By Jennifer Learn-Andes, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The rundown condition of the historic New Jersey Central train station property bothered developer George Albert.
“Many of us are courting companies and trying to bring them downtown, and we really don’t want to showcase the entrance into town by showing that property,” Albert said of the site at the corner of Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard. “We felt compelled to do something.”
He and other investors under the umbrella of Market Square Properties Development LLC bought the 6.36-acre train station site from the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority for $1.2 million last year. The deal includes a strip mall and vacant lots.
Albert has said $7.5 million to $8.5 million will be invested in renovations and new construction at the site. There’s already a marked improvement now that contractors have remodeled much of the interior and exterior of the strip mall, completed some paving, and removed an assortment of newer additions from the original brick station, which was built in 1868.
Albert said he expects work at the site to be completed in 2018.
The new construction will have a traditional look to blend in with the train station and nearby landmark Stegmaier Building — which houses federal offices — and other historic structures, Albert said.
The four-phase project’s first stage — renovation of the 10,000-square-foot strip mall — began last year and is about 85 percent complete, he said. The building will house four tenants — two existing and two new.
The new tenants will be Domino’s Pizza and the MKSA cosmetology school. Salon Plus, a current tenant, was contemplating leaving but opted to stay in renovated space due to the new development plans, Albert said.
Jeff Thomas leases the remaining 2,800-square-foot space for his three businesses — Gold Star Digital Document Services, a full-service digital print shop; Business Office Systems Inc., which sells and services Konica Minolta business equipment; and JT Billyboxes, a packing and shipping operation.
Thomas moved into the strip mall in 2010, optimistic the site someday would be redeveloped so he wouldn’t have to face the dilapidated train station for long.
The county redevelopment authority acquired the property at the county’s request in 2006 by using $5.8 million in county community development funds, but the authority had no money to develop the site.
Confident Albert’s site takeover was cemented, Thomas added JT Billyboxes about a year ago to capitalize on the expected increase in foot traffic at the complex due to improvements.
“We figure it will be more retail-friendly. It’s a much nicer atmosphere,” Thomas said.
Albert said he expects to break ground on the second phase, the train station renovation, in May and complete that part of the project by late fall.
The building will house Albert’s offices, the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau — which will relocate from Public Square — and a yet-to-be-announced business.
“It took us a year, but we found a professional business that would want that class-A, really nice, beautiful space,” Albert said.
Renovating the train station will cost about $750,000, which is more expensive than tearing down the historic structure and building new, Albert said. The building had attracted stray cats and the homeless in recent years.
Maintaining historic structures is an “integral part” of downtown redevelopment, and the train station was close to meeting its life expectancy, Albert said.
“You could argue that it has, but we’re going to make that investment to restore that property,” he said.
Phase 3 of the project is construction of a Burger King at a corner parcel that once housed Palooka’s Diner, which was sold and relocated around 1996.
Dueling court actions must be resolved before the eatery can be built, however. The owners of an adjacent parcel leased to the McDonald’s on Northampton Street — Thom Greco and his company, TGRG L.L.P. — say a Burger King is not permitted on the Market Square lot due to a no-competition covenant.
Market Square Properties Development argued the covenant was implemented without authority and should be declared unenforceable.
Market Square’s final phase in its renovation project is construction of two buildings to house retail and commercial tenants, Albert said.
The developer is using a drone to periodically take before-and-after photographs capturing the transformation, which he predicts will wow the public.
Another development company, Greenspace Properties LLC, is seeking new tenants for the former Stegmaier Bottling House on Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, which faces the train station.
Thomas Romanowski, president and CEO of Greenspace, said he is “thrilled” the station site is being cleaned up and enhanced.
“We’re just happy that’s being developed. That could only help what we’re trying to do,” he said.
The former beer bottling plant is used for document storage, but the 100,000 square feet of space can be converted for retail or commercial establishments, possibly with apartments on the upper floors, Romanowski said. The adjacent former Nelson Manufacturing property would be demolished to create a parkade for building tenants and visitors.
Like Albert, Romanowski supports adapting old structures for new uses.
“We must keep the history in our cities and towns,” he said.