By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — City Councilman Tony Brooks is recruiting “team members” to help prepare a business plan to save the deteriorating Irem Temple building on North Franklin Street.
Brooks hopes to hold an organizational meeting in his living room this weekend to discuss what needs to be done and to find willing volunteers to accept specific tasks.
“I want to get the ball rolling,” Brooks said. “We want to prepare an objective analysis from outside people who do not have an emotional attachment to it.”
Brooks, president of the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society, applauds what the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce has done to acquire the Irem Temple and to lead the effort to save the building from demolition.
Brooks said he received “a slew of telephone calls” over the weekend after a story appeared in the Times Leader regarding the building. He is hoping people with experience in formulating business plans come forward to help.
Once the right people are in the room, Brooks said they will examine what needs to be done to preserve the building to prevent further deterioration. Once that process is completed, a plan will be formulated to examine all possible future uses of the building.
Brooks has already heard ideas for the building that was built in 1906.
“I’ve heard it would make a great place for a year-round farmers market,” Brooks said. “We would have to research what other cities are doing to operate such an event.”
Brooks has heard some people think the building would be a great place to hold stand-up (no seating) concerts, Again, he said research must be done to see if that sort of venue could be successful in Wilkes-Barre.
“But whatever it becomes, it has to be a multi-use plan for it to succeed,” Brooks said. “We really need to find those people to do the research to look at all the possibilities out there to make the Irem Temple sustainable.”
From an historical perspective, Brooks said the Irem Temple makes Wilkes-Barre unique.
“Really, no other building like it exists in America,” he said. “And, frankly, I like living in a community that respects its history. I think having buildings like the Irem Temple makes a positive statement on what our present is and what our future will be.”
Brooks said historical buildings make the community more enjoyable to live in — it sets Wilkes-Barre and Wyoming Valley apart from other areas.
“Big box stores and strip malls are everywhere in America,” Brooks said. “Preserving our historical buildings speaks to the character and uniqueness of our community.”
Wico van Genderen, president/CEO of the Chamber, last week said the future of the Irem Temple is at a critical point. He said the chamber’s insurance carriers will no longer allow anyone into the building due to liability risks.
The chamber purchased the building in 2005. It has been dormant since the mid 1990s and vacant for the last 10 years. The roof is leaking and there are other structural concerns.
Van Genderen and Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, suggested a consortium be formed that would call on representatives from the business, academic and government arenas. They said the building needs to be stabilized, a process that could cost $1 million.
The chamber purchased the Irem Temple for “safekeeping” in 2005 for just under $1 million. The organization’s bid in 2013 to land a grant for about $2.5 million was not approved.
Van Genderen and Newman said it would take as much as $15 million to restore the Irem Temple, according to an analysis performed for the chamber.