Opinion: Downtown resurgence good for all of NE Pa.

i Jan 12th 2016

By Larry Newman for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Business Journal:

WILKES-BARRE – As I consider Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s progress during the last few years, I find myself picturing something odd: Christmas trees.

Specifically, I’m recalling standing on downtown sidewalks during the past month and spotting Christmas trees illuminated in the windows of loft apartments which did not exist a year ago – trees placed and decorated by people who have recently chosen to live in Downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Downtown’s quiet reemergence as a desirable place to live is a signature element of our center city’s ongoing revitalization. As we look back on 2015, the momentum of that revitalization is undeniable. Consider the following:

  • Today, new Downtown residents make their homes in 38 new market-rate apartments that were not present at the start of 2015;
  • For the 11th consecutive year, Downtown enjoyed a net gain in occupied storefronts;
  • The Wilkes Enterprise Center opened on Public Square, housing nine new startup businesses and adding to the roster of resources in what’s fast becoming the region’s “Innovation District;”
  • eBay Enterprise Marketing Solutions, one of the anchor businesses in that “Innovation District,” announced that it’s moving its corporate headquarters to Downtown;
  • Downtown’s institutional cornerstones, King’s College and Wilkes University, continued making substantial new investments in their expanding campuses;
  • Several new developments – a proposed hotel, a downtown grocery, more lofts, a new entrepreneurship lab– were announced and are on their way;
  • Wilkes-Barre’s submission to Frontier Communications’ “America’s Best Communities” competition, prepared by DCP, the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber, and the City of Wilkes-Barre, was chosen as one of 50 Quarter-Finalists from among 400 contestants. The entry, which is built upon our community-powered plan for the next five years of downtown revitalization, won $50,000; it now moves on to the ABC competition’s next phase.

None of this progress would have been possible without partnership – a concept that’s crucial to effective downtown revitalization.

Wilkes-Barre’s downtown revitalization goals have succeeded because businesses, institutions, government, residents, and volunteers have worked hand-in-hand to advance a strategy grounded in the public’s shared vision for Downtown.

After twelve years, the results speak for themselves: almost $100 million in private investment; 83 new housing units; an increase of 49 occupied storefronts over 2004’s figure; and a dramatically improved center city that has become a regional dining and entertainment destination.

Downtown’s resurgence isn’t only good for Wilkes-Barre and the Wyoming Valley: it’s good for all of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Downtown Wilkes-Barre is a regional economic engine: a district representing only 7 percent of the city’s total land area, but holding 46 percent of all the jobs in the city and 1 of every 10 jobs in Luzerne County. In fact, it’s the largest single employment destination for both City and County residents – even as 32% of downtown’s workers reside outside of Luzerne County.

Downtown’s particular strengths include some industries that are crucial to our region’s economic growth. For example, one-third of all of the information-sector jobs in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton metropolitan area are located in our center city.

That’s because knowledge-driven businesses rely upon opportunities to collaborate and share ideas – and the process is fostered by Downtown’s walkability and proximity to colleges, amenities, and millennial-friendly housing options.

Across the country, downtowns are becoming talent magnets, attracting knowledge workers and industries. Today, that trend is occurring in Downtown Wilkes-Barre.

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 the county’s 24-to-35-year olds had a bachelor’s degree – but the figure in downtown Wilkes-Barre had risen to 75 percent!

Now, our downtown revitalization efforts are moving to the next phase. The mayoral torch is being passed from Mayor Tom Leighton, whose efforts have been critical to the past twelve years of downtown revival, to our city’s new chief executive, Tony George. We also have a new five-year downtown action plan, shaped by community opinion, and driven by six big goals for our center city’s future:

  • Downtown will be a safe, clean, and attractive place to live, work, shop, and visit.
  • Downtown will be the region’s college neighborhood.
  • Downtown will be the region’s “walk-to-everything” urban neighborhood of choice.
  • Downtown will be the region’s “Innovation District:” its hub for business, startup activity, and entrepreneurship.
  • Downtown’s historic architecture, walkability, riverfront, and colleges will be the cornerstones of its enhanced visitor experience.
  • Downtown will be a regional center of arts, culture, dining, and entertainment.

Those are ambitious goals, but, as we begin 2016, we’re already well on our way. There’s still much to be done, but our efforts are gaining momentum – and the wind is at our backs.

So, next year, expect to see even more Christmas trees illuminated in loft windows high above center city streets: signs of a brighter future for Downtown Wilkes-Barre and, by extension, for all of Northeastern Pennsylvania.