Our Opinion: Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s Picture Keeps Improving

i May 14th 2014

By the Opinion Board, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

Drawn to downtown Wilkes-Barre by this week’s popular Fine Arts Fiesta, people making a repeat visit, or seeing the place for the first time, should be suitably impressed.

The city’s hub has a more energetic vibe than a decade ago and, yes, a growing attractiveness.

Critics – including this newspaper’s Opinion Board – have knocked aspects of the city’s revitalization efforts in recent years, specifically an apparent penchant for demolishing structures, in some cases shooing away shop owners in the process, rather than securing acceptable tenants. Plus, Wilkes-Barre won’t soon shake its reputation as prone to criminal activity.

Public perception, however, often lags behind reality.

Most neutral observers probably would agree that violent crime committed randomly here is unusual, not the norm, and that more foot traffic, not less, makes the atmosphere seem even safer. Also, boosters of the downtown point out the city again has a police officer on the downtown beat.

Adding to their enthusiasm are many projects, several funded with private dollars, that promise to enliven the area and encourage visitation.

Owners of multiple downtown buildings envision soon converting those empty office spaces into apartments and condominiums.

King’s College, meanwhile, has crews working daily to transform the former Ramada hotel on Public Square. Blueprints call for classrooms and labs on the prominent structure’s lower levels, with student housing on upper floors. The site will include a bakery/cafe, too.

Not far away, on Market Street, the proprietors of the Best Western Genetti Hotel & Conference Center intend to orchestrate a nearly quarter-million dollar upgrade, christening the building’s top two levels, containing about 20 guest rooms, as a “boutique hotel.”

Also in the vicinity, developer Joe Amato aims to fill ground-floor storefronts with new occupants. His investment company early last year purchased the former University Corners complex, which houses the R/C Movies 14 theater. The ex-pro dragster has proven adept at reviving retail outlets such as the Gateway Shopping Center, Edwardsville.

Upon completion, these and other downtown projects will complement the significant, community-enhancing efforts led in past years by city and chamber of commerce officials: the creation of a combined Wilkes University/King’s College bookstore, the opening of a movie theater and the overhaul of the city’s streetscape.

A lively mix of downtown restaurants attests to the city’s ongoing revival. And the massive River Common project, which re-connected downtown pedestrians and bikers with the Susquehanna River’s edge in elegant fashion, while already a beautiful addition to the city, can in time become an even more well-used amenity.

Wilkes-Barre’s 21st-century renaissance might have been delayed by the Great Recession, but it apparently hasn’t been derailed. Certainly, the cloud of public corruption hanging over this region and last year’s spurt of homicides in the city haven’t helped matters, causing some people to lose hope, or at least energy.

Yet the city’s progression continues.

If you attend the Arts Fiesta, a four-day festival opening at 10 a.m. Thursday and which a recent online survey indicated is the most popular event in the downtown, take time to turn away from the beautiful artwork momentarily to assess the city’s changing canvas. It’s a pleasing, if incomplete, picture.

The head of Diamond City Partnership, a downtown management group responsible for the recent survey, says more improvements are on the way. “We expect to make some new, exciting announcements in the near future,” said Larry Newman, the partnership’s executive director. “But the important thing is we have positive momentum, and we’re moving forward.”