Our Opinion: Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s Renewal Shouldn’t Go Unnoticed; Take A Look

i Aug 8th 2014

By the Opinion Board, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

Downtown Wilkes-Barre continues to get better, and plenty of people recognize it.

A survey gauging people’s perceptions and use of the city’s central district – results of which were released last week by the nonprofit Diamond City Partnership – found that a majority of the 1,000-plus respondents agree the downtown is “headed in the right direction.”

Let’s hope all those believers tell their friends, because generating a positive buzz about the place will be key to continuing its transformation from a downtrodden area, as it was in 2001, to true destination for young job-seekers and house-hunters of all ages.

Despite what you might have heard, or choose to think, downtown Wilkes-Barre already has made dramatic progress. Since its crumbling condition of more than a decade ago, the city has become cleaner, added occupants to its storefronts (even during the Great Recession’s dark days) and experienced a rush of restaurant openings. It retains a healthy amount of offices, complemented today by an ever-expanding number of residential units, including condos with sweeping Wyoming Valley views.

In short, this city offers much of what millennials, or members of Generation Y, look for when choosing where to live and find a job. All it needs is … well, more of everything. More shops. More eateries. More attractions. More events.

More people.

The catchword uttered by Larry Newman, director of Diamond City Partnership, an alliance for downtown revitalization, is “density.” “Dense, diverse and walkable places are back in style,” he told The Times Leader’s Opinion Board on Thursday.

The importance of reviving Wilkes-Barre – the county seat – goes well beyond matters pertaining to only this city’s health. The downtown’s vitality in large part dictates the pulse of the surrounding region. If area residents intend to live in a thriving, enjoyable place, capable of drawing information-age businesses, we’d better have a lively, appealing downtown.

As it is, the downtown accounts for 46 percent of the jobs in all of Wilkes-Barre and one of every 10 jobs in Luzerne County, Newman said. He highlighted other numbers suggesting the downtown’s growing strength; it has 37 more occupied storefronts today than it did in 2006. And while the average sales price of a home in Wilkes-Barre hovers around $56,000, the average for downtown homes is closer to $200,000, Newman said.

Survey respondents indicated they especially visit the city for events such as the Farmers Market and annual Fine Arts Fiesta, as well as for dining, movie-watching and shopping. Some of the most popular draws didn’t exist 10 years ago: the movie theater, the River Common. “It shows the investments we made as a community are paying off,” Newman said.

One major obstacle: Public attitudes about safety. Certain people wrongly associate the downtown with crime hot spots elsewhere in the city; some observers have overblown the risk, rather than looking at statistics. Tellingly, the people most fearful of downtown are the ones who don’t, or rarely, venture there.

Give downtown Wilkes-Barre another chance; you just might like it.