In Focus: Small steps help downtown Wilkes-Barre move forward

i Jul 12th 2015

By Bill O’Boyle, The Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE – There are some who tend to look at the city’s downtown through rose-colored glasses.

Not Larry Newman, the executive director of the Diamond City Partnership.

Newman looks at the downtown and sees a never-ending process that for the last decade has had a focus and a gradual progression to better days.

I sat on a park bench on Public Square with Newman and we talked about the downtown — its pros, its cons and its still to be determined future.

Newman was recently elected chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, an organization founded in 1987 with the mission to build and support the capacity of local nonprofit organizations, municipalities and individuals to improve and maintain communities.

Newman, an architect by profession, has a long history of community revitalization in Northeast Pennsylvania — specifically downtown Wilkes-Barre.

The Diamond City Partnership is Wilkes-Barre’s public-private alliance for downtown revitalization, serving as the custodian of the community’s vision.

Newman said there’s a four-part approach to improving downtown centers — design, promotion, organization and economic restructuring. It’s a comprehensive plan that Newman says is not just focused on filling storefronts, or new sidewalks, or streetlights, or downtown events.

Now all of those are important and should be a part of any plan, but Newman said there is much more to the blueprint. Adding residential units, for instance, or a movie theater, or a book store, or increased office space. Now those things all help to improve the downtown scene, but the plan has many tentacles.

Newman looked around Public Square and he commented on the outside cafe tables, the 40 or so storefronts that were empty 10 years ago and are now filled, the 80-plus new residential units in six different buildings and the half million people who attend movies just down the street and around the corner. The 700-plus spaces at the Intermodal Transportation Center provides ample parking.

And then there is the investments made by King’s College and Wilkes University. Newman sees them as integral parts of the downtown fabric, along with the Innovation Center and a whole bunch of start-up businesses.

“Successful downtown revitalization is incremental,” Newman told me. “You can’t solve everything at once. There are no silver bullet solutions.”

Newman noted the 1970s when downtown revitalization focused on building shopping centers and malls, or a convention center, or an aquarium. Those big splash items are important, but Newman said real revitalization rests with the incremental improvements. Things like those hanging flower baskets and those cafe tables. Keep improving, Newman says, the process is never finished.

Newman knows the job in downtown Wilkes-Barre is far from over. There are plenty of gaps to be filled.

You can see the obvious ones — the former Hotel Sterling site and South Main Street, for instance. He says Public Square is not living up to its full potential. It’s great when the Farmers Market or Fine Arts Fiesta are there, but on other days when the center of the city looks barren.

A project is planned to refurbish the Square. Hopefully that will create more usage.

And then there is what Newman calls “the social services challenge.” He said there are people “falling through the cracks.” It’s an issue Newman feels needs to be addressed.

“Uncivil behaviors make other people uncomfortable,” he said. “We can’t pretend that it’s not an issue.”

Newman said the downtown of a city should be a place for everyone. He said everyone has a right to be there as long as they abide by the same standards of behavior.

Newman will use his affiliation with the Pennsylvania Downtown Center to learn what has worked and what hasn’t worked in other cities and towns. He will make sure those incremental improvements continue.

And, hopefully, the rose-colored glasses worn by others will be thrown away.

By Bill O’Boyle, The Times Leader

Full article here.