By Bill Wellock, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — The plans are lofty for a project in the downtown.
The Luzerne County Office of Community Development said plans for the Innovation Squared Project would bring dozens more jobs and a major investment to the city.
The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business & Industry wants to sell the Innovation Center building at 7 S. Main St. to a company called Red Talon Group 1 LLC for $2.6 million. A sale would be the beginning of a $6.1 million investment in downtown.
Ahead of the planned sale, the Office of Community Development asked Luzerne County Council to forgive $1.7 million worth of loans from a Department of Housing and Urban Development revolving loan fund. Council discussed the request Tuesday and could vote at its next meeting.
The Office of Community Development explained plans for the project to Luzerne County Council:
• A current tenant of the building, eBay Enterprise Marketing, signed a lease to keep its corporate headquarters there through 2020. The company plans to hire 120 more full-time employees.
• Red Talon also wants to buy the former First National Bank Building on Public Square, and plans to create a business incubator in the building.
• Creation of the “Innovation Center Technology Workshop,” a technology workshop and multimedia center.
• Creating a service called the “Wilkes-Barre Connect Initiative,” which will offer support services to new and existing businesses.
Some of that work is already planned. The chamber is planning a ribbon-cutting event on April 20 to open the Innovation Center Technology Workshop, which will be home to Wilkes-Barre Connect.
About $1.7 million in proceeds from the sale would go back to the Office of Community Development’s revolving loan fund. Another $100,000 would pay back taxes on the property, and the rest, about $770,000 would pay off other debt the chamber carries.
The chamber needs to pay off that debt to have clear title to the property, which will allow it to sell the building, said Wico van Genderen, chamber president.
“We really need county council to be a part of this equation,” he said.
Chamber vice president Joseph Boylan said a 2010 report by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Alliance showed that the businesses in the Innovation Center generated about $2 million in federal tax revenue and about $1 million in state in local taxes.
The chamber’s purpose is to help local business, not to develop real estate, Boylan said.
“At some point, the chamber does its role and then you’ve got to turn it over to the private sector,” he said, pointing to the current tenants in the Innovation Center and plans for Wilkes-Barre Connect business incubator service. “We helped do that, now the private sector is starting to drive more of that. It’s time for the chamber to get out and refocus.”