By: David Mekeel, Reading Eagle
WILKES-BARRE: As a kid growing up in Pittston, John R. Loyack spent quite a bit of time in neighboring Wilkes-Barre.
The Luzerne County city was where his family went to shop. It was where they went to visit his grandma.
The Wilkes-Barre of Loyack’s youth in the late 1960’s and early ’70s was bustling. Its sidewalks were crowded with people, its storefronts filled with prospering businesses.
By the time Loyack returned to Wilkes-Barre in 2012, after being named executive vice president for business and administration at the city’s King’s College, all that had changed.
“If you stood in Public Square at 4:30 p.m. and dropped a pin, the noise would shatter all the windows,” he said. “It was that quiet.”
Over the last seven years, in no small part thanks to Loyack’s efforts, downtown Wilkes-Barre has changed again.
An effort by King’s College to expand its footprint into the downtown, coupled with a similar effort by nearby Wilkes University, has help lead to a rebirth of the city.
Wilkes-Barre has undergone a transformation, a revitalization that has its downtown once again booming.
Now president of Alvernia University — he took over that role in July — Loyack hopes the Wilkes-Barre model will translate to Reading. On Monday, the university announced it will purchase a large property at 401 Penn St., the first step in the creation of Reading CollegeTowne.
The building currently houses I-LEAD Charter School. Officials said Friday that I-LEAD is likely to be closing at the end of the current school year.
Turning the tides in Wilkes-Barre
King’s and Wilkes didn’t always have a synergistic relationship with downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“Prior to maybe a decade ago there was a significant perception gap between town and gown,” said Larry Newman, executive director of Diamond City Partnership, a nonprofit revitalization group. “The schools had traditionally been told to grow within a very prescribed area. There was not necessarily an understanding about what the schools could bring to a greater revitalization effort.”
Newman said the colleges tried to wall themselves off from the problems of the city, whose downtown had become desolate.
“Basically, the students and faculty and staff never really set foot in our downtown, even though the edges of their campuses were only two blocks away,” he said. “There was just no connection, or I should say a very limited connection, between our traditional commercial core and the life of the schools. The disconnect was palpable.”
It took a concerted effort to change that.
In the early 2000s, the city and others involved in revitalization efforts began holding focus groups with students. And they introduced a Party on the Square event at the beginning of each semester aimed at trying to get college kids into the business district.
What followed next was the colleges’ efforts to put their imprint on downtown.
Newman said one of the first concrete steps was a deal struck with the two schools to join forces and turn a vacant former Woolworths into a joint bookstore. Barnes and Noble was brought in to operate the venture.
“We essentially leveraged the college bookstores to get a Barnes and Noble on Main Street,” Newman said.
Other college projects soon got underway.
Under Loyack’s guidance, King’s bought a vacant former Ramada hotel on Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square, turning it into the home of the college’s physician-assistant program. Much like what is planned for 401 Penn St., the project combined student living, classroom space and amenities like a Chick-fil-A.
“We needed to grow and inner cities provide a great platform for the infrastructure we needed to do it,” Loyack said. “And with the hotel project, renovating it cost a third of what it would have cost us to build new.”
In the years that followed, King’s took on another five downtown projects. Wilkes, as well, began opening downtown facilities.
Other businesses followed suit. Restaurants and shops started popping up. A technology incubator helped launch about two dozen tech businesses.
“We brought new activity to that whole area and brought some beautiful old buildings back to life,” Loyack said.
Most recently, Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies announced plans to open a downtown headquarters that will employ 1,000 people.
“When you look at the before and after you say, ‘Oh my God, tremendous improvement,’ ” said Ted Wampole, former Wilkes-Barre city manager and current executive director of Visit Luzerne County. “Fifteen years ago you had vacant store fronts, you had properties that were becoming dilapidated and blighted. Now we’ve got very few vacant store fronts, and we have people living in upscale, luxury apartments downtown, right on Public Square.
“There’s been a revival in downtown Wilkes-Barre, there’s no doubt about it.”
What it takes
Time and time again, when the question of how Wilkes-Barre’s revitalization happened, a similar answer springs forward: teamwork.
“The first thing I learned is it takes a village to create a CollegeTowne,” Loyack said.
Loyack said Wilkes-Barre found success because the colleges, the city, state officials, business leaders and others were all willing to join in the same concerted effort.
“We worked together to come up with the plan,” he said.
Wampole agreed, saying different entities have different strengths and abilities.
“It’s having a vision and having everybody buy into the vision and support the vision and make the vision become a reality,” he said.
Wampole said Wilkes-Barre officials enthusiastically support King’s’ and Wilkes’ downtown effort. Simply put, they were able to do things the city couldn’t do on its own.
As part of their projects, along with those of other businesses that followed, the colleges did streetscape work and improved lighting on sidewalks.
“They benefit from it, and the city benefited from it,” Wampole said.
He said that the benefit the city saw was despite the fact that the colleges’ new buildings are tax exempt, most of the properties they bought were vacant, meaning the city wasn’t generating much, if any, revenue anyway.
“The Times Leader building, that was vacant for two or three years,” Wampole said. “The city wasn’t getting any money from it when it was vacant. Now it adds value to downtown.”
Wampole also said the businesses that have spring up downtown because of revitalization spearheaded by the colleges have more than made up for any tax revenue the city misses out on from the schools.
Can Reading follow?
“John has a vision for Reading,” Wampole said. “And five years from now we’ll talk about how it got done.”
Wampole said he has every confidence that Loyack and Alvernia will have success in downtown Reading.
“When John went to Alvernia, I knew he would have that kind of impact,” he said. “He put it together here and learned how it worked here. You’re going to see a tremendous improvement … in downtown Reading, I firmly believe it.”
If anything, Loyack said, Reading has a leg up on Wilkes-Barre. The two cities face many of the same problems — crime and poverty and blight — but Reading has some plusses that Wilkes-Barre didn’t when revitalization efforts began.
Reading already has things like a downtown arena, a world-class hotel and an arts center, Loyack said. What it lacks is people in the downtown business district.
With Alvernia’s new Penn Street location set to house about 200 students, that will change.
“These area students, young and energetic, are looking to explore,” Loyack said. “They will create activity that encourages others to come to downtown Reading. Those are the sort of seeds that get planted that become economic development.”
And, of course, Loyack has been diligently forming his village. The dense crowd that filled his press conference announcing the purchase of 401 Penn St. was proof enough of that.
Alvernia will lead, Loyack said, and hopefully find the support it needs. If that’s the case, happy days will be on the horizon for all of Reading.
“Watching it all unfold in Wilkes-Barre, it was special to see. It was special to see people’s enthusiasm,” he said. “I think what Reading CollegeTowne will do is create opportunities and activities that will start on Penn Street and expand into the city.”
Local officials share Loyack’s enthusiasm about Alvernia’s CollegeTowne initiative and what it can mean for a larger downtown revitalization effort.
“I think they’re fantastic,” City Council President Jeffrey S. Waltman Sr. said of the university’s plans. “It’s one of many things we can do downtown.”
Waltman said the city hopes to have a lead role in downtown revitalization, using public dollars and encouraging private investments. He credited Alvernia for getting out ahead of things, adding that he has told Loyack the city will do whatever it can to offer support.
“I think with their investment the return will be tenfold,” he said.
Pamela Shupp, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Greater Reading Chamber Alliance, said the alliance has a strong dedication to downtown revitalization. So much so, in fact, it has a staff member, Aaron Gantz, specifically dedicated to it.
Shupp said the chamber has been offering support to Alvernia’s efforts, accompanying university officials when they were visiting potential downtown locations and being involved with the hiring of Dr. Rodney Ridley as the school’s associate provost and vice president and chief operating officer for the newly re-engineered O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.
The alliance will offer support to the O’Pake Institute’s new mission, which includes creating a business incubator, Shupp said. The idea is to help downtown become a fertile ground for entrepreneurship.
“With Rodney, one of the things we have talked about is how we lay the programming foundation for the work that will be done once they have a physical footprint downtown,” Shupp said. “Anyway we can support that, we will.”