Shops see business in potential convention center

i Nov 8th 2015

By Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — That an empty corner in downtown Wilkes-Barre will become the site of a $28 million hotel and conference center has business owners and community leaders excited.

Near the end of his three-term tenure, Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton recently announced that Sphere International will build a 10-story to 12-story hotel with 100 rooms, retail space and 17,000 square feet of banquet space at South Main and East Northampton streets. Apartment units and condominiums will be located on the upper floors and a conference center will welcome regional and statewide meetings.

Lazarus department store was on the site many years ago. In 2013, decaying city-owned buildings formerly on the site were demolished after an engineer found the properties in extreme disrepair and collapsing in some portions.

Two nearby businesses, Place One at the Hollywood and Frank Clark Jeweler, have vacated their stores as a result of the emergency demolition two years ago and have not reopened. But, one may return.

Michaelene Coffee, owner of Place One at the Hollywood, a women’s clothing store that sells gowns and jewelry, moved her merchandise to her Scranton location but she said she met with the hotel developers and hopes her store will be one of the retail spaces.

“They’re wonderful. They have really great plans to make a huge investment in the area,” Ms. Coffee said. “I think it’s a great mixed use building that’s going to be a fabulous addition to the downtown. That’s going to brighten up that whole corner.”

The design of the new hotel extends to where the Place One at the Hollywood and Frank Clark Jeweler buildings are, according to a rendering from the architectural firm Facility Design & Development.

Efforts to reach the developer were unsuccessful and no information could be found online about Sphere International. Mr. Leighton said the developer does business worldwide but he dealt with officials from New Jersey. He said the company is not only in the hotel business, but also builds chemical plants and other projects in the United States and other countries.

He referred further questions about the company to Alex Belavitz, president and CEO of Facility Design & Development. Mr. Belavitz was not available for comment late last week.

The hotel and conference center would be located across from the complex that houses Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 and its design includes preserved existing facades. Design plans will continue to evolve, but preserving the facades and incorporating them into the project so they could remain an integral part of the streetscape would be a good thing, said Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership.

One of the biggest concerns was displacement of existing merchants and if Place One at the Hollywood returns, Mr. Newman said that would be “additional good news.”

The downtown corner has not been used for a long time and Mr. Newman said the addition of a hotel and conference center would fill a “very significant gap.”