Diamond City Partnership is building a better downtown Wilkes-Barre

WILKES-BARRE — Larry Newman, executive director of Diamond City Partnership, said that over the past 30 years, as a result of the collapse of downtown shopping districts, American cities and towns have been forced to reinvent their main streets.

“And along the way, we learned how to create a thriving downtown,” Newman said.

Thriving downtowns are clean, safe, attractive and walkable, Newman said, adding:

• They restore historic buildings instead of demolishing them.

• They create a public environment and facilities that encourage people to live, work, visit and invest.

• They build on their assets — such as a riverfront, college, central plaza, or arts district.

• They are built, first and foremost, for people — not for cars.

• And these are places where homeowners and businesses choose to reinvest in their neighborhood.

“When downtowns follow these principles, success follows,” Newman said.

In fact, Newman said that between 2007 and 2020, DCP’s work has brought about big changes for the better.

During that time, Newman said downtown Wilkes-Barre saw a net gain of 55 occupied storefronts, 250 new market-priced homes and more than $236 million in private investment.

According to the U.S. Census, the population of downtown Wilkes-Barre, from North Street to South Street, increased by 1,093 from 2010 to 2020, a 38% increase in population in a single decade.

And, in the last perception survey undertaken by DCP before the COVID-19 pandemic, two-thirds of all respondents—and 94% of downtown business owners—said that downtown Wilkes- Barre was going “in the right direction”.

However, Newman said the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new crisis to the doorstep of downtown Wilkes-Barre — one that threatens to undo all of the positive changes of the past 15 years.

Newman said downtown is now facing its third year of empty office buildings, changing consumer habits and struggling businesses. From 2019 to 2021, downtown employee volumes fell 68%, while shopper and visitor volumes fell 20%.

Even as traffic begins to rebound, it is clear to DCP management that downtown Wilkes-Barre can no longer rely on office workers to serve as the dominant engine of economic activity.

“The larger circumstances that created this crisis are beyond Downtown’s control, but we have control over how we respond,” Newman said. “Downtown Wilkes-Barre, like other downtowns, has changed many times over its history, but one factor has always held true: when we cultivate a downtown environment where people want to time, new vitality and economic activity result.”

In response to the enormous challenges generated by the pandemic, DCP has made significant changes to its work plan with clear objectives:

• Ensure downtown Wilkes-Barre is always clean, safe and attractive.

• Support existing downtown businesses and venues through the COVID crisis.

• Improve the product: create lively, interesting and quality places.

• Promote these places to the people we want to attract.

• Sowing the seeds of new economic growth.

From a practical point of view, what exactly does this mean?

Newman said DCP is currently working to expand the Downtown Ambassador program so that, despite everything that has happened over the past two years, our downtown is seen as a place where everyone feels comfortable. .

DCP has secured corporate contributions for Team Give Hope, a pilot program administered by Volunteers of America that provides clinical outreach to at-risk individuals, while DCP’s Social Issues Task Force has brought together representatives from city, county, state, federal and state agencies to address the issues resulting from the growing number of homeless and at-risk people downtown.

In 2020, Newman said the 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 can accommodate outdoor dining, take-out or safely indoors.

DCP’s College Ambassador program connects student interns with downtown businesses, giving students hands-on experience while building better relationships between businesses—many of them run by new entrepreneurs—and the local college community.

DCP now hosts a full range of events designed to liven up downtown throughout the year – the 2022 calendar includes the monthly ‘Cocktails & Culture’ gallery mixer, ‘SIPS’ Wednesday night happy hour promotion, the monthly live “Sunsets on South Main” 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 Placemaking projects are underway. Undertaken in partnership with the Town of Wilkes-Barre and the owners of the town centre, they share the goal of improving the physical environment of the town center and attracting new customers and investments.

Each of these new activities adds to the work that DCP has been doing since the beginning.

DCP funds its work through a combination of DWBBID assessment income, contributions from tax-exempt owners, corporate contributions and event sponsorships, and grants tied to specific initiatives.

Everything is overseen by a 25-member Board of Directors that includes representatives from downtown landowners, 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 and Facebook handle is @DowntownWilkesBarre.

Now in his 21st year, Newman said the work of the Diamond City Partnership has just begun – and he is committed to ensuring a bright future for downtown Wilkes-Barre: the premier urban center in the Valley of the Wyoming.

About the Diamond City Partnership

The Diamond City Partnership (DCP) is Wilkes-Barre’s non-profit downtown management organization, serving as the guardian of the community’s vision for Downtown Wilkes-Barre.

Since its founding in 2001, DCP has worked to maintain and enhance the economic vitality and livability of the Wilkes-Barre central business district.

Downtown Wilkes-Barre—an area bounded roughly 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.

This small district—representing less than 7% of Wilkes-Barre’s total area—contains 51% of all city jobs, 1 in 10 jobs in Luzerne County, the campuses of King’s College and the University of Wilkes, the county seat of government, regional state and federal offices, more than 4,000 residents and a wide range of arts, cultural and recreational venues.

Among Wyoming Valley neighborhoods, Downtown Wilkes-Barre is unique. It may be a very different place than it was 50 years ago, but it remains essential to the future of the Wyoming Valley.

“It’s a regional job center, college campus, startup hub, shopping center, entertainment and dining destination, and the fastest growing residential market in the city,” Newman said. . “This is the image that the Wyoming Valley presents to the rest of the world. It’s everyone’s neighborhood and a place that many people call home. It is home to social service facilities helping the most disadvantaged among us, while its festivals, parades, and performances draw visitors from all over northeast Pennsylvania and beyond. Its streets are dotted with iconic historical landmarks, but they are constantly changing. »

Ensuring the success of such a complex and diverse place requires long-term planning and focused day-to-day management, and that’s where Newman said the Diamond City Partnership comes in.

DCP works simultaneously to improve the downtown environment, the downtown economy and the downtown image.

DCP improves the downtown environment through the daily work of its Downtown Ambassadors, who sweep and clean sidewalks, remove graffiti, maintain flower baskets and seasonal planters, and more. DCP also works with the City and private owners to make longer-term improvements to parks, public spaces and downtown facades. He oversees the plans guiding the development of the town center and even plants new street trees.

DCP improves the downtown economy by recruiting and retaining businesses, supporting them through initiatives such as the College Ambassador Program, attracting new investment, tracking important market data and encouraging more people to frequent Downtown.

DCP enhances the image of downtown through events and marketing initiatives that promote downtown restaurants and shops, educational institutions, the arts and culture scene, the residential market, recreational facilities, the startup sector and historic sites.

DCP does all of this through its management of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District (DWBBID) and the Downtown Wilkes-Barre State-Designated Main Street Program, which provide together a range of services for downtown property and business owners.

The DWBBID is a Business Improvement District – a legal framework that allows owners to pool their resources to address common concerns within a designated area. Downtown Wilkes-Barre landowners created the business improvement district — one of three dozen in Pennsylvania — in 2007, and they’ve reauthorized it twice since then. The DWBBID assessment funds the implementation of a service plan developed and approved by downtown 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 implementation of an approved revitalization strategy.

This strategy, which also guides the DWBBID plan, is based on the following long-term vision for the central town of Wilkes-Barre:

• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the area’s college district.

• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be the area’s premier walk-to-everything neighborhood.

• 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 cornerstones for enhancing the visitor experience.

• Downtown Wilkes-Barre will be a regional center for arts, culture, dining and entertainment.

Contact Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

David H. Henry