Our Opinion: Wilkes-Barre entering new phase of its renewal

i Feb 20th 2016

By the Editorial Board, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

In addition to a rundown train station in Wilkes-Barre, other nearby properties soon might be scooped up and renovated, according to a participant in a locally based investment group eyeing the real estate.

If true, and the investors succeed in their goals, this potentially represents a watershed moment for a city long struggling to make a full comeback.

Until recently, Wilkes-Barre’s “rebirth” had been largely engineered by government officials. They used taxpayers’ money for large-scale projects. (Think Coal Street’s expansion, construction of the new bus station and, before that, the salvation of the Stegmaier Brewery building.)

At long last, developers appear ready and willing to put up private cash.

Careful observers already can see this happening in the city’s residential market. In downtown buildings formerly occupied by banks and offices, people have settled into newly supplied apartments and condos. More conversions with more housing units reportedly are on the way.

Last week, Pittston engineer George Albert, speaking on behalf of Market Square Properties Development LLC, indicated investors are not only looking at the former New Jersey Central Railroad site, but also the Innovation Center on Public Square and the First National Bank building. His group hopes to buy the former train station from the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority and begin work there in June. However, finding tenants has been troublesome and caused a delay in finalizing the purchase, the redevelopment authority’s members were told.

Until the investors provide more specifics, it’s difficult to assess their plans. Who will foot the lion’s share of the expenses? Will government grants or other taxpayer-provided funding enter the mix? How soon before the properties return to the tax rolls?

Area residents have reason to be skeptical; they’ve been burned before. (RIP, Hotel Sterling.)

But the ambitions expressed by Albert and his group represent another in a long line of reasons to be bullish about Wilkes-Barre’s future. Here are others:

• Attitudes about city living, in general, are changing. America’s mass exodus to the suburbs has, in many instances, stopped, replaced by a desire among immigrants, millennials and others to be in urban centers.

• Businessman Joe Amato, whose company bought the University Corners building in Wilkes-Barre three years ago, and others are banking on the continued resurgence of city commerce.

• A budding arts district, anchored by Wilkes University’s soon-to-be-relocated Sordoni Art Gallery, is taking shape on South Main Street.

• Higher-education institutions, including King’s College, continue to offer new eateries, acquire downtown properties and upgrade neighborhoods. Expect to soon see sidewalk improvements bordering the Wilkes campus totalling more than $1 million.

• Three neighborhood residents’ associations recently sprang up, thanks to the efforts of city Councilman Tony Brooks and others. If sustained, these groups will join the already active Downtown Residents Association in mobilizing people to improve their surroundings.

Unfortunately, as momentum slowly swings in the city’s favor, one of the biggest stumbling blocks seems to be government: If the city, county and state fail to pass sensible budgets, and control taxes, people won’t be compelled to put down stakes here for long.