Basement of former Woolworth’s store in Wilkes-Barre to become high-tech innovation center

i Dec 18th 2015

By Mark Guydish, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE — Despite old construction I-beams exposed above, a stripped concrete floor below and a mass of fresh drywall sporting spackling on every seam and screw, the basement of a Woolworth’s store showed Penn State University President Eric J. Barron nothing but tech breakthroughs.

Plans call for the space to include conference rooms capable of long-distance meetings, a shared area full of high tech equipment, including 3-D printers and state-of-the-art multi-media center, all designed to encourage collaboration in innovation.

“Given the turnout, and what this space is going to look like,” Barron said, “I expect we’ll be extraordinarily successful.”

Renovation of the low-tech remnants of another era should be done by the end of March and possibly by the end of February, Diamond City Partnership Executive Director Larry Newman said after Barron and several other education and business leaders held a formal ribbon cutting ceremony Thursday.

“Innovation is such a buzz word these days,” Newman said, “but it’s been happening in downtown Wilkes-Barre. This will help bring a lot of people and institutions together to interact.”

“I think of this very much like Silicon Valley,” Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce CEO Wico van Genderen said. “Only a lot less expensive.”

The project, dubbed “Innovation Squared,” is being funded with $250,000 in grant money from the state’s legalized gambling money and a $50,000 INVENT Penn State block grant won jointly by the Chamber and the Penn State Wilkes-Barre campus, which, though located primarily in Lehman Township now, has its roots in downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Barron introduced the grant program in January to encourage collaboration of university students and faculty at Penn State campuses with neighboring business and communities.

To further that goal, an initiative called Wilkes-Barre Connect will be set up as part of Innovation Squared to create “a business and entrepreneurial ecosystem,” bringing nearby schools, business leaders, government officials and residents together to spur more innovation, Newman said.

The project also dovetails with Wilkes-Barre’s effort to win the top prize of $3 million in the America’s Best Communities” contest. In October, the Diamond City joined 49 others in reaching the quarterfinals.

Van Genderen said he likes to think of ABC not only in terms of the contest, but in terms of what the assets the area can build on: Academe, thanks to Penn State and other colleges and universities; Businesses, such as eBay Enterprises Marketing which recently moved corporate headquarters to Wilkes-Barre; and Community.