Op-Ed: Communities need vibrant downtowns more than ever

i Apr 26th 2015

By Larry Newman for The Times Leader

I’m sometimes asked why so many people continue to work so hard to facilitate the revitalization of downtown Wilkes-Barre.

“It’s over, you know. The malls won.”

These people reminisce about the “good old days,” when downtown Wilkes-Barre was the retail center of the Wyoming Valley, boasting multiple department stores and specialty retailers. The assumption is that, unless Main Street again becomes our community’s primary retail destination, we’re wasting our time.

This much is true: the social and economic context that created the downtown of Isaac Long’s and Woolworth’s and Percy Brown’s and Pomeroy’s is gone – and it’s not coming back.

But, do you know what else is true? Today, communities need vibrant downtowns more than ever. Let me explain why.

‘Quality of place’

The first reason has to do with a concept called “quality of place.” In today’s knowledge-based economy, job opportunities increasingly are available in places where they can be filled by the people who are needed – which means that, more and more, talented people can choose to live wherever they wish.

In this environment, being the “cheaper” option is simply not enough – and “quality of place” is no longer a luxury, but an increasingly critical tool for talent attraction and retention.

Remember: for better or worse, downtowns serve as the public face of their communities.

A downtown’s condition signals a place’s vitality and pride – or its lack thereof – to visitors, prospective students, potential investors and anyone else.

It’s downtowns – not residential neighborhoods or “could-be-anywhere” suburban developments – that are the source of the iconic images used to symbolize a city online or in the media. They provide a first impression of a place – and first impressions matter.

Seen in this context, the distinctiveness of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown – a historic riverfront neighborhood, dense, walkable and anchored by two institutions of higher education – is one of our community’s strongest assets.

But only if we choose to treat it that way.

Downtown’s role as a place to live is also increasingly important.

Mix of options

Today, competitive communities must offer a greater mix of housing options to meet changing tastes and demographics. Because downtown Wilkes-Barre’s diverse array of housing, ranging from townhouses to lofts to apartments, provides a range of residential choices unavailable anywhere else in the region, it has quietly emerged as a regional neighborhood of choice for those wishing to live a walk-to-everything lifestyle.

It’s that residential growth that will ultimately provide the customer base for a new generation of downtown retailers.

Does the downtown’s residential sector factor into our region’s effort to retain and attract young talent? You better believe it.

Consider the census statistics: In 2000, 25 percent of downtown residents aged 24 to 35 had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 22 percent in Luzerne County. By 2010, 28 percent of 24-to-35-year olds in the county had a bachelor’s degree – but the figure in downtown Wilkes-Barre had risen to 75 percent.

Economic engine

That statistic connects with another important role for downtown: a regional economic engine.

Downtown Wilkes-Barre represents only 7 percent of the city’s total land area, but contains 46 percent of all the jobs in the city, and 1 of every 10 jobs in Luzerne County.

There are more jobs in downtown Wilkes-Barre’s 16 blocks than in the Crestwood and Dallas school districts combined.

In particular, downtowns serve as superb incubators for the small independent businesses – restaurants, retailers or app developers – that provide the foundation of any local economy.

Downtown Wilkes-Barre is strongest in some of the industry sectors that are most important to our region’s economic growth.

For example, one-third of all of the information-sector jobs in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton metro area are located in downtown Wilkes-Barre. Knowledge businesses rely upon opportunities to collaborate and share ideas – and downtown’s density and walkability fosters the connections that drive that process.

Amenities, convenience

A downtown location brings business together with clients, competitors, vendors and the colleges that provide resources, interns and future employees. Amenities such as restaurants, shops and recreational opportunities are all within a short walk of the office, making life much easier for employees and employers.

Simply put, healthy, walkable downtowns can be talent magnets, attracting knowledge workers and industries – something that’s critical for our region’s future.

A final reason why Main Street matters? Regardless of where you live, downtown is everyone’s neighborhood. It’s our civic forum, the stage when people come together to celebrate, to commemorate or to demonstrate.

Downtown is a place where all sorts of people can share the same sidewalk – and, in an age when citizens find themselves increasingly separated from one another, it’s more important than ever that we have places where that interaction routinely occurs.

To accomplish that, downtowns must provide a public environment in which everyone feels comfortable – something that’s not always easy to achieve.

During the past 50 years, every American city and town has been forced to reinvent its central business district for a new era: one that isn’t based upon downtown’s role as a place to shop.

Reinvent purpose

In Wilkes-Barre and several other Wyoming Valley downtowns, that reinvention is well underway.

However, a successful downtown revitalization is never speedy or straightforward. Because it’s incremental in nature, it can feel agonizingly slow – and there are no “magic bullet” solutions. There will always be people who are frustrated by the pace of progress – and others who find it useful to pretend that there’s been no progress at all. But, whether in Wilkes-Barre or any other downtown, it’s the deliberate, collaborative, comprehensive approach – built on a place’s fundamental assets – that yields success over the long run.

Today, in downtown Wilkes-Barre, success is now becoming evident, as years of patient effort generate new investment and new vitality. Downtown’s story is far from over; rather, a positive new chapter has just begun – and that’s good news for our entire community.