Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, PA -
Larry Newman, executive director at Diamond City Partnership, said during the past 30 years, following the collapse of downtown shopping districts, American cities and towns were forced to reinvent their Main Streets.
“And along the way, we’ve learned how to create a successful downtown.,” Newman said.
Successful downtowns are clean, safe, attractive and walkable, Newman said, adding:
• They restore historic buildings instead of demolishing them.
• They create a public environment and amenities that attract people to live, work, visit and invest.
• They build on their assets — such as a riverfront, a college, a central plaza or an arts district.
• They are built, first and foremost, for people — not cars.
• And they are places where property owners and businesses choose to reinvest in their neighborhood.
“When downtowns follow those principles, success follows,” Newman said.
In fact, Newman said between 2007 and 2020, DCP’s work resulted in big changes for the better.
During that time, Newman said Downtown Wilkes-Barre saw a net gain of 55 occupied storefronts, 250 new market-rate housing units, and more than $236 million in private investment.
According to the U.S. Census, the population of Wilkes-Barre’s downtown core, from North Street to South Street, increased by 1,093 residents from 2010 to 2020 — a 38% population increase within a single decade.
And, in the last Perception Survey undertaken by DCP prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, two-thirds of all respondents — and 94% of downtown business owners — said that Downtown Wilkes-Barre was “headed in the right direction.”
However, Newman said the COVID-19 pandemic brought a new crisis to Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s doorstep — a crisis threatening to undo all the positive change of the past 15 years.
Newman said Downtown now faces its third year of empty office buildings, changed consumer habits and struggling storefront businesses. From 2019 to 2021, Downtown employee volumes dropped by 68%, while shopper and visitor volumes dropped by 20%.
Even as traffic begins to rebound, it’s clear to DCP’s leadership that Downtown Wilkes-Barre can no longer rely on office workers to serve as a dominant driver of economic activity.
“The larger circumstances that created this crisis are beyond Downtown’s control, but we do have control over how we respond,” Newman said. “Downtown Wilkes-Barre, like other city centers, has changed many times during its history, but one factor has always remained true — when we cultivate a downtown environment where people want to spend time, the result is new vitality and economic activity.”
In response to the enormous challenges generated by the pandemic, DCP has made significant changes to its plan of work with clear objectives:
• Ensure that Downtown Wilkes-Barre is consistently clean, safe and attractive.
• Help Downtown’s existing businesses and venues get through the COVID crisis.
• Improve the product: create lively, interesting, high-quality places.
• Market those places to the people we wish to attract.
• Plant the seeds for new economic growth.
From a practical standpoint, what exactly does that mean?
Newman said DCP is currently working to expand the Downtown Ambassador program so that, despite all that’s occurred during the past two years, our city core is perceived as a place where everyone feels comfortable.
DCP secured corporate contributions for the Give Hope Team, a pilot program administered by Volunteers of America which provides clinical outreach to at-risk individuals, while DCP’s Social Issues Task Force has brought together city, county, state, federal and agency representatives to address the issues resulting from growing numbers of homeless and at-risk people within the downtown core.
In 2020, Newman said DCP used Luzerne County CARES Act funding to create the “Get Your Restaurant Outdoors” (GYRO) Grant program, providing funding to 22 downtown restaurants so that they could accommodate outdoor dining, takeout or safe indoor dining.
DCP’s College Ambassador Program connects student interns with downtown storefront businesses, providing students with hands-on experience while building better connections between the businesses — many run by first-time entrepreneurs — and the local college community.
DCP now runs a full range of events designed to animate Downtown throughout the year — the 2022 calendar includes the monthly “Cocktails & Culture” gallery mixer, “SIPS” Wednesday-night happy hour promotion, the monthly “Sunsets on South Main” live-music event in the Midtown Village courtyard during the summer months, the “Small Business Saturday” promotion and the Midtown Village Holiday Market.
On Public Square, South Main Street and West Market Street, DCP place making projects are underway. Undertaken in partnership with the City of Wilkes-Barre and downtown property owners, they share the goal of improving downtown’s physical environment and attracting new customers and investment.
Each of these new activities are in addition to the work that DCP has been doing all along.
DCP funds its work through a combination of DWBBID assessment revenue, contributions from tax-exempt property owners, corporate contributions and event sponsorships, and grant funds connected with specific initiatives.
It’s all overseen by a 25-member Board of Directors which includes representatives from downtown property owners, businesses, residents, educational and religious institutions, and local government.
DCP is a proud member of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center, the National Main Street Center and the International Downtown Association.
DCP’s website is www.downtownwilkes-barre.org, and its Instagram & Facebook handle is @DowntownWilkesBarre.
Now in its 21st year, Newman said the Diamond City Partnership’s work is only getting started – and it is committed to ensuring a bright future for Downtown Wilkes-Barre: the premiere urban center of the Wyoming Valley.
About Diamond City Partnership
The Diamond City Partnership (DCP) is Wilkes-Barre’s non-profit downtown management organization, serving as the custodian of the community’s vision for Downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Since its founding in 2001, DCP has worked to sustain and improve the economic vitality and livability of Wilkes-Barre’s central business district.
Downtown Wilkes-Barre — an area roughly bounded by North Street to the north, Academy Street to the south, the Susquehanna River to the west, and the railroad tracks between Pennsylvania Avenue and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard to the east — is less than 300 acres in size.
That small district — representing less than 7% of Wilkes-Barre’s total land area — contains 51% of all the jobs in the city, 1 of every 10 jobs in Luzerne County, the campuses of King’s College and Wilkes University, the seat of county government, regional state and Federal offices, more than 4,000 residents, and a wide array of arts, cultural, and recreational venues.
Among the neighborhoods of the Wyoming Valley, Downtown Wilkes-Barre is unique. It may be a very different place than it was 50 years ago, but it remains critical to the future of the Wyoming Valley.
“It’s a regional employment center, a college campus, a startup hub, a shopping center, an entertainment and dining destination, and the city’s fastest growing residential market,” Newman said. “It’s the image that the Wyoming Valley presents to the rest of the world. It’s everyone’s neighborhood, and a place that many different people call home. It houses social service facilities helping the most disadvantaged among us, while its festivals, parades, and shows attract visitors from throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania and beyond. Its streets are studded with iconic historic landmarks, yet it’s constantly changing.”
Ensuring the success of such a complex, diverse place demands long-term planning and focused daily management, and that’s where Newman said the Diamond City Partnership comes in.
DCP simultaneously works to improve Downtown’s environment, Downtown’s economy, and Downtown’s image.
DCP improves Downtown’s environment through the daily work of its Downtown Ambassadors, who sweep and power-wash sidewalks, remove graffiti, maintain seasonal flower baskets and planters, and more. DCP also works with the City and private property owners to make longer-term improvements to Downtown’s parks, public spaces, and facades. It oversees the plans guiding downtown development, and even plants new street trees.
DCP improves Downtown’s economy by recruiting and retaining businesses, supporting them through initiatives like the College Ambassador program, attracting new investment, tracking important market data, and encouraging more people to patronize Downtown.
DCP improves Downtown’s image through events and marketing initiatives that promote the center city’s restaurants and shops, educational institutions, arts and cultural scene, residential market, recreational amenities, startup sector, and historic sites.
DCP does all of this through its management of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District (DWBBID) and Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s state-designated Main Street program, which together provide a range of services to Downtown’s property and business owners.
The DWBBID is a business improvement district — a legal framework that allows property owners to pool their resources to address common concerns within a designated area. Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s property owners created the business improvement district — one of around three dozen in Pennsylvania — in 2007, and they have reauthorized it twice since that time. The DWBBID assessment funds the implementation of a services plan developed and approved by Downtown’s property owners.
The Main Street program is a five-year state designation that provides Downtown Wilkes-Barre with technical assistance, programmatic support, and priority status for state funding, based on the implementation of an approved revitalization strategy.
That strategy, which also guides the DWBBID plan, is based on the following long-term vision for Wilkes-Barre’s central city:
• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the region’s college neighborhood.
• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the region’s “walk-to-everything” neighborhood of choice.
• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the region’s “Innovation District.”
• Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s historic architecture, riverfront, colleges, walkability, and high-quality built environment will be the cornerstones of its enhanced visitor experience.
• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be a regional center of arts, culture, dining, and entertainment.