By Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — What makes Luzerne County unique that would draw tourists and benefit the local economy?
Roger Brooks of Roger Brooks International, a renowned destination development consulting firm, answered that question during a discussion Friday morning at Wilkes-Barre’s Think Center about re-branding Luzerne County.
Brooks said one thing that stood out to him is its array of ethnic restaurants. Another thing is its many hiking and biking trails. A disappointment Brooks said he found in Luzerne County is too much trash.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a place where I saw so much trash in the downtown,” he said. “When we were downtown and we got out of the car, there were bottles and cans and stuff just laying on the sidewalks. Garbage cans were overflowing.”
Brooks talked candidly about his impressions of Luzerne County after touring the area with Ted Wampole, executive director of Luzerne County Visitors Bureau now called Visit Luzerne County; Donna Keyes, Visit Luzerne County’s director of sales and marketing and Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership.
Wampole said Brooks’ presentation was the second step in identifying a marketable “brand” for Luzerne County. The first step was sending out an online questionnaire to area residents and business owners as well as visitors.
More than 1,170 people answered the online survey and some said they perceived there’s too much crime and too many homeless in Luzerne County.
Brooks didn’t see that during his tour. What he saw, however, was too much trash.
Brooks went to Eckley Miners’ Village and on the way, he noticed people using the sides of roads to dump bags of garbage. He also saw garbage along the riverfront and throughout downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“When we see that, it feels like this isn’t safe,” he said. “I saw leaves never raked up. I saw storm drains that were not cleaned out. That’s the wrong message you want to put out there.”
Showing a slide presentation and speaking for more than one hour, Brooks also offered advice for businesses to draw more customers.
He said women account for 80 percent of retail spending and they want places “where they feel safe that are well-lit, that have life and people.”
Since more women work during the day, he said 70 percent of all retail spending in stores takes place after 6 p.m.
“What is it about Luzerne County and a lot of rural America that you close your doors at 6 p.m.?” he asked.
If area visitors are out fishing or biking or if locals are working at warehouses during the day, Brooks said they can’t spend money when they are done if retail businesses are closed.
“You need to monetize when people are ready to spend money,” he said. “We are eating later at night. We want out of our cars. We’re shopping later at night. We want sidewalk cafes. We want boutique shops.”
Brooks said 70 percent of first-time sales come from “curb appeal” and he suggested businesses make this a top priority.
A first step would be to mount “blade signs” on building facades or storefront poles to bring in more foot traffic, he said. Another step is to add more street trees, he said. Area officials also need to promote anchor tenants, he said.
Brooks told local officials they need to find the community’s focus, what makes it stand out and what sets it apart from everyone else.
He cited Parowan, Utah as a town that substantially increased its number of visitors and retail sales by promoting itself for having the “best cinnamon rolls in the West.”
One of his ideas to promote Wilkes-Barre is that it could be called the “international city” and could focus on its many ethnic restaurant choices.
“That would put you on the map,” he said. “That would differentiate you from everybody.”
Luzerne County also could focus on its many hiking and biking trails and be known as “Pennsylvania’s trail country,” he said.
“Welcome to the age of specialization,” Brooks said. “If you do something and you do it well, people are going to come from everywhere.”
When Newman asked what advice he would offer to improve the parking experience in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Brooks responded, “Parking doesn’t have to be free but it has to be worth it.”
Brooks said he’s not a fan of the Pango app that people use to pay for parking meters. He also said it’s unclear where the public is supposed to park in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“Parking needs to be easy and it needs to be convenient,” he said. “If someone gets a parking ticket downtown, they’re going to write you off. Even if they’re in the wrong, they’re going to write you off. They’re trying to spend money here. They’re trying to spend time here and they got a parking ticket.”
After Brooks’ presentation, Newman said area officials will continue to work together to try to re-brand Luzerne County. While the re-branding will continue to be an ongoing long-term project, he said they hope to come up with some “short-term wins” in the next year.
“I don’t even know what that looks like right now but there are so many different things we could look at,” he said.