Downtowns starting to plan for the future

i Sep 13th 2020

By Phil Yacubuski, Northeastern Pennsylvania Business Journal

It is anyone’s guess what America’s cities will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Some businesses have shuttered, while others are struggling to survive.

Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, said it’s simply too early to tell what the future will hold and how the city will rebound.

“There are still an awful lot of unknowns,” he said. “But I think there will be substantial changes, and business districts are going to have to start planning now because things will look different.”

Newman said downtown Wilkes-Barre is the largest concentrated employment center in the area with the 20 blocks encompassing 11,000 daytime workers.

“That whole sector of the economy ground to a halt,” he said. “All of those office workers aren’t coming out of their offices for lunch, running to Boscov’s, shopping at Rite Aid or picking up their dry cleaning. It has a tremendous ripple effect.”

Coming out of the pandemic, things won’t look the same as in the past, he said.

“We’ve been very aggressive with consumer surveys in trying to understand what local folks feel will give them more comfort in patronizing different kinds of businesses,” he said.

There is a lot of cautious optimism, Newman said.

“The office component in Wilkes-Barre will be disrupted through the end of the year and I don’t know what the future will hold,” he said. “In some cases, they will be out until 2021. We must take that as a given. The entertainment district like Movies 14 and the F.M. Kirby Center are in question. What that leaves us with is the colleges to figure out how to continue to bring people into downtown to support our businesses for other reasons. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Joshusa Mast, who co-owns Posh at The Scranton Club and The Colonnade in Scranton and serves as board president of Scranton Tomorrow, said any aggressive marketing approach has to be done as a region.

“Scranton Tomorrow doesn’t have deep pockets,” he said. “We’ve always been community driven. We have been moving towards a business improvement district, but no one really knows what the next step is.”

He said they’ve been looking at what other cities are doing in order to bring people back to the downtown.

Mast added Scranton Tomorrow recently hired an outside firm to identify areas of the city that are ripe for development.

“We have the Iron Furnaces and a lot of courts and alleys that in a post-COVID world are really great to develop because they are outside,” he said.

Mast said the downtown landscape is itching for customers and those customers want to come back.

“People want to be around other people,” he said. “I believe that if a downtown – if it’s done right – people will come downtown, especially if they feel it’s safe and clean.”

In Tunkhannock, business owners are used to welcoming thousands for the annual Fall Fest, Founders’ Day and celebrations at Christmas.

But not this year.

“We are looking to try and do Christmas in a softer approach,” said Nancy Parlo, director of the Tunkhannock Professional and Business Association. “Maybe not one big celebration, but we would like to split it up. Post COVID-19, I think we would like to go back to the way things used to be.”

Parlo said she believes people want to come back to town.

“People want to do the right thing,” she said. “When I go to the stores in town and see people wearing masks and practicing social distancing, it’s clear they want to get back to some sort of normalcy.”

She said so far, no businesses have closed because of the pandemic.

“I think some of them have pivoted to doing things online, but we’ve been fortunate,” she said. “But certainly, people are feeling the pinch. We will have to see what the beginning of the year brings.”

“Before you go online, can you get what you need from a downtown store?” Mast said. “These businesses would be happy to walk whatever you need out to your car. And when you shop in local store, more of the money stays in the community.”

Newman is keeping an eye on the future and keeping his fingers crossed.

“If we can create an environment where people can successfully walk to where they need to be in an attractive mixed-use environment that combines college campuses, restaurant options and shopping options and options for people to work, then that’s the best thing we can do to position ourselves for whatever may come in the future,” Newman said.