Downtown Center exec talks revitalization

i Jun 1st 2018

By Steve Mocarsky, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — Bill Fontana challenged a room full of local leaders Thursday to take stock of their resources and come up with a vision that could mean the difference between their local economy thriving or dying.

“Do we do things the way we’ve always done them or do we start to think about doing things differently?” Fontana asked representatives of state and local governments, businesses, colleges and universities, nonprofits and healthcare facilities in Northeast Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Economy League sponsored Fontana’s presentation at the Westmoreland Club titled “Is NEPA ready for a knowledge-based economy?”

As the manufacturing and mining industries that once produced a thriving economy here continue to wane, the question arises: Do communities in Northeast Pennsylvania have the resources to attract a knowledge-based economy and the millennials who work in it?

As executive director of Downtown Center, a nonprofit that guides communities using state and federal funds to revitalize their downtowns, Fontana said he’s been talking in communities lately about becoming better prepared to deal with a 21st century economy because there is a link between a changing economy and downtown revitalization.

“We grew up with a lot of these traditional-economy sort of things — manufacturing, agriculture, the extracting (mining) industries, all of those sorts of things that were shift-oriented work,” Fontana said.

“The knowledge-based economy that we’re talking about is a different beast. This economy (needs) colleges and universities, health care systems, tourism, obviously information technology. It is a different workplace than what many Pennsylvania communities are accustomed to,” he said.

Access to a qualified workforce is one of the most important things corporate CEOs look at when deciding where to open a business, Fontana said.

And quality of life is highest among the factors millennials consider when deciding where to live, data show.

“We have lots of young people who are moving to where their lifestyle interests are being met and are finding jobs when they get there — particularly the best and brightest,” Fontana said. “When we start to talk about the link between economic development and community development, this is where we make that connection.”

Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership — a downtown management association — pointed to a significant increase in new downtown housing in lofts and apartments and people who are living there, giving the city’s earned income tax revenue a major boost.

The new housing followed prolonged efforts at downtown revitalization by local leaders.

“Wilkes-Barre is one of the best examples in the state of sticking to a vision for the long haul, and I think it’s showing results,” Fontana said.