Last updated: February 19. 2013 4:48AM - 124 Views

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WILKES-BARRE – The new Coal Street Park is rising from its own ruins.

Mayor Tom Leighton stands inside the new Coal Street Park ice skating arena currently under construction. The mayor hopes to have the new home of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins open by Sept. 1.

The first stage of a $12.7 million renovation project – a new ice skating facility that the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will use as their practice site – should be completed by the end of August.
It’s one step in restoring the brilliance of what was once called the “jewel of the city.” Mayor Tom Leighton says it’s also a sign the city’s future is getting brighter every day.
“This is a truly exciting project, especially during these very difficult economic times,” Leighton said. “While other cities have stopped projects, we are constantly moving forward.”
A new state-of-the-art playground will open sometime this summer, Leighton said. Retail stores and commercial space will open by March 2010, including the Penguins’ corporate offices.
New tennis courts, basketball courts and soccer and baseball fields will be filled with teams and players of all ages. Coal Street Park will be a park again – the top park in Wilkes-Barre and, Leighton says, the region.
“We expect people to come from all over to use this park,” Leighton said. “And those people will visit our downtown and patronize our businesses and help continue that revitalization.”
With graffiti stains still on the old walls of the Ice-A-Rama, Leighton said the new park will have security, bright lighting and tighter controls.
“After we invest all this money, we won’t allow anyone to deface it or ruin it again,” he said.
To help visitors with access to the downtown, the Coal Street widening project – estimated at $23 million – will begin early next year and finish in early 2011. Eventually, the street will connect to Union Street, crossing Wilkes-Barre Boulevard.
Leighton also talked about the tremendous amount of investment going into the city, including new street lights at $7.8 million; the Intermodal Transportation Center at $27 million; the movie theater complex and loft apartments; the Stegmaier Lofts; and the county’s Riverfront project.
“Can you imagine what all this will mean to not only downtown businesses, but those surrounding the city as well?” Leighton asked.
Leighton is in his second term as mayor. He adopted the phrase “I believe” when trying to ignite development in the city’s rundown downtown. It seems to be working, even his wife, Patty, recently opened a store on South Main Street – The Bee Hive, named for the city symbol.
The Coal Street Park project was put together with $4.5 million in state funding, $2.64 million of federal funds, $1 million from Luzerne County and $4.56 million of the city’s funds.
As proud as he is about the park, Leighton hears the naysayers too. He has been criticized because the project doesn’t include an outdoor swimming pool. There was an Olympic-sized pool in the old park, but problems forced its closure years ago. Repair costs were estimated to be excessive, the mayor said.
“In its last few years, the pool never really was that busy,” Leighton said. “We decided to use the funding elsewhere to give our residents the things they want and will use consistently.”
As Leighton walked around the construction site at Coal Street, he recalled the number of meetings it took to get the project off the drawing board and “shovel ready.”
He said, “We participated in more than 100 meetings about this project with officials at all levels of government.”
Looking around the park, Leighton added, “It was all worth it for the city and its residents.”

Bill O’Boyle, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7218.
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