By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — One downtown business forced to vacate while neighboring buildings were demolished last year will not return to its South Main Street location and another remains undecided.
Michaelene Coffee of Place One — The Hollywood, and Ilona Bruns of Frank Clark Jewelers, said the situation last year at a critical sales time may have driven them out of the city for good.
Bruns closed her jewelry store last week, and she criticized the city for not helping her. She said she won’t be coming back.
Coffee said she would have to close her Scranton location for two days to return her merchandise to Wilkes-Barre. She said rumors of a planned development of the South Main Street vacant lots that border her store have caused her to reconsider her return. She said the development plan could include the sites where her store and the jewelry store are located.
Mayor Tom Leighton said Wednesday there has been interest in the vacant lot at South Main and Northampton streets, and the city is talking to potential developers.
“We’re working on it,” Leighton said. “But we can’t say anything more at this time.”
Asked if an announcement is near, Leighton declined to comment, saying he is bound by confidentiality agreements with the interested parties.
“I have no comment on any development as there is no information to release at this time,” he said.
But Coffee and Bruns said they have heard unconfirmed reports that include a chain drug store to a new hotel as possible developments.
Just down South Main Street in space owned by Humford Equities, interior demolition work is being done where downtown nightclubs once operated.
Rob Finlay of Humford said there is no news to announce, adding he is having the space cleared to better market it to potential tenants.
There has been public speculation about that space as well, with the most popular theory being an independent grocery chain is considering locating downtown. Finlay denied the report, saying he is talking to possible tenants, but no deals have been struck.
Joe Amato and his company, City Centre L.P., purchased the $8.4 million mortgage on the University Corners complex. He said a grocery chain representative contacted him about renting space, but he did not have a large enough area to lease to accommodate a store.
“But a grocery store would be ideal for the downtown,” Amato said. “It would be another piece of the plan.”
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, said the site at the corner of South Main and West Northampton streets is key to downtown’s overall success.
Newman said the site is the “missing piece” connecting a number of existing and new downtown investments such as the theater complex, the two loft projects along the first block of East Northampton Street, Wilkes University’s projects in the second block of South Main Street, the retail and restaurants of the first block of South Main, and the YMCA and the River Common to the west.
“The two privately owned buildings remaining represent two displaced businesses as well as two of the best historic commercial facades left in downtown, so it’s critical that the development on the corner integrates with them as well,” Newman said. “If we want to maximize the walkability of the downtown core and keep the positive momentum going, then that site has to be developed correctly.”
Newman said it’s important for any future developer of the corner site to meet the development objectives that are outlined in the City’s RFP for development.
“And, based on what we hear, we remain optimistic that those goals can be met,” he said.
In order to blend in with the University Corners across the street, the city indicated the new development should be mixed used with specialty retail shops and restaurants on the ground floor. The upper floor would be residential or office space.
Last fall, the city contracted to demolish four vacant buildings at 69, 71, 73 and 75 S. Main St. The city owned the properties and condemned them in October due to their deteriorating conditions.
The demolition took place around two privately owned properties in the middle of the cluster where Place 1 and Frank Clark’s were housed.
Bruns, 38, a single mother of two, continues to operate her Nanticoke store, Ocean Gold, and she said she had intended to renovate the Wilkes-Barre store but could not finance the project.
Bruns said the demolition of the buildings that required her to vacate the premises couldn’t have come at a worse time. She said she lost Black Friday business and pre-holiday business because she could not open her store.
“People who wanted to purchase jewelry went to other jewelers,” she said. “Buy the time I reopened in mid-December, the holiday shopping season was pretty much over.”
Bruns said there wasn’t much call for jewelry after the holidays.
“It just devastated me,” she said. “I invested a lot of money to restore a historical building in downtown and pretty much I was forced out of there.”
Bruns contends the city put her out of business, and she is contemplating taking legal action. Leighton said the city received two engineering reports that indicated the surrounding buildings were in danger of collapsing and advised they be taken down immediately.
“When Bartikowsky’s closed I was hoping to get some of that business,” Bruns said. “Then all of a sudden the buildings were demolished and that shut me down.”
WAIT AND SEE
Coffee said she really can’t say when she will move back to her Wilkes-Barre location.
“I really don’t have an answer to that question,” Coffee said. “I’m hearing that the city is talking about doing some project there.”
Coffee said she is taking a wait-and-see approach. She said a big development project could result in a developer seeking to purchase the remaining two buildings to make for a larger space.
“My fear is that I will move back and then somebody will want to buy the building,” she said.