Downtown Wilkes-Barre looks for a road to normalcy after pandemic takes economic toll

i Jun 10th 2020

By Revathi Janaswamy, WBRE/WYOU-TV

WILKES-BARRE, LUZERNE COUNTY  — The coronavirus pandemic has claimed over 100 lives in the county of Luzerne but for the city of Wilkes-Barre, an economic toll is also being seen as state-mandated business closures have made it difficult for local restaurants and shops to stay afloat.

El Zocalo, a local Mexican restaurant located on Public Square, has shuttered its doors permanently after having to rely on take-out only service. It’s the only downtown business Mayor George Brown says closed permanently, admitting that it is “one too many.”

However, it isn’t the only business in the area that the pandemic has stopped in its tracks. S&W Restaurant, which at one point called itself “The Last Downtown W-B Diner” has served its last meal as well and brought a nearly 70-year history to an end.

“We had been talking about closing since last year. The current COVID regulations definitely helped in the decision,” they wrote on Facebook back in May.

Mandated closures brought the city that had enjoyed 50 more occupied storefronts than it did 15 years ago to a halt, leaving only five or six non-dining establishments open in the red phase which ended just two weeks ago. As for restaurants, there were once 40 eating establishments to choose from in the pre-COVID era and only two dozen or so were able to find a way to sustain their business on take-out and delivery services, allowing them to stay open.

For other businesses keeping the lights on and the rent paid meant restructuring their models. The small staff at Pour Coffee House was furloughed while owner Drew Long worked to provide direct to consumer items and brews.

“We’ve been having to offer direct to consumer delivery of boxes of some of our retail products just to kind of keep the lights on and everything going. We did also start opening up on the weekends because what we actually saw was that people that were home all week chose Saturdays and Sundays as their days to get out of the house and go get something,” Long explained to Eyewitness News.

According to Long, the Wilkes-Barre community turned out to purchase gift cards and otherwise support the local shop. The city, meanwhile, used a decades-old fund to provide zero interest loans to struggling businesses forced into temporary closure, a move Larry Newman, the Executive Director of the Diamond Partnership praises.

“We loaned out to businesses almost $300,000 and the idea was to take the money, help to stimulate businesses coming back that were shut down or help curb businesses to keep going, pay their rent, pay their salaries. So I’m very proud of that program,” Brown said.

Loans from the city and funding from the state and federal levels may have helped mitigate a number of closures that would have devastated the local economy. A national survey published by Main Street America revealed just how large the risk was. Within the 14 local Wilkes-Barre businesses which, more than 60 percent of businesses were at risk of permanent closure within five months if the economy remained at a stand-still. Meanwhile 15 percent would be at risk of closure after just two months.

“We’ve programs like the PPP Program, we’ve had local programs like Mayor Brown’s business assistance program, it first when to restaurants and then to other categories of businesses in the city. Those and their counterparts have all made a difference. And so I think what has happened is that the end date of some of these businesses has been pushed off until later in the year it gives them some breathing room to try and reestablish themselves,” Newman said.

Avoiding closures may have been enough to sustain Wilkes-Barre’s hope of continuing to grow their downtown, despite a looming threat of a possible second wave of coronavirus infections. In fact, while business closures force locals to work from home and reconfigure their lifestyles, similar events in other areas may bring another kind of consumer to the area.

“People who are moving to downtown and to the region in general were people who were remote workers or doing telecommuting or going into New York or Philadelphia a couple of days a month or a couple of day a week. And I think it’s also an opportunity for households where perhaps one partner has a job here and the other partner can work remotely for someone else who might be in New York or Philadelphia or somewhere else. We’re seeing an increasing amount of that,” Newman said.