunteer Riverfront Parks Committee to arrange, oversee and obtain funds for events.
Monday’s gathering formally announced that King’s College and Wilkes University have each agreed to provide $20,000 annually for the next five years to help fund existing and new events if county council pledges $10,000 of its natural-gas recreation funding per year during the same period for trimming, weeding, manicuring and other park maintenance.
In addition to the county’s $10,000 earmark, the county operational services division must continue handling grass cutting, garbage collection, light fixture upkeep and other basic maintenance, according to the proposed cooperation agreement.
Council members are scheduled to vote on the $10,000 allocation along with outside requests for natural-gas recreation funding at their Oct. 10 meeting, county Manager C. David Pedri said during Monday’s announcement at the park, which runs from the county courthouse to the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center.
Pedri said he observed dozens walking and enjoying the park as he awaited the announcement, and he praised the educational institutions for voluntarily choosing to assist.
John Loyack, chief financial officer at King’s, said collaboration is important.
“This is a great example of being able to get people of diverse backgrounds together to rally around a common issue that will be good for our citizens and for the colleges and our students,” Loyack said, crediting Newman for initiating the discussion.
Michael J. Wood, special assistant to the president at Wilkes, said the agreement will allow the committee to focus on events and ensure the park is properly maintained.
The park is the “front yard” for approximately 3,000 Wilkes students and workers, he said.
Riverfront Parks representative John Maday said he and others are brainstorming ideas for additional concerts and new events and will be accepting suggestions.
The cooperation agreement would take effect in 2018 and require the committee to create three additional voting positions on its board of directors to be filled by a representative of the county, King’s and Wilkes. Once a year, the committee would be required to present its plans for the funds to county council and the boards of both education institutions.
The committee would recommend a landscaping maintenance schedule, and county staffers must work cooperatively to address any maintenance issues before scheduled events, the agreement says.
The proposed agreement hinges on the county receiving at least $150,000 annually from natural-gas funding. If the $10,000 county payment is not made, King’s and Wilkes would have the right to withhold their payments.
The county has received $228,623 to $307,629 annually from natural gas drilling since the state authorized such earmarks under Act 13 in 2012. Approximately $65,457 is left for allocations this year, and the county received applications seeking a combined $314,781 for the River Common and other municipal and community projects.
Pedri told the group his administration will push for county council adoption, describing the agreement as an example of the private and public sectors working together for common good.
“We take for granted what we have here,” Pedri said. “We have a beautiful river. We have this beautiful green space.”