By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader -The Weekender
WILKES-BARRE — After attending the National Main Street Conference in Pittsburgh this week, Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, said he heard one thing over and over — partnerships are critical to successful Main Street revitalization efforts.
Newman attended the conference, attended by more than 1,600 downtown management professionals from across the country, and he said he learned a lot, but also came away knowing his approach to downtown revitalization is working in Wilkes-Barre.
Newman gave a detailed report at Friday’s meeting of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association at the Westmoreland Club on South Franklin Street. Newman, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a master’s degree from Harvard University, serves as chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, the statewide advocate for downtown revitalization.
Newman told about 35 members of the DWBBA that he has adopted the “four-point approach” to downtown revitalization — organization, promotion, design and economic vitality.
Newman told the group to be assured that there is a direct link between the Easter Egg Hunt, the Window Wonderland, Downtown Restaurant Week, the new downtown map and directory, the member parking validation program, or any of DWBBA’s other activities.
“The fact is that downtown’s forward momentum has been steadily building,” Newman said.
And Newman gave some statistics to support his report:
• In the last year alone, Newman said there has been more than $3 million in private funds invested into various downtown projects.
• There has been a net gain of three occupied downtown storefronts during 2016 — the 12th consecutive year of net increase in downtown storefront occupancy.
• More new downtown businesses, such as Amberdonia, Dollar Tree and the Vault restaurant, will be opening soon.
• Some 112 new market-rate housing units have been added to the downtown in the past five years, and there are another 52 units currently under construction. Newman said more than 3,500 people now call downtown Wilkes-Barre home.
• According to the US Census, from 2000 to 2015, 38 percent of Wilkes-Barre’s citywide growth in college graduates under the age of 35 occurred within 8 percent of its land area — the 18701 ZIP code.
• Downtown Wilkes-Barre hosts more than 11,000 workers every day.
Newman said office workers matter to the health of the downtown. He said according to the most recent survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers, downtown office workers’ workplace spending on food alone is, on average, $25 dollars a week.
“When you do the math, the potential for downtown businesses serving those office workers adds up really quickly,” he said.
Newman said last year, the F.M. Kirby Center, Movies 14 and events at other downtown venues and galleries together generated more than 600,000 visitors to Downtown.
Newman also cited the 7,500 students enrolled at King’s College and Wilkes University last year — a number he said continues to grow.
“But, we can’t rest on our laurels,” Newman said. “We have to continue to focus on moving the economic development needle for downtown Wilkes-Barre. Our challenge is to ensure that we continue to turn those changes to our advantage.”
Newman noted that in 2016, for the first time, more than 20 percent of all national apparel sales occurred online — a figure he said will continue to climb. He said brick-and-mortar retailing is declining, as evidenced by cutbacks at hh Gregg, The Limited, Macy’s, Sears, JC Penney, Kmart, Aeropostale, Gap, and more.
According to the National Association of Realtors’ most recent survey, Newman said 50 percent of millennials said that it’s now “very important” to live in a walkable mixed-use neighborhood — along with 43 percent of Gen-Xers and 38 percent of baby boomers.
John Maday, who was elected Friday to his third term as president of the DWBBA, said you can’t help but notice the improvement downtown over the last decade or so.
“There’s still more to do,” Maday said. “When you think of all the people who have moved downtown and the conversion of large buildings to residential, it shows you the interest in the downtown.”
Maday said the quality of life has greatly improved in the downtown, noting the increase in restaurants, entertainment and shopping.
Before the meeting was adjourned, Gus Genetti, owner of the Genetti Downtown Hotel and Convention Center, praised the Times Leader for its recent publication of a special three-section special project called “InNOVAtion.” Genetti said he was pleased to see all of the positive stories about the region, its people and businesses.