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Newman offers positive outlook on health of downtown Wilkes-Barre

WILKES-BARRE — Larry Newman, Executive Director at the Diamond City Partnership offered nothing but positivity when he delivered his monthly report to the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association on Friday morning.

“As I’ve said before, the key to Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s recovery is to continue doing the things that reposition Downtown as an appealing and walkable mixed-use neighborhood,” Newman told about 20 members at the Circle Centre for the Arts. “That repositioning isn’t just a COVID recovery strategy — it’s also an investment in our ability, as a city and region, to attract the jobs and talent of the future.

Newman said the ongoing mission of the DCP is to create a neighborhood where more people want to be.

“Whether it’s as a place to live, to dine, or to enjoy themselves, we simultaneously create a place where more people want to work, learn, and shop,” Newman said. “There’s economic value in the creation of great places.”

To prove his point, Newman directed everyone to look across South Main Street from the Circle Centre at the transformation going on at 116 South Main St., where D&D Realty Group is nearing completion on the construction of 34 new loft apartments — half of which have already been leased — and the ground floor will become Building Blocks Learning Center’s new downtown early childhood education facility.

“A year ago, it was a windowless four-story mausoleum of a building that had been vacant for more than a decade,” Newman said. “And thanks to Wilkes University, the alley next door is now a pedestrian plaza that will provide Downtown’s arts district with a new venue for outdoor performances and events.”

Zubeen Saeed, Chief Executive Officer/President of Building Blocks Learning Center, said she hopes to have the new facility open sometime in January, depending on how construction progresses.

“We are really excited about this project,” Saeed said. “We are working out all the logistics, but we are thrilled to be able to soon bring our program to Downtown Wilkes-Barre.”

Saeed said Building Blocks offers a quality education program for infants through pre-kindergarten students, ages 6 weeks to 4 years old. She said Building Blocks is collaborating with Wilkes University on the South Main Street center.

“We offer an early education program supporting the social, emotional and academic development of our students,” Saeed said. “This center will create 25 new jobs, from teachers to management, and we will enroll 125 students.”

More good news

Newman noted that when it comes to people visiting for dining, shopping, events, and other reasons, Downtown’s recovery has been faster — last month’s total non-work visitation was 88% of the August 2019 total.

However, Newman said there is much more going on downtown:

• The former Catholic Social Services buildings at 27 and 33 East Northampton St., contain another 18 new loft units

• The Greater Wyoming Valley Chamber is pursuing plans to rehabilitate the former Charles & Mary Music building at 35 East Northampton St., for use as its new offices.

• And elsewhere in Downtown, the past week has also seen the soft opening of the new Diamond City Vault Bar & Grill at 24 West Market St.

• And the discussion of “potential plans” to convert the Luzerne Bank Building on Public Square into a hotel and restaurant.

“As private investors re-imagine these landmark buildings, they’re advancing the larger downtown strategy and demonstrating their confidence in the future of our center city,” Newman said.

Another component of the strategy is the creation of new events to bring people downtown — and this summer, Newman said, has shown just how successful it has been.

He cited the Guess Who concert on Public Square, the three Rockin’ the River concerts at the River Common, and Sunsets on SOMA in Midtown Village as just some of the events that have brought thousands of visitors and much increased business to Downtown.

To provide some perspective, Newman said the first and third of this year’s Rockin’ the River concerts attracted 2,700 attendees apiece, while the second concert brought more than 5,000 people to the River Common.

And this Saturday, Sept. 9, Abide Coffee House’s “Back to the Grind” festival will bring even more people to Public Square, Newman said.

“We’re continuing to do all we can to activate Downtown and showcase all that Wilkes-Barre’s city center has to offer,” Newman said. “Downtown Wilkes-Barre offers all the ingredients — from incredible historic buildings to great public spaces to strong institutional anchors — that we need to accomplish our goal. However, all of Downtown’s stakeholders must continue to work together to realize our center city’s full potential.”

When Newman ended his report, John Maday, president of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association, offered the perfect comment.

“There’s a lot of good stuff going on in Downtown Wilkes-Barre,” Maday said.