By Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — While the majority of respondents to a recent online survey agree downtown Wilkes-Barre is headed in the right direction, public perception of safety continues to challenge efforts to draw more people downtown.
Twenty-eight percent of people who completed the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Perception and Use Survey reported they often feel unsafe downtown; 36 percent occasionally feel unsafe and 35 percent always or mostly feel safe.
Comparatively, four percent of respondents to a 2013 survey about Center City Philadelphia reported often feeling unsafe in the city; 17 percent occasionally feel unsafe and 79 percent always or mostly feel safe.
There were eight violent crimes in downtown Wilkes-Barre in 2012, 1.7 per 1,000 residents, compared to 950 violent crimes in 2012 in Center City Philadelphia, or 16.1 violent crimes per 1,000 residents, according to numbers revealed Thursday by Larry Newman and Elizabeth Graham of the Diamond City Partnership.
Addressing the public’s concerns about safety is the biggest challenge in encouraging people to come to downtown Wilkes-Barre, Newman said.
“A lot of people can’t distinguish between the City of Wilkes-Barre and downtown Wilkes-Barre,” he said.
About 1,000 people took the Diamond City Partnership’s online survey from April 25 to May 31, with 825 people completing it in its entirety.
Forty percent of survey respondents work in downtown; 20 percent attend college downtown and 11 percent live downtown. The remaining 29 percent either visit downtown for other reasons or rarely or never come downtown.
The survey showed that mostly dining and entertainment draw people to downtown Wilkes-Barre, with 66 percent of all respondents reporting visiting downtown specifically to eat in the last year and 56 percent reporting seeing a move at Wilkes-Barre Movies 14.
Other destinations that survey respondents frequently visited include Barnes & Noble and the River Common.
When survey respondents were asked what specific amenities or enhancements they would like to see in downtown Wilkes-Barre, more quality shops like a grocery store topped the list. People said they would also like to see the restoration of Public Square, more restaurants, an increased police presence and a museum.
If a grocery store existed, more than 70 percent of downtown workers, students and residents reported they would patronize it, at least occasionally.
Newman said there are no concrete plans for a grocery store downtown, but “a number of folks have been exploring that option.”
“What’s nice about the recent flurry of residential developments is that I think it has focused the attention of potential grocery entrepreneurs that maybe wasn’t the case a couple years ago,” he said.
Newman and Graham said the survey makes it clear that downtown’s growing residential population is the key to revitalization. Downtown residents reported going to businesses and attractions at a higher level than other groups.
“We know that residential growth is going to continue to create retail demand,” Newman said. “If we want to get to that point where we could actually sustain a broader base of retail in downtown, it’s going to be dependent on building more of a customer base in downtown.”
EVENTS RATE HIGH
The survey showed that the Fine Arts Fiesta is the most well-attended downtown event for respondents at 77 percent; followed by RiverFest, 37 percent, the St. Patrick’s Day parade, 34 percent and the Christmas parade, 27 percent.
Survey respondents said what they like best about downtown Wilkes-Barre are its restaurants, “walkability,” historic architecture, colleges, the River Common, arts, culture and entertainment.
Respondents expressed concerns about general safety, people loitering and engaging in uncivil behaviors, the condition of Public Square, a lack of police presence and services for the homeless.
Ninety-eight percent of all respondents agreed that having a vibrant and healthy downtown is important to the entire Greater Wilkes-Barre area.
“Overall, we think these are positive results,” Newman said.