By Bill O’Boyle, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Thursday seemed like the best possible day to release a report on a downtown survey.
Public Square was filled with people attending the weekly farmers’ market and Mother Nature cooperated by offering a spectacular day of sunshine.
Patty Kopec and her daughter, Frankie, were enjoying some of the food and sunshine. Even with no entertainment on the band shell stage, the Kopecs raved about the city and the downtown and said they wished more events were planned for Public Square.
“It needs this kind of stuff,” Patty Kopec said. “It needs more events that appeal to families.”
Frankie Kopec, 38, recently moved to the city from Kingston. She and her mom like the feel of a city.
“I like being close to the heart of the action,” Frankie said.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, and his board chairwoman, Liz Graham, met with The Times Leader Opinion Board Thursday morning to reveal results of a downtown survey that was done between April 25 and May 31. More than 1,000 people took the survey, of which 825 completed it in its entirety.
The results showed that more than half of the respondents believe Downtown Wilkes-Barre is headed in the right direction, citing the downtown’s restaurant scene, arts and entertainment, colleges, walk-ability, and historic architecture as key strengths.
Some 40 percent of survey respondents work in the downtown, 20 percent attend college downtown, and 11 percent live downtown. The remaining 29 percent either visit downtown for other reasons, or they rarely or never come downtown.
The survey results showed:
• 51 percent of all respondents feel the city is headed in the right direction; 31 percent were neutral; 18 percent said it was headed in the wrong direction.
• Of downtown residents, 66 percent said right direction; 28 percent neutral; and 6 percent wrong direction.
• Of downtown moviegoers: 60 percent right direction; 27 percent neutral; 13 percent wrong direction.
• Of Kirby Center attendees: 62 percent right direction; 25 percent neutral; 13 percent wrong direction.
• Of downtown workers: 56 percent right direction; 32 percent neutral; 13 percent wrong direction.
But there remains a perception, especially that of people living outside of the city, that the downtown is unsafe.
Caitlyn Locascio of West Wyoming, works downtown and she said she never feels safe there — day or night.
“I carry pepper spray all the time,” she said. “I don’t feel safe even leaving work and walking to my car.”
Locascio said her fear is based on things she has seen, like arrests in front of local businesses.
“I don’t come down here at night,” she said. “I used to work at Hardware Bar years ago and I always felt unsafe.”
A young man sitting near Locascio wouldn’t give his name, but he was eager to offer his opinion.
“I grew up in this area,” he said. “I remember how it used to be in the city and it has gotten better. But the city needs to improve the security.”
He said he has seen many changes for the better, but he still has an unsafe feeling whenever he comes downtown.
Not so for the Kopecs. Patty and Frankie said they have never felt unsafe downtown. Frankie said she walks the River Common and often walks to Public Square. Patty said she often travels to New York City and she doesn’t feel unsafe there.
“It’s the same here,” she said. “I never feel unsafe.”
The survey report, some 83 pages long, reveals much about the city and the opinions and perceptions of the downtown. It shows that dining and entertainment draw the most people downtown, with 66 percent of all respondents saying the main reason they come downtown is to dine and 56 percent said they come to go to the movies.
“Several of the downtown destinations now most frequently visited by survey respondents, such as downtown’s ‘Restaurant Row,’ Movies 14, Barnes & Noble, or the River Common, simply did not exist 10 years ago,” Newman said.
But the key, Newman said, to downtown’s revitalization and future growth lies in its residential population. Newman pointed to several downtown residential developments, like Elevation Lofts above the theater complex, for the increase in downtown activity. He said other projects underway, like the Citizens Bank apartments and a condominium project planned for PNC Bank, are essential to the city’s downtown strength.
“The downtown is no longer dependent on filling retail spaces,” Newman said. “It’s filling apartments and condos and houses that is critical. If that continues to increase, as expected, the rest, like retail and more restaurants, will follow.”
Downtown events, like the Fine Arts Fiesta and Farmers Market bring thousands of people downtown. Survey respondents clearly showed they feel the city’s strengths are its historic architecture, a good selection of places to eat, the region’s college neighborhood, a safe feeling during the daytime, and its entertainment, arts, and cultural venues.
Respondents felt areas in need of improvement include safety at night, places to shop, and a downtown “visitor domain.”
Areas that need to be addressed include the safety issue, especially at night, the presence of individuals loitering and engaging in uncivil behaviors, the current condition of Public Square, a seemingly lack of police presence and services for the homeless.
Leighton pleased with results
Mayor Tom Leighton said he was extremely pleased with the survey results and he said a lot of work has been done since he took office in 2004.
“Look at all of the positive numbers in the survey,” he said. “People overwhelmingly feel comfortable downtown.”
Leighton said he would have liked to have seen similar survey down in 2004 and what those results might have shown. He pointed to all of the improvements downtown and the hiring of additional police to address crime in the city.
“You can never eliminate crime,” he said. “But the low percentage of people who feel we are moving in the wrong direction indicates most people see the city moving ahead.”
As far as economic development in the downtown, Leighton said it is premature to discuss South Main Street and the empty Hotel Sterling lot due to legal issues that need to be resolved.
He said the city is seeking grant money to give Public Square a face lift.
“We have new sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting and many other improvements around the perimeter of Public Square,” Leighton said. “Our ultimate goal is to complete the entire square and I’m confident that will happen.”
The survey shows that 59 percent of those visiting downtown at least once a week believe that it is headed in the right direction, while only 12 percent of those who never visit believe that to be the case.
On the issue of safety, the survey reveals an enormous gap between respondents’ perceptions of downtown safety and actual crime rates in downtown. Regardless of the reasons for that gap between perception and reality, the survey results demonstrate the importance of addressing the public’s concerns.
What people want to see
The survey question “What specific amenities or enhancements would you like to see in Downtown Wilkes-Barre?” generated a “wish list” of responses, topped by the following:
• More quality shops – including a grocery store. More than 70 percent of respondents said they would patronize a downtown grocery store.
• Restoration of Public Square and fixing the fountain.
• More quality restaurants and alfresco dining.
• An increased police presence.
• A proper museum.
More generally speaking, an astonishing 98 percent of all respondents agreed that having a vibrant and healthy Downtown Wilkes-Barre is important to the entire Greater Wilkes-Barre area.
Newman said the survey results will be used to compile the organization’s work plan, and to work with public-sector and private-sector partners to build upon identified strengths and address the challenges and concerns identified in the survey results.
Graham stated, “Clearly, building on the growing downtown residential base is a key step. As more people live Downtown, the demand for retail shops and business services will spur investment from the private sector to meet that demand.”