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W-B projects in holding pattern

i Jul 9th 2017

By Eric Mark, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — Three major development projects in the city are in a holding pattern for now, according to project developers and city officials.

A proposed high-rise hotel complex in downtown Wilkes-Barre, a potential expansion of one of the city’s largest employers and the construction of a wellness center that might one day house a medical marijuana dispensary remain in the planning stages.

GUARD Insurance Group

Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Group continues to do its due diligence regarding a potential purchase of the city-owned former Hotel Sterling site on River Street, according to a company spokesman.

“At this time, we really have nothing new to report,” GUARD spokesman Bob Thomas wrote in an email Thursday.

GUARD signed a non-binding letter of intent with the city in January to explore buying the Hotel Sterling site and using it to expand operations. The site, which consists of a large parking lot since the hotel was demolished in 2013, sits across from GUARD’s offices on West Market Street.

Whether GUARD chooses to purchase the site and build office space there could prove to be a million-dollar question.

The city in March received a

$1 million grant from state gaming revenue to offset construction costs for GUARD to build at the Hotel Sterling site.

If the company chooses to expand at a different site in the city, it would need to apply for state approval to see if the project is still eligible for grant funds, according to City Administrator Ted Wampole.

Since the grant was announced, city and GUARD officials have said little publicly about the company’s expansion plans and the status of the potential land sale. There was nothing new to report last week, according to Thomas, the GUARD spokesman.

“The process of due diligence continues as we explore all options to meet the group’s long-term space requirements and accommodate expected growth in an efficient manner,” he wrote.

If GUARD decides to purchase the Hotel Sterling site, the company and the city will negotiate a price, Wampole said.

Hotel & conference center

One property acquisition remains before work on a proposed $28 million hotel and conference center at South Main and West Northampton streets can proceed, according to the attorney for the developer, Sphere International LLC.

Sphere has reached an agreement in principal to purchase 67 S. Main St., which houses Place One at the Hollywood dress shop, according to Sphere’s attorney John Dean.

The building and shop are owned by Barbara Coffee. On Friday, her daughter, Michaelene Coffee, said a tentative agreement to sell the property is in Sphere’s hands.

Sphere plans to raze the building once it finalizes the purchase, Dean said. At that point plans to construct the proposed hotel complex will proceed, he said.

Dean deferred comment about those plans to Sphere officials, who could not be reached last week.

The plans Sphere unveiled in October 2015 featured a 10-story building that would include a 100-room hotel, luxury apartments, condominiums, retail shops, and banquet and meeting space.

Questions remain about specifics of the project more than 20 months after it was announced.

Sphere officials have not attached a specific name to the project, identified which hotel chain they plan to partner with, nor have they released an estimate of the number of jobs the project would create.

Sphere International LLC is based in Flemington, New Jersey, according to public records, but no listed phone number for the company could be located.

The day the project was announced publicly, then-Mayor Tom Leighton described it as “phase two” of a major commercial wave of development downtown, following the opening of the R/C Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 theater complex several years ago.

Wellness center

The Keystone Center for Integrated Wellness will pursue plans to open a wellness center that includes a medical marijuana dispensary in South Wilkes-Barre despite being denied a dispensary permit for the site last month, according to company officials.

Keystone Center, based in Carlisle, purchased two city-owned properties in March on which it plans to develop a 4,000-square-foot facility that would “merge the concepts of a medicinal marijuana dispensary, a human services center and a job creation center,” according to a letter developers sent to city council.

One of the properties, at 773 S. Franklin St., contains an abandoned factory that Keystone Center plans to raze to make room for the wellness center. The company also purchased an adjacent vacant lot on Westminster Street.

Until Keystone Center finds out whether it receives a dispensary permit in the next round of the application process later this year, plans to develop the project are on hold. But company officials remain enthusiastic, according to Krista Krebs, one of the company’s principals.

“We have such great support from the city and its representatives,” Krebs wrote in an email. “We believe very strongly about the benefits that KCIW can bring to the community in way of jobs, healing, economic development, and our other social impact programs.”

Keystone Center officials in March told city council the wellness center would create eight to 10 jobs initially, with the prospect of many more jobs as the center expands.

Those plans have not changed, according to Krebs.

“The plan is still in place and in fact if anything, we continue to develop further ideas that will positively impact our potential patients and the community as a whole,” she wrote.

Other options

Even as major projects that could bring jobs and tax revenue to Wilkes-Barre seem stalled, officials of the cash-strapped city continue to pursue options to improve Wilkes-Barre’s finances, Wampole said.

A key option to generate revenue is the sale of city-owned land, according to Wampole and City Attorney Timothy Henry.

One city-owned property on the market is the Morgan B. Williams Field, at North Wilkes-Barre Boulevard and Scott Street.

The vacant, 4.23-acre parcel in a commercial zoning district has been appraised at $1.17 million.