Creating a Downtown Where People ‘Want to Be, Not Have to Be’

12.19.2022


Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania - Larry Newman, executive director at the Diamond City Partnership, this week said he strongly believes that Downtown Wilkes-Barre can be the region’s walk-to-everything neighborhood of choice.

That goal, Newman said, is a major element of DCP’s plan for the Downtown.

And, he added, it’s becoming a reality.

According to the 2020 Census, the population of Wilkes-Barre’s core downtown census tract — extending from North to South Street — increased by 1,093 residents from 2010 to 2020.

“In other words, Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s population increased by 38% during that decade — compared to a 1% increase in Luzerne County as a whole,” Newman said. “According to the 2020 Census, new downtown residents are responsible for 40% of the population growth in the City of Wilkes-Barre during the past decade.”

Newman said that new residential development is clustered in two major zones — the corner of Franklin and Market Streets, and an area focused on the first block of East Northampton Street and the second block of South Main.

During the past decade, Newman said almost 200 new residential units have been developed around the Market and Franklin intersection — with 70 more to be completed at 15 South Franklin St. next spring.

And, Newman noted, the recently announced rehabilitation of 116 South Main St. by Wilkes University and D&D Realty Group will add 36 additional units to the Northampton and Main district — an area that has already seen more than 60 residential units developed since the 2010 opening of the Elevation Lofts next to Movies 14.

“Together, these two residential clusters serve as the foundation for an emerging new Downtown — one that’s a walkable, college-anchored live-work neighborhood,” Newman said. “What’s remarkable is that, even through the pandemic, downtown’s residential growth has continued unabated. There is no shortage of demand for well-designed and well-managed market-rate units in the heart of Downtown Wilkes-Barre.”

Newman said the key to sustaining this growth is the creation of a vibrant environment at street level that becomes an amenity for the Downtown residents, as well as for the community as a whole.

“That involves everything from business recruitment and retention to the ongoing work of creating an attractive and comfortable sidewalk experience,” Newman said. “We can’t snap our fingers and make it happen overnight, but if we stay the course and work together, we can get there.”

At the recent meeting of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, Newman, reported that “slowly but surely,” the downtown’s key market indicators continue to move in the right direction.

“However, this is also a time of big change for Downtown,” Newman said. “Some of those changes — such as the absence of so many workers and the loss of longtime businesses — are upsetting and disconcerting.”

Newman gave his report at the meeting that was held at the jewel of the city’s downtown — the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts — where later that same day, one of America’s top comics, Jerry Seinfeld, was to appear before two sell-out crowds.

With 3,600 patrons heading to the Kirby Center, Newman and Joell Yarmel, the Kirby’s executive director, said the downtown would be bustling with customers for restaurants in the city.

Newman realizes and appreciates what acts like Seinfeld mean to the success and vibrancy of the city’s downtown.

“When the Kirby is lit up, the downtown becomes vibrant and busy,” Newman said. “The Kirby Center embodies the image of the downtown and its future. Downtown’s growing residential population is part of that future — as are visitors to the Kirby Center and our other arts and entertainment venues, our colleges, and, yes, downtown workers.”

In his report, Newman explained the shift in DCP’s approach to promoting the downtown. He said as of November 2022, 49% of the city’s pre-pandemic employee corps has returned.

“This is due to the substantial shift of people working from home or at remote locations,” Newman said. “We really can’t bank on conditions ever returning to pre-pandemic levels.”

So, Newman said, a different philosophy has been adopted.

“We must create a downtown where people want to be, not have to be,” he said. “One area we have seen significant growth is in downtown residents.”

Newman said DCP has tracked a 78% recovery of downtown visitors, people who travel to the downtown to shop, have appointments, eat at restaurants, but who don’t live in the downtown.

Newman mentioned the recent announcement by Wilkes University and D&D Realty Group to transform the vacant building at 116 South Main St., into a multi-use building. Wilkes will occupy the first floor and basement of the building and D&D Realty will create 36 apartments on the upper floors.

“This is great news,” Newman said. “A vacant four-story window-less box being transformed is incredibly encouraging news.”

Newman then mentioned several new Downtown storefront businesses:

• Small Batch Baking Company at 45 East Northampton St.

• Furology Pet Grooming at 59 North Main St.

• Luisito Jewelry at 81 South Washington St.

• Stagger’s Southern Cuisine at 78 South Main St.

Additionally, Newman said the Chill Grill restaurant will be reopening this month under new ownership at 100 North Pennsylvania Ave.

“We must continue to focus on things we can control,” Newman said. “That means working to advance our ultimate goal of creating a downtown that people visit because they want to be here — not one that they visit because they’re required to be here. If we focus on fostering a downtown environment that serves as an amenity for all those groups, then we’ll continue to see new business growth at street level, and Downtown will continue to rebound.”