By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The catch phrase that dominates most downtown revitalization discussions is “quality of place,” and those three simple words could hold the key to the future of Wilkes-Barre City.
Quality of place has been defined “as the physical characteristics of a community, the way it is planned, designed, developed and maintained that affect the quality of life of people living and working in it and those visiting it both now and in the future.”
So what does the future hold for downtown Wilkes-Barre?
Larry Newman, executive director at Diamond City Partnership, said in these days of the continuous, progressive process of downtown revitalization, “quality of place” matters more than ever.
“The fact is that, in the 21st century, quality of place is economic development, because we live in an age when talent is mobile, and so a community’s ‘curb appeal’ is a big part of what drives economic prosperity,” Newman said. “Talented people are relentlessly continuing to move to those communities that offer both opportunity and a high quality of place.”
That’s because, Newman noted, quality places attract people.
Newman said the question that’s ultimately asked by visitors to every community, whether it’s conscious or not, is: “Can I imagine myself living here?”
“And, if the people in that community aren’t proud of their town, or they don’t see it as having value, then that’s pretty quickly communicated to a visitor as well,” he said.
So, the key measure of a community revitalization effort is whether the work is ultimately helping to create a place where people want to be. And, Newman said, that starts in the center of town.
“If we don’t want to continue to struggle economically and lose our region’s kids, we need to make better investments in our quality of place and our quality of life,” Newman said. “At the end of the day, Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s health is key to our entire community’s economic viability.”
Downtown is changing
Newman said the downtown is certainly changing — more presence of Wilkes University on the southern end and King’s College on the northern end — and both have expanded to the downtown proper. So what does this mean for the city and the region
“Simply put, the growth of King’s and Wilkes, and their emergence as downtown economic anchors, is enormously beneficial to both the city and the region,” Newman said. “These days, there are lots of American cities that are pursuing economic development strategies based around “Eds and Meds” — colleges and hospitals — but there are very few cities in which that opportunity is so obvious. We have two different four-year higher-ed institutions bookending Wilkes-Barre’s central business district — any other town would turn itself inside out to be in that situation.”
Newman said there are more than 7,500 students enrolled between King’s and Wilkes, with another 480 at LCCC’s Wilkes-Barre Center. Those numbers pack a powerful economic punch — both in terms of the students’ own purchasing power, and because of the schools’ stabilizing influence on the downtown economy. It could be argued, in fact, that the schools have replaced retailing as downtown’s primary activity generator.
And, Newman said, after years in which the King’s and Wilkes campuses were essentially academic islands within the center city, they are now working together to capitalize on their presence and leverage their campus growth to create a more vibrant downtown. In fact, Newman said it’s one of the major elements of Wilkes-Barre’s current Downtown Plan.
Newman said one of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown planning challenges is the reality that its central business district was built for a population twice the size of what it is today.
“It’s sort of like recovering from a long illness and discovering that your clothes are too big,” Newman said. “When you combine that with the challenges of a weak market and all of the economic changes that have buffeted every Main Street in America, you end up with lots of empty buildings — stores, churches and more. They’re often well built and beautiful, but they’ve outlived their original function.”
However, Newman explained that in a place with two growing educational institutions, those empty buildings also represent an opportunity for reuse. He said King’s and Wilkes have increasingly chosen to repurpose downtown’s existing buildings, maximizing the value of what’s already in place without the need for new construction, and strategically placing new facilities in locations where they can generate the most civic benefit.
• King’s-on-the-Square (former Ramada) now houses King’s sciences programs.
• The old Spring Brook Water Company building on North Franklin Street is about to be remade to house King’s engineering programs.
• The Times Leader’s old home will soon house more programs for King’s as well.
• Wilkes has been transforming the second block of South Main Street with its business school, a new Sordoni Art Gallery, the Karambelas Media Center, and more.
• Wilkes’ private match has secured the public dollars that have made possible new streetscapes along South Franklin and West South streets.
• The conversion of the YMCA’s upper floors into Wilkes student housing has allowed the Y to remain viable in its historic building.
Newman said all of these moves by the schools are generating follow-on investments by a variety of private developers throughout center city.
“As the lines are blurring between the schools and the city, Downtown Wilkes-Barre is becoming one big campus — and that’s proving to be good for both town and gown,” Newman said.
Technology to the forefront
Newman said there’s no question that downtown has continued to benefit from the growth of technology-sector jobs and the local startup sector. He said when the downtown is referred to as “the region’s innovation district,” that isn’t a marketing slogan.
“It’s a fact,” Newman said. “Right now, Downtown Wilkes-Barre is home to more than two-dozen different tech startups, and one-third of all the information-sector jobs in the entire Wilkes-Barre/Scranton/Hazleton metropolitan area.”
Newman said there are several reasons for this, but one of the big reasons is the fact that, across the country, an increasing number of office-using businesses now view walkability as a basic site-selection amenity.
To put it another way, office employers have discovered that a location in a vibrant live-work neighborhood — especially one with colleges — makes it that much easier to attract talented workers. And, Downtown Wilkes-Barre is the best live-work neighborhood in NEPA, Newman said.
Newman said when you work in downtown you enjoy:
• Immediate access to dozens of different lunch and after-work options.
• Retailers and personal services for lunchtime errands.
• Lots of fitness and recreation opportunities that are as close as the sidewalk.
• The resources of multiple higher-ed institutions.
• An endless supply of those informal networking opportunities that are so important to getting business done — all within a five-minute walk of your office.
Then, Newman said, you add the availability of startup-assistance programs like the Keystone Innovation Zone and Wilkes-Barre Connect’s “Pitch” and “Spotlight” initiatives, along with a variety of startup-friendly office options, and you can understand why local tech businesses like APPEK Mobile Apps, LSEO, Mobiniti, Special Guest, and PlanGuru have all chosen to locate in Downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Luxury living popular
Newman said luxury living is a major part of the downtown now and more downtown residents offer more benefits.
“The best way to bring back a downtown, hands-down, is to get people living there again,” Newman said.
And that objective is being accomplished. Newman said 152 new market-rate lofts and apartments have been constructed in eight different rehabilitated downtown buildings during the past six years alone — and another 48 units are currently under construction. The new residential developments provide a multitude of benefits to downtown, as well as to the larger community, he said.
Newman said the new housing projects account for more than $11 million in private dollars that has been invested in the city. The projects took a series of older, functionally obsolete commercial buildings that had been sitting largely empty, and made them productive again.
Newman said the new downtown households have given an economic boost to the city. Newman said the downtown residential growth creates new customers for downtown businesses: his organization’s most recent survey showed that center city residents are regularly patronizing downtown restaurants and stores at substantially higher rates than any other survey respondent category.
And, Newman noted, downtown residential growth creates new tax revenue. He said the City of Wilkes-Barre had expected to end 2017 with a year-end deficit. Instead, they ended the year in the black — in large part because of a notable increase in earned income tax revenue that was due, almost entirely, to new downtown residents.
“More people living in downtown also means that Wilkes-Barre’s central business district has become busier and more vibrant,” Newman said. “Downtown’s sidewalks no longer roll up at 5 p.m. For a long time, we’ve talked about the need to create an ‘18-hour downtown’ – those new residents are a big part of the reason why that goal is being realized.”
Less ‘brain drain’
Downtown housing also plays a major role in the regional battle against “brain drain,” Newman said. According to the U.S. Census, from 2000 to 2015, 40 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s city-wide growth in college graduates under the age of 35 occurred within 8 percent of its land area — the 18701 ZIP code. In fact, during the past five years, the number of young college graduates living in downtown has doubled, Newman said.
Why is that? Newman said one reason is today, 32 percent of wage-earning downtown residents walk to work — compared to 8 percent of city residents and 3 percent of county residents.
“In today’s socio-economic climate, walkability matters to the success of a community,” Newman said. “It’s very simple — if Greater Wilkes-Barre wants to be a place that can compete, we had better ensure that we can point to walkable, mixed-use urban places like Downtown Wilkes-Barre, places where a car is a choice, and not a necessity.”
But Newman said he is not telling everyone that they have to live in the city, or live without a yard or a car. He said it’s about building a community that provides choices — because if we don’t do that, a lot of people who are fortunate enough to have a choice about where they want to live will choose not to live in this region at all.
Ultimately, Newman said successful downtown planning is about “ placemaking” — about creating a place where people want to be.
“Downtowns are built for people — the more people they attract, the better they function,” Newman said. “That’s why downtown is at its best during Farmers Market or the Fine Arts Fiesta, or when lots of people are shopping, or dining, or spilling out of a Kirby Center event.”
Newman said the best way to make a place feel safe is to ensure that it’s busy — healthy downtowns need people on the sidewalk.
“The most vibrant downtowns are very dense places with a robust and interesting mix of uses,” he said. “We’ve getting there, but we’re still a long way from where we used to be.”
Connecting the dots
Newman said it’s not always easy to “connect the dots.” For example, sometimes there are too many gaps to encourage visitors to the Kirby Center or the colleges to venture down the street.
“As a result, where we choose to build is just as important as what we choose to build,” Newman said.
Newman said adding new residents and businesses is part of the solution, but so is the improvement of the physical environment — restoring historic facades and buildings, and investing in the quality of the experience at street level. Filling in gaps, like at the northwest corner of Northampton and South Main streets, at the former Hotel Sterling site, or elsewhere is critically important.
Newman said it’s important to note that Downtown Wilkes-Barre only started to revive once projects were undertaken that had the effect of making the business district more dense, more pedestrian-friendly, more lively, more varied in its mix of uses.
“In other words, once we began making it more ‘citylike,’” Newman said. “When we’ve gone in the other direction — for example, when we’ve privileged cars over people, or replaced buildings with parking lots — we’ve slid backwards.”
Newman said at the end of the day, it’s about creating value, both in an economic sense, and in an intangible sense. So many of the community’s challenges stem from decades of disinvestment and eroding value, both in downtown and throughout the Wyoming Valley.
Incremental progress plan
Newman said all of the revitalization efforts are guided by a Downtown Action Plan that’s built around six major goals:
• Downtown will be a safe, clean, and attractive place to live, work, shop, and visit.
• Downtown will be the region’s college neighborhood.
• Downtown will be the region’s “walk-to-everything” urban neighborhood of choice.
• Downtown will be the region’s “Innovation District:” its hub for business, startup activity, and entrepreneurship.
• Downtown’s historic architecture, walkability, riverfront, and colleges will be the cornerstones of its enhanced visitor experience.
• Downtown will be a regional center of arts, culture, dining, and entertainment.
Newman said those aspirational goals have informed most of what has been done in downtown during the past few years.
“They’ve helped us to prioritize investments and make better choices,” he said. “And, we’ve made a lot of progress.”
He said the “region’s college neighborhood” goal has brought King’s, Wilkes, and the public and private sectors together as the schools work to anchor both ends of Main Street; the “Innovation District” goal has led to investments like the Chamber’s THINK Center and the Wilkes incubator; all that new downtown housing is bringing the idea of a “walk-to-everything urban neighborhood” to fruition; and, with existing assets like the F.M. Kirby Center and new assets like the burgeoning restaurant scene and the three galleries in the second block of South Main, the “arts and entertainment” goal is well on its way.
“By every objective measure — storefronts filled, restaurants opened, new housing units, new residents, new business startups, cleanliness, safety, visitor numbers — downtown is doing better than it was a decade ago,” Newman said. “However, we know that we still have work to do.”
Newman said more work needs to be done on creating a more consistently hospitable public environment.
One of the big items on the “to-do” list is Public Square — literally the heart of the Wyoming Valley — and it works very well during Farmers Market and other big events, but the rest of the time, it simply isn’t living up to its full potential. Newman said he has been working with the city to develop a phased plan to address the Square’s physical and operational issues, with the first steps to be taken later this year.
Newman also said there needs to be more progress made with the preservation of downtown’s historic buildings. He said they are a huge part of what makes central city special, and a place that’s worth visiting. He said projects like the preservation of the Irem Temple, or the creative reuse of so many other great old downtown buildings in need of a new purpose, are very high on the priority list.