By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Assuming there are no Native American artifacts in the soil of the former Murray complex on Pennsylvania Avenue, there could be a groundbreaking ceremony for the Luzerne County Transportation Authority’s new headquarters by early summer.
If something historical is found beneath the surface of the Murray property, start of the LCTA project could be delayed for several months.
The update on the project came at Friday’s meeting of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, held this time at Chick-fil-A in the King’s On the Square building.
The meeting also featured an update by Larry Newman, executive director of Diamond City Partnership, on the progressive approach to downtown revitalization. Newman announced the upcoming 16oth annual meeting/dinner of the Luzerne County Historical Society — “Let’s Go Shopping – Stores of Yesteryear” — then said those wonderful, nostalgic days are gone and he gave a detailed report on the new downtown formula.
“Those days are gone,” Newman said. “Those days of people getting dressed up to go shopping on a Thursday night in downtown Wilkes-Barre are over. But we are working to return to those days of vibrancy by creating a downtown that offers everything people want.”
Regarding the LCTA project, Norm Gavlick, executive director, said the authority did have an archaeological study done as part of Phase I of the project. He said no Native American artifacts were found.
Howard Pollman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, said the Federal Transit Authority has asked for a secondary study since federal funds would be used in the LCTA project.
Pollman provided this from the state Historic Preservation Office: “We reviewed the project back in July 2017 in accordance with the applicable state and federal historic preservation regulations (History Code and Section 106, as both state and federal funding is being used). The Federal Transit Authority is the lead federal agency. We’re asking for a study of the soils on site to see if there’s any possibility for buried Native American archaeological resources.”
Gavlick said if the secondary study finds no evidence of Native American artifacts, the LCTA will then seek appraisals of the property and enter into negotiations with Daniel Siniawa and Associates of Dickson City, which owns about 12 of the 14 acres at the site; and Freeman Realty of Wilkes-Barre, which owns about two acres.
“If everything goes well, we could break ground on the project by early summer,” Gavlick said. “If something is found, the project could be delayed for several months.”
Gavlick said it will be a joint project with PennDOT will soon see the transformation of the long-neglected 14-acre site into an expanded bus terminal/garage/administrative complex.
Gavlick said LCTA and PennDOT looked at about seven possible sites for a new location for the LCTA before deciding on the Murray complex. He said PennDOT did a feasibility study that took one year to complete, weighing the pros and cons of staying at the current site, or relocating. He said to stay at the current site in Kingston, adjacent properties would have to be purchased.
Gavlick could not put a cost estimate on the project. PennDOT will provide the funding for the property acquisitions and construction, Gavlick said.
Downtown on the uptick
Newman said the downtown of today has become a regional arts and entertainment destination w2ith 40 restaurant and 150 new housing units over the last five years.
“We’ve been seeing some fairly dramatic changes in the basic functions of a traditional downtown,” Newman said.
He said the downtown used to be a place where one of the basic functions was shopping, making it a retailing destination. He said while retail remains one of the features of the downtown — noting a department store like Boscov’s is a critical anchor for the city — the reality is that 70 years ago, downtown was where the trolley and bus lines came together.
After the shift to suburban shopping centers and malls, retail shopping today is largely done on cell phones and computers, Newman said.
With major department stores in bankruptcy, Newman said there has been a shift back to downtown. He said with Wilkes University and King’s College bordering the downtown, the city has 8,000 students each school, year who patronize everything downtown has to offer.
And Newman noted that the recent news that M&T Bank would close its West Market Street branch office does not mean a loss of jobs. He said M&T recently rented an entire floor of office space at 15 South Franklin St. to house its consolidated regional administrative personnel.