By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — To appreciate just how far downtown Wilkes-Barre’s revitalization efforts have come, all you need to do is to remember what it looked like in the year 2000.
“By then, we had been hemorrhaging businesses for almost two decades,” said Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City partnership. “In fact, the downtown vacancy rate doubled from 1985 to 1996.”
Newman said downtown’s public environment was a mess.
“For example, you may recall that this was the era of the collapsing streetlights,” Newman said. “The canopy was dirty, the sidewalks were strewn with litter, and the graffiti never seemed to go away.”
Parking lots had replaced Percy Brown’s and the Kiddie Shoppe on the first block of East Northampton Street, and if you turned the corner onto the first block of South Main Street, you were greeted by one vacant storefront after another. Down the street, Woolworth’s had been empty since 1994.
“Even McDonald’s didn’t last more than five years on Public Square before closing,” Newman said.
In those dreary days, Newman said three senior-citizen high-rises, built during urban renewal, comprised the majority of the housing in the downtown core. King’s and Wilkes focused inward — a person standing on Public Square would never suspect that a block’s walk in either direction would bring them to a college campus.
Newman said a Main Street revitalization program had been initiated in the early 1990’s, but it didn’t last.
“The business community, colleges, and City Hall increasingly moved in separate orbits,” Newman said. “There were disagreements about strategy and tactics, and a decade’s worth of revitalization efforts resulted primarily in frustration and acrimony.”
Wico van Genderen, president/CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, said by most measures, our economic fundamentals are positive.
“We are growing in jobs, wages, business attraction/retention and business diversity,” van Genderen said. “At the same time, our strengthening economy has exposed a critical need in workforce.”
Van Genderen said revitalizing workforce in Wilkes Barre and the NEPA area holds infinite potential for some economic breakthroughs and a new era of growth.
“But to get there we have some heavy lifting to do,” he said. “In business, your biggest asset is your labor force and we need to ensure we are making the investments to connect and align our people and skill sets, train up where there are gaps and attract talent from both within and the outside.
“With a region known for its strong work ethic, affordable cost of living and a large college student population to draw from, we have a great start and now need to build upon this solid base.”
Today, Newman said there are:
• 47 more occupied storefronts in Downtown Wilkes-Barre than in 2000.
• We enjoy a healthy downtown dining and entertainment scene.
• Downtown has become the region’s largest concentrated employment center.
• The center city’s residential sector continues to grow.
• And two-thirds of survey respondents consistently feel that the downtown is headed in the right direction.
Newman said the downtown has enjoyed 13 consecutive years of increasing occupancy rates.
More than 10 years after it opened, Movies 14, which replaced the parking lots on East Northampton Street, continues to attract more than 7,000 patrons per week.
There are 21 loft condominiums in the once-vacant buildings next door, and Downtown Wilkes-Barre has become the region’s Restaurant Row.
Newman goes on to point out that the old Woolworth’s building isn’t vacant any more — it houses the Wilkes/King’s Barnes & Noble bookstore, Pepperjam and a dozen incubator tenants, and the Wilkes-Barre THINK Center — the hub of Wilkes-Barre’s start-up sector.
And, Guard Insurance’s landmark South River Street offices were just purchased by local entrepreneur Kris Jones, who will use them to house his portfolio of businesses, along with the area’s first tech “accelerator.”
In fact, Newman notes that downtown is home to more than two-dozen different tech start-ups, companies like Edify, Mobiniti, PlanGuru, Socialocca, and VizVibe. In fact, today, he says one-third of all the information-sector jobs in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton metro area are located in Downtown.
“The existence of these start-ups would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, but today they aren’t just key contributors to the local economy, they’re also helping to keep young people living here,” Newman said. “And, the environment they want can only be found in a place like Downtown Wilkes-Barre.”
Berkshire Hathaway GUARD
For instance, Berkshire Hathaway GUARD is in the process of moving its operations into the Tower on the Square.
Berkshire Hathaway currently has 664 full-time employees in Wilkes-Barre. In its new location at 39 Public Square, Berkshire Hathaway has occupied six floors. Full occupancy of the high-rise building is expected to be completed by the fall.
Carl J. Witkowski, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President at Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies, said when the building’s remodeling is completed, the company will have space to accommodate approximately 1,000 employees.
“Even after all 10 floors of the Tower on the Square are fully occupied, we will continue to hold onto two other buildings in the downtown,” Witkowski said. “We will still have employees at our three-story building on Market Street (the former M&T Bank building) and our five-story building on Frazer Lane.”
Witkowski said the company is continuing to grow its staff and will have an on-site job fair in the Tower building on Public Square. The job fair will be held in the Tower on Wednesday May 1, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Sunday, May 5, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
King’s and Wilkes
Then, there’s King’s College and Wilkes University — both schools have expanded their campuses in order to anchor both ends of Main Street.
King’s College’s health sciences programs adjoin Public Square, and the old Spring Brook Water Company building is being rehabbed to house the college’s new civil and mechanical engineering programs.
In the meantime, Wilkes has transformed the second block of South Main Street with a new business school, a new home for the Sordoni Art Gallery, and student housing.
Recently, Wilkes announced a $2.5 million PennDOT/Wilkes University streetscape project, that will improve pedestrian and vehicular safety, add street and walkway lighting, and connect key street corridors of the city.
Work on the project is set to begin on May 20 — the week after Wilkes’ commencement — and be completed by Aug. 15. Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy said the project is “another outstanding example” of a public-private partnership.
Much of the project is funded by the Transportation Alternatives Program administered by PennDOT. Wilkes is contributing $500,000 to address costs related to engineering and design.
What it includes:
The pedestrian improvement project is a continuation of the streetscape improvements Wilkes has made in the blocks surrounding its campus, specifically South Franklin Street. This next phase includes improvements to:
• South Main Street from Northampton Street to South Street.
• West South Street from South Franklin Street to South Main Street.
• South Franklin Street from Ross Street to West South Street (a pedestrian crosswalk with crossing signals will be installed in front of the Arnaud C. Marts Center).
BID Clean Team
Newman said downtown’s public environment now gets focused attention thanks to the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District. He said the BID’s Clean Team has removed more than 62 tons of trash and 1,400 graffiti tags from downtown sidewalks and properties since 2007 — for the past six years, they have installed and maintained 186 flower baskets through the spring and summer. There are new pedestrian-scale streetlights, new sidewalks, and new street trees throughout downtown, with more to come later this year.
Most exciting, Newman said, is the housing market — downtown is again a live-work neighborhood.
• 216 new housing units have been constructed in downtown during the past 10 years, with another 36 units currently under construction.
• As those units have been snapped up, downtown’s population has steadily become younger and better educated — the US Census tells us that Downtown’s share of college-educated residents under the age of 35 is now almost twice that of Luzerne County as a whole.
“There’s no question that downtown is on a positive trajectory,” Newman said. “However, we also recognize that there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Newman says a great downtown harnesses its fundamental qualities — compactness, diversity and density of use, distinctive character, lots of activity — as its strengths.
“It builds on those qualities, along with a comfortable public environment, in order to create a place where people want to work, live, shop, and spend time,” Newman said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re not yet fully where we want to be.”
Successful downtown revitalizations generally follow the same trajectory — Newman said one that moves from addressing the basics of clean, safe, and attractive, to a place that can support the arts and entertainment, and then restaurants, and then downtown housing, and finally new retail and office tenants.
“We’re still working our way along that path,” he said.
Through it all, Newman said downtown has become remarkably vibrant during the evenings, but that isn’t always the case at other times of day. He said there are still too many vacant buildings and too many gaps.
“We don’t yet have a consistent critical mass of activity — particularly retail activity,” Newman said. “And, throughout downtown, the quality of the public environment simply isn’t where it needs to be.”
So, Newman says, we need to continue to foster new investment of all kinds.
“We need to do a better job with historic preservation,” he said. “And, we need to provide a more consistently hospitable public realm. In particular, we need to continue our work to remake Public Square.”
Then, there’s the discussion about safety. Newman says it’s clear that, when it comes to this issue, facts don’t really matter — the statistics may say one thing, but public perceptions say another.
One effective weapon in combating those perceptions is simple — get more people downtown.
“We need to continue to bring more people downtown to experience the improvements for themselves instead of believing whatever they happen to read online,” Newman said. “Survey results make it clear — as people spend more time in downtown, their perceptions of downtown steadily improve.”
It’s also undeniable that downtown is a very busy place, and it attracts all sorts of people, Newman noted. When individuals come downtown and engage in uncivil behavior, that has a negative impact on everyone else — and it can’t be tolerated.
“So, we continue to work with the city and the police department to ensure that downtown provides a comfortable public environment,” Newman said.
However, Newman said we must also remember that, for better or worse, downtown is a reflection of our entire community — and that means that all our community’s problems, from poverty to addiction to mental illness, are going to show up there in a very visible fashion.
“The challenges that we sometimes see playing out on downtown’s sidewalks and public spaces aren’t only downtown issues,” Newman said. “And they aren’t going to be solved by downtown stakeholders alone. They are the region’s issues, and if they aren’t addressed forthrightly, they’ll continue to drag the entire community down.”
Nevertheless, Newman remains very positive about Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s future — and, based on the array of private investments that are being made throughout downtown — from the first block of North River Street to the second block of South Main Street — it’s clear that many others feel the same way.