By Kathy Ruff, NEPA Business Journal
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the city of Wilkes-Barre continues to demonstrate its resiliency as a comeback city.
After Hurricane Agnes’ devastating flooding in 1972, the city began digging out from not only the mud, but also the destructive economic repercussions left behind.
Today, its revitalization efforts continue to transform the city into a vibrant community and strong and evolving economic engine.
One native resident taps into his passion to explain some of those ongoing efforts.
“Good things continue to happen,” said Ted Wampole, Wilkes-Barre’s city administrator. “Probably the biggest thing we’ve been able to accomplish this year is Guard Insurance, a subsidy of Berkshire-Hathaway, has formally announced that they will remain in downtown Wilkes-Barre and purchase a facility right on Public Square where it will be the headquarters and home office of Guard Insurance.”
The company will add another 300 to 400 jobs to the downtown workforce, a growing trend rippling through the downtown.
“We still get continued growth out of a company called Pepperjam, which is an internet marketing company,” Wampole said. “Their headquarters is downtown as well. We continue to see the growth of upscale apartment living in downtown Wilkes-Barre with developers coming in and taking old buildings, whether they are office buildings or bank buildings, and converting them into luxury apartments. They get rented as fast as they’re built.”
In addition to the expansion of jobs and living quarters, special events and other activities provide dining, shopping and entertainment opportunities. A two-day old-fashion holiday market event with rides on a horse-drawn carriage, crafts and other vendors, Midtown Village holiday pop-up shops and 150 to 200 events scheduled each year at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts represent some of the opportunities that entice people downtown.
“The thing we’re working with now with the riverfront park committee along with the Luzerne County Community College and Kings and Wilkes is to do more programming on the riverfront,” said Wampole. “We believe that will give people a reason to come and enjoy what has become a beautiful area down there.”
In 2017, progress continued on Diamond City Partnership’s (DCP) 2015 five-year action plan to fuel the downtown’s renaissance, including expanding its innovation district.
“It’s a hub for business startup activity and entrepreneurship,” said Larry Newman, DCP’s executive director. “That’s a logical goal because downtown is already northeastern Pennsylvania’s largest single concentrated employment center. There are more than 13,000 people who work in downtown Wilkes-Barre each day.”
Guard Insurance’s recent expansion announcement and other efforts will add to that number.
“Guard already represents $29 million in annual wage impact on the local impact and that impact is only going to grow with the new jobs associated with the home office expansion that was announced at the end of October,” Newman said. “Fifteen years ago downtown Wilkes-Barre had almost no startup companies. Today the downtown houses a third of all of the technology jobs in the metropolitan area.”
Additional job growth occurred in 2017 with Pepperjam and other technology-based and legacy companies located in the city, a reality expected to continue in 2018.
“2017 saw the first of Wilkes-Barre Connect pitch sessions where we actually had four different regional entrepreneurs presenting their business ideas to potential investors in the Think Center located here in downtown,” said Newman. “Some of them are already here but it’s part of establishing the entrepreneurial ecosystem them that we need to have in place in our region if we want to be a welcoming location for new companies and the businesses associated with that.”
On an academic front, Wilkes wraps up renovation of one of its older science buildings to become the new home of its school of engineering.
“That helps to strengthen Wilkes’ positioning itself as the region’s research university,” Newman said. “Over at Kings, they’ve initiated their own engineering program in civil and mechanical engineering and they are getting ready to start construction on the rehab of a long-vacant downtown office building to house the civil and mechanical engineering programs.”
Downtown, the city’s arts and entertainment district also saw transition in 2017.
“The big news in that this year was the relocation of Wilkes’ Sardoni Art Gallery,” Newman said. “This year they located the gallery to a newly-constructed space that doubled the size of the gallery and put it right on South Main. They are really helping us to position the second block of South Main Street as downtown’s arts district. That’s something we’ve been working on and will continue to work on in 2018.”
Continued work in 2018 includes other development investments.
“There are dozens of new apartments that are hitting the market and being leased and purchased so that’s a trend that certainly gained a lot of activity this year and I think will continue,” said John Augustine, III, president and CEO of Penns Northeast, Pittston. “We have a growing tech sector in the downtown. There are three different startup spaces or incubator space for small tech companies. Along with both Wilkes and Kings continuing to invest in the downtown, whether that’s a new art gallery or streetscape project, I think you’ll continue to see that investment.”
Outside the city limits, Augustine expects industrial growth to continue.
“One of the leading sectors this year and will continue to grow is new e-commerce distribution market,” he said, citing Chewy.com’s location of a fulfillment center in Hanover Township, creating 700 new jobs. “There will be an announcement very soon of two other well-known large companies bringing another thousand jobs. That is a trend that we’re also going to see continue as places like the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia and specifically New York and New Jersey seem to be growing unaffordable for businesses. With the real estate shrinking, Northeastern Pennsylvania is a great opportunity for those companies.”
Those e-commerce distribution companies will precede potentially 10 others showing interest in the area — including manufacturing, home goods, jewelry and electronics companies.
Augustine estimates developers currently are building more than a few million square feet of new industrial sites to handle growing demand for easy access to the area’s highway infrastructure.
“We’re seeing a lot of increase in leads and activity from outside of the area, from New York and New Jersey, as well as international companies starting to take a look not only at the United States and Pennsylvania but specifically northeastern Pennsylvania,” Augustine said. “That’s another trend that I believe started this year and will continue into ‘18.”
Augustine and others see the value of and continue to work on attracting quality jobs as well as training workers for those jobs.
“There are a lot of new programs being launched under development to better train our workforce for successful entry in advance manufacturing jobs as well as health care jobs and other high-paying careers,” said Eric J. Esoda, president and CEO of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center (NEPIRC). “We realized as a city that it’s not necessarily the lack of jobs that’s our challenge but it’s the difficulty that employers are having in finding a well-skilled, capable ready-to-work workforce. I’m seeing more and more innovative programs being developed, launched and successful… to make sure we have a ready workforce for the companies that are here and we hope to attract.”
Area educational facilities including Luzerne County Community College and Johnson College offer training programs for immediate entry into advance manufacturing careers, a potential catalyst for attracting more of those industries.
Esoda also sees existing manufacturers now making investments in new technologies and equipment.
“We’re happy what we are seeing in the Crestwood Industrial Park,” he said. “Our manufacturers there are making investment in capital expenditures that will keep those companies moving forward. They are also looking to hire in both Humboldt and Crestwood (industrial parks).”
The efforts, partnerships and collaboration between the city’s educational facilities, industry and economic development organizations have and will continue to transform Wilkes-Barre in 2018.
“The area is going through an amazing economic renaissance right now,” said Wico van Genderen, president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry. “More and more businesses are seeing us as a solid business investment from an infrastructure, supply, academic, capital and workforce perspective.”
Van Genderen sees that investment continuing with remodeling of the train station and continued development of the riverfront area, the old Sterling Hotel lot and other buildings in the downtown area.
Ted Wampole summarizes what he sees
“We’re a city on the comeback and we’re doing everything we can to improve the tax base, improve the financial position of the city,” he said. “We prefer to look at it as a city on the comeback with a lot of promise and a lot of possibilities.”
WB BIG GOALS
Six ‘big goals’ in Downtown Five-Year Action Plan begun in 2015, continues to fuel revitalization and development in Wilkes-Barre’s downtown:
BIG GOAL #1: Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be a safe, clean and attractive place to live, work, shop, and visit.
BIG GOAL #2: Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the region’s college neighborhood.
BIG GOAL #3: Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the region’s “walk-to-everything” urban neighborhood of choice.
BIG GOAL #4: Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the region’s “Innovation District:” its hub for business, startup activity and entrepreneurship.
BIG GOAL #5: Downtown’s historic architecture, walkability, riverfront and colleges will be the cornerstones of its enhanced visitor experience.
BIG GOAL #6: Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be a regional center of arts, culture, dining and entertainment.