By Joe Dolinsky, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The sun broke through the clouds and sparkled off the waters of the Susquehanna River one blustery day last month while one of the waterway’s most vocal supporters gushed over the progress made in the past decade along its banks.
John Maday, head of the Wilkes-Barre Riverfront Parks Committee and president of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, tends to have a lot to say when it comes to the river and its connection to the county’s largest city.
“Here you can sit, take a moment to take in this view, and really separate yourself from the hustle and bustle of the downtown,” he said, seated in the shadow of the Market Street Bridge along the River Common, a park that’s host to paved walkways, gardens and a spectacular view of the Susquehanna.
Maday touted the park as one of the latest draws to the river, whose North branch was named the 2016 Pennsylvania River of the Year. The 15-mile stretch, which flows through multiple counties, beat out four other waterways in a public vote after it was nominated by the Endless Mountain Heritage Region.
The honor showed “the work that has been done and we will continue to do” along the river, Maday said. The hard work, he said, is backed largely by those who volunteer in committee-led events.
Founded in 1991 by a group of visionary citizens, local business leaders and city government representatives, the Riverfront Parks Committee developed a plan designed to reunite people with the river through recreation and environmental programming.
“We teach,” Maday said with a smile. “That’s what we do. We consider both sides of the river in the city of Wilkes-Barre our classroom.”
From the Earth Day celebration this month — at which upward of 1,200 students were expected to populate the riverbanks — to the marquee summer festival of RiverFest, annual events help ensure the classroom is filled.
As the years go on and word spreads about what the committee does, he said, the turnout continues to grow.
The riverfront and the city play well off one another, Maday said. Those looking to find some solace in their busy daily grind can unwind along the river, and those spending time on the banks fishing or attending events can eat or go shopping a few blocks away.
There won’t be many major changes to the events along the river this year, Maday said. The committee will do what it’s done in the past in hopes of attracting more people to the events.
He noted, however, the popular summer music series held at the River Common will expand this year to include an additional two to three concerts at the park’s 750-person amphitheater.
“If all the pieces fall into place, we’ll be looking at hosting six concerts down there,” he said.
Urban forester Vinnie Cotrone, a staple at many environmental events along the river, said residents have been blessed with access to it. That access was bolstered by the construction of the River Common.
The $23 million project opened to the public in 2009. Two portal openings in the Wyoming Valley Levee allow visitors to access the river’s edge for concerts, events, fishing, strolls, brown bag lunches and reflection. The Northampton Street portal opens to the amphitheater, while the portal between the Market Street Bridge and county courthouse leads to a river landing/fishing pier that seats several hundred.
Some people view the river as a polluted eyesore, said Cotrone, of the Penn State Cooperative Extension. Others flash back to 1972 and 2011, when its waters devastated local communities; those folks think of the Susquehanna as something to be feared. But as the committee has strived to reconnect people with the river, more people are looking at it in a different light.
“More people are biking and jogging there,” Cotrone said. “They’re sitting there watching the river, going for walks on their lunch breaks, attending concerts in the summer. … Every year we find more people to enjoy it.”
Cotrone said the Susquehanna is more than just a body of water. Despite being just a few blocks from a bustling downtown, a vibrant ecosystem thrives along the river, he said.
“I take student groups down there and ask, ‘What do you hear?’ Not cars. Not people walking around. They hear birds, flying squirrels, falcons, hawks,” he said.
The hope is to make the younger generation more environmentally aware, Cotrone said.
“You can’t take care of what you don’t value and use,” he said.