By Jerry Lynott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — The dizzying array of figures delivered by Larry Newman fell into place in his explanation of what’s happening with the growing number of people living downtown.
• 112, 7 and 5.
• $9.4 million.
• 38, 35 and 18701.
• 46, 37, 28 and 22.
The biggest changes in downtown Wilkes-Barre occurred from 2010 to 2015, Newman said before delving into the data.
“There have been 112 new, market-rate, not subsidized, lofts and apartments in 7 different rehabilitated buildings in the past 5 years,” said Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, the nonprofit organization devoted to downtown revitalization.
In the mix he listed the former South Side Bank that’s home to the Le Manhattan Bistro on South Main Street, the Luzerne Bank building on Public Square, the former Wyoming National Bank and Citizens Bank buildings on West Market Street, Hampton Park East and West on East Northampton Street, and the Alleghany Lofts on South Main Street.
“That represents $9.4 million in new investment. None of it involves public funding,” Newman said.
He didn’t include the 40 units in the PNC Bank building that D&D Realty is converting into luxury apartments in its Riverview West project and is receiving tax breaks on until 2024 due to its inclusion in a Keystone Opportunity Zone, the state program designed to encourage job creation and development.
Development of old space isn’t new. It’s crucial for a city’s progress. However, the newest development in the transformation of downtown Wilkes-Barre is who’s moving in and why.
Newman, who lives downtown in a house with his wife and three children, said it has a lot to do with the groundwork laid over the years that brought jobs, businesses, restaurants, bars and entertainment and recreational options to the heart of Luzerne County’s largest city, which has a population of approximately 41,000, according to the latest Census data.
“The result of that is that we have seen a dramatic increase in a portion of the downtown population that can be characterized as young college graduates,” he said.
When given the opportunity to live in a subdivision, out in the country or in traditional owner-occupied housing, they’ve selected the downtown and what it has to offer, Newman said. “It’s about giving people choices.”
That’s happened by design instead of by accident, and there’s a lot of credit to go around, according to Wico van Genderen, CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce.
The business community, government leaders, Wilkes University and King’s College, residents, and tech companies such as Pepperjam, LSEO and ReferLocal make up the strong coalition that set the downtown development into motion more than 15 years ago and have maintained the momentum, van Genderen said.
“Those are millennials that are coming into this town, that want to stay in this town, that want to live in this town, that want to make this a secure, walking, walkable, vibrant city. Those are exactly the type of folks that are attracted to this,” van Genderen said.
Back to the figures.
Newman cites U.S. Census data to further support his point about the downtown’s attraction to millennials who have college degrees.
“Between 2000 and 2015, 38 percent of all citywide growth in residents who are college graduates under the age of 35 occurred within only 8 percent of its land area — the 18701 ZIP code (for the downtown),” Newman said.
To emphasize the data’s significance, he compared the percentage of the population of college graduates in the 25-to-34 age bracket who live in the downtown to other geographical areas:
• 18701 ZIP code, 46 percent.
• Pennsylvania, 37 percent.
• Luzerne County, 28 percent.
• Wilkes-Barre, 22 percent.
If the 25-to-34 demographic doesn’t like what’s available, they go elsewhere, Newman said.
“The opportunity to live downtown is really the glue that holds young professionals in a region,” he said.