By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association Friday elected officers and board members and heard a glowing report on the upward trajectory of the city’s downtown.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, presented details and statistics to support his claim that the downtown is moving in an upward progressive direction, noting that downtown storefronts have increased, as well as downtown residents.
And Ted Wampole, executive director of Visit Luzerne County, responded to a February presentation by nationally known community branding consultant Roger Brooks.
Brooks, of Destination Development Association of Peoria, Arizona, told about 50 community leaders what the region needs to do to create a “brand,” noting that he observed “garbage everywhere,” giving the area an unsafe feel.
Wampole told the Downtown Business Association members that on May 28, a news conference will be held at the Millennium Circle along the Susquehanna River to announce a new initiative to improve Luzerne County’s “curb appeal.”
“We are turning a negative into a positive,” Wampole said. “We will also be announcing a three-week concert series — July 12-19-26 — featuring nationally known recording acts to further promote the county.”
But it was Newman’s presentation that highlighted the positives in the county, especially Downtown Wilkes-Barre. Newman repeated many of the highlights of his recent interview with the Times Leader in its Innovation special section.
Newman’s highlights included:
• 47 more occupied storefronts in Downtown Wilkes-Barre than in 2000.
• A healthy downtown dining and entertainment scene.
• Downtown has become the region’s largest concentrated employment center.
• The center city’s residential sector continues to grow.
• The downtown has enjoyed 13 consecutive years of increasing occupancy rates.
• More than 10 years after it opened, Movies 14, which replaced the parking lots on East Northampton Street, continues to attract more than 7,000 patrons per week.
• There are 21 loft condominiums in the once-vacant buildings next door, and Downtown Wilkes-Barre has become the region’s Restaurant Row.
Newman said the former Woolworth’s building now houses the Wilkes/King’s Barnes & Noble bookstore, Pepperjam and a dozen incubator tenants, and the Wilkes-Barre THINK Center.
Newman said Guard Insurance’s landmark South River Street offices were purchased by local entrepreneur Kris Jones, who will use them to house his portfolio of businesses, along with the area’s first tech “accelerator.”
Newman notes that downtown is home to more than two-dozen different tech start-ups — one-third of all the information-sector jobs in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton metro area are located in Downtown.
“The existence of these start-ups would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, but today they aren’t just key contributors to the local economy, they’re also helping to keep young people living here,” Newman said.
Newman noted that Berkshire Hathaway GUARD is in the process of moving its operations into the Tower on the Square.
Berkshire Hathaway currently has 664 full-time employees in Wilkes-Barre and expects to increase that number to 1,000.
Carl J. Witkowski, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President at Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies, said the company decided to hold onto two other buildings in the downtown — a three-story building on Market Street (the former M&T Bank building) and a five-story building on Frazer Lane.
Newman also noted the downtown’s housing market has increased.
• 216 new housing units have been constructed in downtown during the past 10 years, with another 36 units currently under construction.
• Downtown’s population has steadily become younger and better educated — downtown’s share of college-educated residents under the age of 35 is now almost twice that of Luzerne County as a whole.
“There’s no question that downtown is on a positive trajectory,” Newman said. “However, we also recognize that there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Newman also credited King’s College and Wilkes University for expanding their campuses in order to anchor both ends of Main Street.
King’s College’s health sciences programs adjoin Public Square, and the old Spring Brook Water Company building is being rehabbed to house the college’s new civil and mechanical engineering programs.
In the meantime, Wilkes has transformed the second block of South Main Street with a new business school, a new home for the Sordoni Art Gallery, and student housing.
Recently, Wilkes announced a $2.5 million PennDOT/Wilkes University streetscape project, that will improve pedestrian and vehicular safety, add street and walkway lighting, and connect key street corridors of the city.
Newman said the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District’s Clean Team has removed more than 62 tons of trash and 1,400 graffiti tags from downtown sidewalks and properties since 2007. And for the past six years, they have installed and maintained 186 flower baskets through the spring and summer.