By Susan Magnotta, for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
February is Heart Health Month and a perfect time to focus on having a healthy heart, for it can be a strong determinant of our overall physical health.
The same can be said of downtowns – for they are the heart of a city – and their health can have a significant impact on the future of a community.
Downtowns are not only economic drivers, they are where culture, history, technology, social activity, education, innovation and vibrancy meet.
The health of downtowns across the nation declined beginning in the 1950s when they slowly ceased to be shopping destinations. The major downtowns in our region experienced similar trouble. However, there have been significant strides made over the past 20 years as the result of successful revitalization initiatives and each of them are experiencing their own unique rebirth.
Diamond City Partnership Founding Executive Director Larry Newman knows well what it is like to work hard to breathe life back into a struggling downtown. With an office that overlooks Public Square, Newman has been at the helm of revitalizing downtown Wilkes-Barre for 20 years.
“We sometimes forget that in the year 2000, many of the amenities we enjoy today did not exist – like Movies 14 and the updated River Common. There were fewer than half the number of the restaurants – now we have well over a dozen different ethnic cuisines represented. The college presence downtown is now stronger than ever.”
“Twenty years ago there were 50 more vacant storefronts than today and we had trash storms occurring on South Main Street from the garbage blowing around. The downtown was viewed as a place to evacuate from when the work day was through.”
The downtown has also become a place where people want to live. In the past six years alone, more than 250 apartment units have been built with more on the way. And it is now the largest downtown employment center in the region.
It has taken years of hard work, patience, and perseverance. “We have worked with many different partners who call the downtown their home. It has been a long endeavor but there have been dramatic positive changes over the past 20 years,” Newman said.
One of these downtown partners is Brian Rinker, Market President of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield. “After our merger, there was a requirement that Highmark remain in the downtown for four years,” Rinker said. “After that time, we made the decision to stay – and it was a good one.”
There were several reasons for that decision. “We need a talented workforce and work pool – and we found that here. Having a local presence also helps us understand the healthcare needs specific to this community so that we can better service our consumers.”
Most of Highmark’s 700 employees are located in the downtown helping to drive the local economy. “We value being downtown – and our employees appreciate being able to take advantage of the opportunity to get outside and take walks to run errands, go to lunch and shop. And we are a healthcare organization and the ability to get out and walk is healthy. Our downtown location helps us to put our money where our mouth is.”
Much has changed over 20 years, but for Newman possibly the most important thing that needs to change is the perception of downtown Wilkes-Barre. “It really is a great place to live, work and play now. My hope is that the people who gave up on it a long time ago, will come back and see what is actually here – I think they will be pleasantly surprised.”
In honor of heart month, consider taking a trip to the downtown. When we support our downtowns, we too become partners with Larry, Brian and the many others who are doing their part to keep a very important heart of our region healthy and beating.
Susan Magnotta is Director of Community Outreach at The Institute. Her column appears every other Monday.