W-B downtown redevelopment plan advances in contest

i Dec 21st 2015

By Jacob Seibel, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — The city has moved one step closer to the million-dollar grand prize in a national competition, but for officials who put the plan together, the competition is about more than winning the cash.

Wilkes-Barre advanced to the next stage of the America’s Best Communities competition earlier this month and is now among fewer than 20 finalists left vying for

$1 million to $3 million to be awarded to help the winner’s plan be realized.

However, a downtown redevelopment plan for the city was being put into place before the competition was created, said Larry Newman, urban planner with the Diamond City Partnership (DCP). Win or lose, he said, this is what the city is working to following through on in the long run.

Although the prize money would be nice to win, completing the plan will take millions of dollars, Newman said. The competition just happened to come along at a time when the community was working on an action agenda to implement over a several-year period.

What the competition was able to do for those putting the plan together was get them focused and motivated them to try to reach common goals for the city, according to Newman.

“The money is almost beside the point,” he said. “It’s getting the focus.”

About 850 people in the region responded to a survey, which Newman joked was “not a short one,” to help organizers create a balanced plan that leverages the city’s strengths and mitigates its weaknesses.

The group, made up of DCP, the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, the city’s administration and numerous associations, has put together a six-prong plan.

A top priority is making downtown an attractive place to live, work, shop and visit. Part of that is transforming the city into the region’s college neighborhood and focusing collegiate resources on doing capital projects and other initiatives to help build “a walkable downtown core.” The plan leverages the layout of the city’s 16-block downtown in making it the region’s “walk-to-everything” urban neighborhood of choice by improving parking management that encourages “park once and walk” behavior and conducting a comprehensive downtown traffic study to improve walkability.

Other priorities include creating an “innovation district” that serves as the hub for business and performing targeted retail recruitment. Historic preservation of some of the city’s architecture and making Wilkes-Barre the regional center of arts, culture, dining and entertainment are also among the top goals laid out in the plan.

Scranton had also advanced to the next stage of the competition. Scranton’s strategy focused on economic, community and workforce development for the next several years.

Leveraging the success of the Scranton’s existing education and health care sectors, the plan would promote economic development and quality of life. Transportation initiatives include stronger links between the downtown and the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, bike lane network and commuter rail to New York and New Jersey. The plan also discusses improving telecommunications infrastructure.

In mid-January, participants will be able to present their plans and then eight will receive $100,000 and advance. The final winners could receive $1 million to $3 million to implement their plan.