WILKES-BARRE — The former Hotel Sterling property is up for development again after a prospective buyer passed on it.
The city Wednesday issued a request for proposals from developers for their plans for the 2-acre site once eyed by Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Cos. as a possible location for its corporate headquarters. GUARD’s purchase last month of a high-rise a few blocks away on Public Square put the property back in play.
City Administrator Ted Wampole said there has been interest in the site on the corner of West Market and North River streets for quite some time — to the point that some presentations were made to the city.
“I’m confident that before the end of the first quarter (of next year) that property will be sold,” Wampole said.
He reiterated his prior statements that it will not remain a parking lot and not be the site of a gas station.
The city is asking for proposals for a mixed-use, commercial and residential project for land “that presents a remarkable center city riverfront development opportunity,” according to an RFP, or request for proposals. It’s an updated version of the one from June 2015 and includes information about the addition of luxury apartments in the city, a workday workforce of 11,300 and the GUARD’s headquarters.
“From 2012 to the present day, there has been $75 million in private investment in downtown Wilkes-Barre. The number of young college graduates living in the downtown has tripled during that period,” the new RFP stated.
As a further enticement for developers, the property is in a Keystone Opportunity Zone offering state and local tax breaks through 2024.
The vacant landmark had become a safety hazard after its nonprofit owner CityVest ran out of money and could not attract a developer to renovate what remained of the Hotel Sterling. The city condemned the building and had it demolished in 2013. The demolition set in motion the process for the city to take ownership from Luzerne County shortly before the first RFP was issued more than two years ago.
Even though the county provided a $6 million Community Development loan to CityVest that it defaulted on, the city had the position of first lien so it could recover approximately $600,000 on demolition and traffic barriers around the building. Through a sale, the city can recoup only the amount to cover the expense and must provide the rest to the county.
Before developers can send in an RFP by the deadline of 4 p.m. Feb. 1, they first must submit a notice of intent to propose by 4 p.m. Jan. 15. The city followed the same two-step process two years ago.
Wampole explained the submissions are staggered so the city can answer questions from developers seeking clarification about something in the RFP. To be fair to everyone, the city’s response will be addressed “to all interested parties,” he said.