Wilkes-Barre’s come out of the darkness

i May 28th 2017

By Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

Downtown Wilkes-Barre looked very different 17 years ago. It was losing businesses for almost two decades and its vacancy rate doubled from 1985 to 1996, recalled Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership.

Deteriorating streetlight poles were falling into the streets. Parking lots replaced businesses, such as the Kiddie Shoppe and Percy Brown’s on East Northampton Street. Even McDonald’s couldn’t make it on Public Square, Newman said.

Businesses that remained were covered by a dirty 1970s-era red canopy, which was later removed in 2005, and sidewalks were strewn with litter.

“To appreciate just how far we’ve come with our revitalization efforts, all you need to do is remember what downtown Wilkes-Barre looked like in the year 2000,” Newman said.

Today, there are 49 more occupied storefronts than in 2000, Newman said. Downtown Wilkes-Barre has enjoyed 12 consecutive years of increasing occupancy rates, he said.

Boscov’s Department Store on South Main Street recently underwent a more than $1 million restoration, the largest such project taken on since Al Boscov, chairman and chief executive officer of the Reading-based department store chain, purchased and improved the building in 1980. He died Feb. 10.

In recent years, a number of eateries have opened and much of that landscape is considered “restaurant row.”

Since opening its doors in 1986, the F.M. Kirby Center on Public Square continues to draw people to downtown with about 150 annual events.

The Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 complex has been attracting about 500,000 moviegoers each year, said Wico van Genderen, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce.

The downtown also is growing with private tech and services business investments, he said.

“Today, the area around Public Square makes up a full third of the region’s high-tech, information-sector jobs, and it is a sector that is growing exponentially,” van Genderen said.

About 13,000 people work downtown. In addition to the downtown boasting the region’s largest concentrated employment center and having a vibrant restaurant and entertainment scene, van Genderen said it also has been growing its residential base.

Close to $10 million was invested in turning the former Wyoming National Bank, Citizens Bank and PNC Bank buildings into apartments, he said.

Other housing projects include the 21 loft condominiums on East Northampton Street next to Wilkes-Barre Movies 14, apartments in the Luzerne Bank building, the Alleghany Lofts, Hampton Park East, Hampton Park West and a high-end complex at South Main and West Ross streets.

In the downtown housing market, 107 new units were constructed over the last five years and another 40 are being constructed in the PNC Bank building. The units are leased as quickly as they are constructed, Newman said.

As all the changes have been taking place downtown, some businesses have remained there for decades.

Across the street from the PNC Bank building, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, an architectural firm founded in Wilkes-Barre more than 50 years ago, is located in the Citizens Bank building.

Since Peter Bohlin founded the firm, it has become world-renowned for iconic and high-profile designs, from Public Square to billionaire Bill Gates’ home in Seattle to more than 50 Apple stores.

The deli Circles on the Square has been a fixture for 32 years. Phil Rudy, owner, opened Circles on the Square Jan. 2, 1985, with a friend when Percy Brown’s still was open on East Northampton Street, Pomeroy’s was on Public Square and several shoe stores were located on North and South Main streets.

Circles grew and developed a following of people who enjoy its quality meats and cheeses, he said.

He recently painted the deli for the first time in 32 years and had professional signboards made for sandwich combos.

Rudy, who died March 2, had seen a number of new restaurants open downtown in recent years and he welcomed them.

“Change is good. Change is always for the better,” Rudy said recently. “The more restaurants you have in one area, the more of an eating destination it becomes.”

Among the other improvements, Woolworth’s, on South Main Sreet, which had been empty since 1994, is now the home of Barnes & Noble joint college bookstore for King’s College and Wilkes University students.

Barnes & Noble is in the same building as the Innovation Center, a hub for technology companies such as Pepperjam, which has recently expanded its space and added jobs.

Wilkes Enterprise Center, another business incubator, opened in 2015 on the sixth floor of the Luzerne Bank building on Public Square.

“Our innovation centers house close to two dozen young entrepreneurial companies, and we need to expand,” van Genderen said.

Downtown Wilkes-Barre also is cleaner today thanks to the Business Improvement District that has been in place since 2007, Newman said.

More than 40 tons of trash and 1,000 graffiti tags were removed from sidewalks and properties. Over the last four years, 186 flower baskets were installed and maintained, he said.

John Maday, president of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, is pleased with the movie theaters, the F.M. Kirby Center and restaurants that now attract people to the cleaner, revitalized downtown.

There just need to be a few more ingredients to finish the product, especially more retail, he said.

He said he hopes someone who has the resources would take a chance and open a unique retail shop that could be the catalyst for more so that the downtown could become like the Shoppes at Montage with a series of unique stores.

However, he is happy with the transformation since the falling streetlights and the cracking sidewalks. The dirty canopy was representative of that “dark feeling of downtown” at that time, as if there was no hope, he said.

He remembers the downtown’s notorious “hole in the ground,” a planned movie theater site where the investors backed out shortly after the foundation was excavated. The site later became the James F. Conahan Intermodal Transportation hub, which took buses off Public Square and added a significant amount of storefront parking.

“I have pictures of that in my head,” Maday said. “It was terrible. It just looked like it was in a state of chaos. It has moved from what looked like darkness and despair to lightness and hope.”