WILKES-BARRE — Al Boscov remains bullish on Northeastern Pennsylvania’s two largest cities.
He still wants to purchase The Mall at Steamtown in Scranton, and he said the proposed million-dollar renovation to the Wilkes-Barre store — the downtown’s anchor — will begin soon.
Boscov, 84, said Friday he was pleased to hear the results of the downtown survey done recently by the Diamond City Partnership that said the Wilkes-Barre’s downtown will only get better if more people take up residence.
“Anytime there are more people living downtown, it benefits our store, other stores, restaurants, movie theaters — everything,” Boscov said. “More residents will help tremendously in bringing the downtown back.”
More than 50 percent of those surveyed said the city’s business corridor was headed in the right direction. They cited entertainment, dining, movies, history and walk-ability as the downtown’s selling points.
However, many feel the downtown could be safer, despite statistics that show the incidence of crime is less than other cities.
Boscov has seen many positive changes in the past decade, and he said his commitment to invest $1 million in the store’s appearance — new carpeting, painting and fixtures are planned — shows he believes in the the city.
“We’re finishing up a project in Lancaster and then we will start in Wilkes-Barre,” Boscov said. “We have a small force of people to do these remodeling projects. We will start soon, but probably won’t finish before the holiday shopping days. We will take a break and finish the project after New Year’s.”
As far as Steamtown goes — a Boscov’s department store is an anchor — the retail executive said the mall financial backers assumed the $37 million debt earlier this year when previous owners defaulted.
“We don’t even know who the owners are,” Boscov said. “We’ve been dealing with their representative. But we can’t negotiate with potential lessees because the first thing they want to know is who owns the mall.”
Boscov said he will continue talking to the owners’ representative in search of a deal.
“Hopefully we can buy it back,” Boscov said.
Boscov said he is hopeful he will be able to retain the current store tenants, but several are leaving or have left. Express is the latest to exit Steamtown, following Bob-Ton and a couple of eating places.
“We’re optimistic we can turn it around,” Boscov said. “As far as we know, there are no other bidders. We’re probably the only ones who are seriously talking to ownership.”
Boscov’s a key
Back in Wilkes-Barre, Boscov said the store is performing well — better than stores in malls.
Diamond City Partnership’s Larry Newman said Wilkes-Barre is one of just three Pennsylvania cities with a traditional department store anchoring its downtown shopping district. The other two — Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — have Macy’s Department Stores; Wilkes-Barre has Boscov and has had it for many years, having first opened in 1879 as Fowler Dick & Walker’s The Boston Store.
“Don’t get me wrong, any city would like to have a big department store in its downtown,” Newman said. “It’s just not the trend anymore.”
Newman said the survey revealed that the main reasons people come downtown is to dine or see a movie. Shopping is listed as the third reason.
Newman said just 10 years ago the downtown did not have Movies 14, Barnes and Noble, the Riverfront Park or most of the restaurants now operating. Most people come downtown to go to the Farmers Market or to dine, but Boscov’s rated as the third reason visitors come to the city on a regular basis.
But Newman said survey respondents still don’t always feel safe in center city. They also listed parking issues and people loitering as deterrents to visiting the downtown.
Newman said a major stumbling block centers on perception versus reality. He compared his survey’s results with one done in Philadelphia that centered on crime. In 2012, Wilkes-Barre and a rate of 1.7 violent crimes per 1,000 residents, while Philadelphia’s rate was 16.1 violent crimes per 1,000 residents.
Yet 28 percent of the respondents to Newman’s survey said they often feel unsafe, compared to just 4 percent in Philadelphia. And 35 percent said they always or mostly always feel safe in Wilkes-Barre, compared to 79 percent in Philadelphia.
Another telling statistic showed that frequency of visitation breeds satisfaction.
For instance, 59 percent of respondents who visit Wilkes-Barre about once a week feel the city is headed in the right direction. But 71 percent of those who never visit Wilkes-Barre feel it is not improving.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @boboyle.