Wilkes-Barre shift toward a ‘college town’ fuels downtown comeback

i Nov 6th 2016

By Jennifer Learn-Andes, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE —Wilkes University President Patrick Leahy pulled out his sticky notes as he examined a brochure for a Boston university proclaiming that city as “America’s greatest college town.”

He covered the word Boston with a sticky note, wrote in Wilkes-Barre, and then used another note to replace “greatest” with “newest.”

“This is what we want to be — Wilkes-Barre, America’s newest college town — and I think it’s absolutely possible,” Leahy said recently.

Local leaders started tossing around the idea of marketing the city as a college town two decades ago, believing it could provide a fresh identity and attract new businesses to the tired downtown.

Now, Leahy and others who support the reinvention say the city already is a college town or is on its way to becoming one, spurred by the opening of a downtown movie theater, eateries and bars that lure students from Wilkes and King’s College, and a joint college bookstore.

Both schools purposefully have expanded their footprint farther into downtown over the past decade, with Wilkes purchasing several properties on South Main Street and King’s acquiring and renovating the former Ramada Hotel on Public Square.

The academic institutions also are working closely with government and business leaders on a range of initiatives to attract jobs aimed at establishing the downtown as a hub for technology companies.

“We’ve come an incredibly long way,” said Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, a downtown revitalization alliance. “The colleges are one of the fundamental building blocks of the downtown’s current identity and current brand.”

Varying definitions

What is a college town? There is no official designation, so viewpoints vary.

“It means something different to everyone,” said John Loyack, vice president for business affairs at King’s College.

Loyack said he considers it a place where colleges team up with leaders to make their neighborhood more attractive and promote opportunities for new activities and jobs.

“We’re all working together quite well between the two colleges, business and legislators,” Loyack said. “There’s cooperation, and it’s bringing great things to the downtown. To me, that’s a college town.”

His college’s $14.5 million purchase and transformation of the former Ramada Hotel into King’s on the Square in 2014 is generating “a ton of economic value to the downtown,” Loyack said.

The building encompasses health science programs and student housing, placing more customers at the doorsteps of downtown businesses, he said, adding that an independent study has shown each student generates about $3,000 in revenue for downtown merchants annually.

King’s has 2,308 undergraduate and graduate students, while Wilkes has 5,552. Both numbers include participation in online courses.

Loyack said King’s also has been adding activities and programs to connect with the community — another characteristic in his definition of a college town.

Free health assessments are now available at the Public Square site, which also contains art, cultural and historical displays open to the public, including a miners memorial outdoor exhibition with a Wall of Honor that will recognize 1,000 area coal miners by the end of the year, and an expected thousands more down the road.

“Wilkes-Barre didn’t have a true dedicated memorial to coal miners and their families, and this … will fill that gap in the city,” Loyack said.

A Chick-fil-A eatery also opened last week on campus.

Preserving old buildings that distinguish the city’s downtown is another priority of both King’s and Wilkes, their representatives say.

“It’s always our preference to revitalize something and bring it back into the fabric and preserve the look and feel of the downtown and not overwhelm it,” Loyack said.

Research draw

Leahy, of Wilkes, said the model of a thriving college town has gone beyond a cluster of shops, bars and eateries teeming with students.

“Certainly that’s a part of it, but in the 21st century, it’s so much bigger than that,” he said.

To explain, he referenced his university’s plans to become a doctoral research university.

Wilkes has expanded the number of students achieving advanced degrees; there now are about 800 annual master’s degree graduates and 100 doctoral degree alumni, Leahy said.

“We’re continuing our evolution into what will be known in a few years as a research university, with some of the activities you find at big, private research facilities,” he said. “Those activities will influence the community in very significant ways.”

For example, Leahy said a faculty member is trying to develop technology to detect breast cancer sooner. The university helped the staff member obtain patent protection on the intellectual property and is trying to secure connections with investors and businesses through its Allan P. Kirby Center for Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship, allowing further research development.

“That’s the kind of research that brings companies to the area,” Leahy said. “They want to be near research like that. It might spawn businesses in the area that might attract really high-potential young professionals to work in those kind of entities.”

Academic research institutions across the country have been instrumental in strengthening cities, Leahy said, citing Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Wilkes plans to generate the same impact on its host city and the region, Leahy said, predicting that Wilkes-Barre at some point will attract professionals and even retirees who want the vibrancy and cultural opportunities of a college town without the “hassles” and expense of living in a major metropolitan area.

“Companies want to be near an institution that’s innovative like that. They want to hire students from a place like that. They want to start businesses in a community like that,” Leahy said.

Wilkes-Barre can’t compete with the attractions and amenities of a major city such as Boston, which hosts 40 higher-education institutions, but it can become a smaller-scale college town, Leahy said.

Wilkes University’s increasing investment in real estate and programs that will enrich the community and attract visitors, in addition to strengthening the university academically, is another step toward becoming a college town, Leahy said.

“We have designs to continue our growth in a way that embraces the downtown, not shuts ourselves off from it,” he said, holding up the university’s Sordoni Art Gallery as a prime example.

The university is investing $5 million to relocate and expand the gallery at a more prominent downtown location in the former Bartikowsky Jewelers property. The new gallery should draw exhibits like those in major cities after its opening in fall 2017 and also will feature lectures open to the public.

“That’s a major benefit to being in a college town,” Leahy said. “If we start bringing in shows that are world class, the streets of Wilkes-Barre will fill up with people from all over the area.”

Urban struggle

Wilkes-Barre is one of America’s “legacy cities,” or urban centers in which industrial-age strength has been replaced by a long-term struggle for economic relevance, according to a November 2015 city revitalization action plan that serves as a blueprint for Newman, of the downtown partnership.

Urban renewal had followed the 1972 Susquehanna flood that wiped out the downtown, but the city center was “again in crisis” by 2000 because of competition from suburban malls and other retailers, the plan said.

The seven-square-mile city experienced eight consecutive decades of population loss following its high of 86,626 residents in 1930, primarily due to the collapse of the anthracite coal mining industry.

The decline started slowing in 2010, when the U.S. Census counted 41,498 city residents. The latest census estimate is 40,780, in July 2015.

The downtown is the city’s “strongest asset” because it holds half of all jobs in Wilkes-Barre and contains King’s and Wilkes, which are described as “major institutional anchors,” the action plan said.

The college-town goal was a no-brainer, Newman said, because his organization’s 2014 “perception and use” survey of more than 800 citizens, including 20 percent college students, revealed 65 percent of respondents agreed the downtown was the region’s college “neighborhood.”

Other goals of Newman’s groups include preserving the downtown’s historic architecture and making the area attractive and safe, pedestrian friendly, an innovation district for businesses and entrepreneurs, and an entertainment and dining destination.

“We are not interested in having a one-dimensional downtown that is only perceived as a college town,” Newman said.

He said he doesn’t have to leave his Public Square office for evidence that the plan to boost downtown foot traffic is working.

“Half the people who walk by my window are college students,” he said.

Technology draw

Local developer George Albert views college towns as places buzzing with thinkers and creativity — entities that appeal to employers.

The departure of college graduates, known as “brain drain,” has long plagued Northeastern Pennsylvania, said Albert, who is working with the education community to foster businesses that will keep graduates here.

“If all those bright minds leave the area, what are we left with? Our goal is to try to keep that attrition rate lower. It’s a new vision, and we’re spreading that vision,” Albert said.

Confident in the downtown’s growth, Albert is in negotiations with the city to buy the vacant former First National Bank building for a new technology incubator on Public Square. His company also recently purchased the nearby innovation center that houses the Barnes & Noble College Bookstore, the expanding global internet marketing company Pepperjam, and a basement “think center” that entrepreneurs can use for virtual meetings and lectures.

Albert and other investors also are rehabilitating a former historic Market Street train station in the downtown.

“If you look at traditional college towns — Penn State is an example we are all familiar with — a lot of those kids have the opportunity locally to stay and work after they graduate,” Albert said.

College towns are a “marketplace of ideas” and “really get some magic” when they team with business leaders and investors, according to Michael Jones, Pepperjam’s chief executive officer.

“They tend to be vibrant places where academics and thinking really drive progress. You really see that in other cities that have universities as a fabric of their community,” he said.

Jones said he’s been “beating a drum” on the topic for nearly a decade in the face of “a lot of negativity” about the city and Northeastern Pennsylvania in general from those who have lost hope for a downtown comeback.

“A lot of people roll their eyes when you talk about Wilkes-Barre and its potential,” he said.

He understands the skepticism but said he’s already demonstrated his faith in the area — where his family has lived for three generations — by making downtown Wilkes-Barre the headquarters of his global company, which has multiple offices and handles e-commerce for “some of the most recognized brands in the world.”

Groups of sophisticated investors are looking at Wilkes-Barre and other “more off the beaten path” urban areas to expand or create new tech-based companies as alternatives to Silicon Valley, New York City and other major metropolitan areas, Jones said.

Having local colleges and universities as a pool of prospective employees is one of the key ingredients these investors are seeking for nontraditional locations in the new economy, he said.

The city’s other draws, Jones said: easy access to New York City and Philadelphia, where many clients are based; the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport; and a low cost of living.

Jones estimated that 60 percent of the employees at his Wilkes-Barre headquarters graduated from local universities, and he noted he hasn’t had any trouble recruiting impressive talent in the area.

“I’ve always referred to Wilkes-Barre as a hidden gem because the raw potential of the area was so apparent to me,” Jones said. “You will find more and more companies looking to start or move divisions of businesses here.”

Officials weigh in

Elected officials, including Mayor Tony George, applaud the higher-education investments in Wilkes-Barre.

George said the downtown is “definitely going towards” a college-town image.

“I wouldn’t call the entire city a college town, but definitely the downtown,” he said.

George noted Luzerne County Community College also offers classes at a satellite location on Public Square that serves 365 students. In addition, the Commonwealth Medical College has an office at King’s on the Square as part of a partnership under development.

“We have four colleges downtown, which is a draw,” George said. “They patronize the businesses and bring some vibrancy back to the downtown.”

The push for more jobs to retain college graduates also will bolster a resurgence in downtown dwellers, George said.

From 2010 to 2015, more than 100 upscale apartments and condominiums were added at six different downtown residential projects, and all are occupied, the Diamond City Partnership report stated last year.

The majority of people moving into the new downtown residential units are college graduates in the 25 to 34 age group, Newman said.

Twenty-eight percent of downtown Wilkes-Barre residents have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 15 percent for the city overall and 20 percent for Luzerne County, according to the partnership report.

“The new millennials like living in downtown. They like to walk out their door and to a job,” George said.

County Manager C. David Pedri said the downtown is moving toward becoming a college town, due to Pepperjam’s expansion, more restaurants, the new City Market and Cafe, and a farmers market “jammed” on Thursdays.

“There’s a push to do things downtown, and it all relates back to our colleges. The downtown has a large, youthful feeling to it,” Pedri said.

He said he’s trying to maximize the benefits of having higher-education institutions in the county seat and has been talking with Wilkes and King’s representatives about increasing their involvement at the River Common along the Susquehanna River, which fronts both campuses on the River Street side.

The county unveiled the $23 million park rehabilitation in 2009, including a landing, fishing pier and amphitheater.

The county manager also launched a county internship program this year to expose area college students to county government as a possible career.

“We’re here as potential employers and can keep some of these Northeastern Pennsylvania kids here,” he said.

Other perspectives

Jay Notartomaso, owner of Musical Energi on South Main Street, also senses a change in Wilkes-Barre.

Public- and private-sector representatives appear to be united in a plan to make the urban center safer and more appealing, according to Notartomaso, who has operated his used-record store downtown for 26 years.

“I do think of it as a college town more now. I am noticing more college students and a different feel to the downtown,” said Notartomaso, who considers college students a crucial part of his customer base, particularly now that they are embracing a revival of vinyl records.

King’s College senior Mario Panaccione said he’s noticed more downtown businesses and activity since he was a freshman, but he cautioned that aesthetic improvements and additional police presence are needed to make more people feel comfortable.

Panaccione said a college-town identity is emerging in Wilkes-Barre.

“It’s definitely moving toward that,” he said. “There’s that vibe.”

Guy McKeown, who moved to a downtown apartment in 2010 after 20 years of living in the Poconos, said he welcomes increased college and university involvement in the downtown, particularly if it will increase activities and cultural offerings.

He said he regularly attends plays, concerts and art exhibits in center city.

“I love the downtown area,” McKeown said as he sat on a Public Square bench people-watching. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”