WILKES-BARRE —Mayor Tom Leighton talked about downtown business development and his audience was intently listening.
Leighton gave a report of the status of all new things happening and about to happen in the Diamond City to about 30 members of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association. The group held its monthly meeting in Council Chambers on the fourth floor of City Hall on Friday.
“We have seen a lot of progress in the downtown even during these difficult economic times,” Leighton said. “We have seen many new businesses relocate to the downtown and we have had a significant increase in downtown residents.”
He cited recent changes to the Citizens Bank Building at Market and Franklin streets, where several floors, formerly occupied by offices, are now being renovated into high-end apartments. He also talked about similar changes made to the Luzerne Bank Building, and he mentioned the loft apartments above Movies 14 in the theater complex on Northampton Street.
“It goes to show you, if you build it, they will come,” Leighton said.
Leighton commended Joe Amato, who took over the theater complex and is filling up space that was empty for years.
“We’re happy Joe Amato took over there,” Leighton said. “If anybody can bring success, it’s him. He has done it elsewhere, like the Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville.”
And Leighton seized the opportunity to note the city’s hiring of 10 new police officers, promising an increased police presence in the downtown and throughout city neighborhoods. He said eight of the 10 officers are already certified and will start working Monday.
Leighton said vacant parcels in the downtown at South Main and Northampton streets and the lot where the Hotel Sterling stood at River and Market streets are attractive to potential developers. However, Leighton said other issues have delayed development. He said with a city parking lot right behind the site, development will come. He said a project could wrap around the two remaining buildings and continue down South Main Street.
Although the South Main and Northampton site is free and clear, grant money has “gone away,” slowing interest from developers. At the Sterling site, the city must still secure the title, and Leighton said that legal battle is not yet over.
The mayor responded to a question about high-speed Internet in the downtown by saying he is looking at expanding service. Leighton said he expects some news in the next six to nine months as the city reviews several options.
Leighton vowed to remain supportive of downtown events, like the Fine Arts Fiesta, which will hold its 59th event this year.
He was asked about the deteriorating Irem Temple Mosque on North Franklin Street. Leighton said the beautiful building needs attention and should be preserved.
“But it will take a lot of money to keep it standing,” he said.