WILKES-BARRE — Citing lack of use and the need for money, Wilkes-Barre has placed the Morgan B. Williams Park up for sale hoping to bring in more than $1 million.
The city had the 4.23-acre parcel along Wilkes-Barre Boulevard near Scott Street appraised, and although Mayor Tom Leighton wouldn't release the appraisal figure, he said he expects a sale to fetch at least $1 million.
Decades ago there were plans by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to reroute Coal Street through that property, and there was another plan to create an exit off of state Route 309 that would have included a thoroughfare leading through the park, said city Administrator Marie McCormick. Neither plan materialized. Over time, the park's use dwindled. Organized baseball hasn't been played there in at least a half dozen years, and the city, while maintaining it, rarely uses it.
When major snowstorms occur, it's used as a snow dump site. And although people walk their dogs and fathers and sons are spotted playing baseball or tossing a Frisbee at the site, not much else occurs there, Leighton said.
The city has been approached by potential buyers in the past about various city properties, Leighton said. But with the weak economy and a sinking real estate market, he didn't believe the city could get top value for any properties. Now that the real estate market is rebounding, he said, the Morgan B. Williams Park has been placed up for sale to see if there is interest and to explore any job-creation prospects the parcel might generate.
“We've always been looking into selling it,” said Leighton. “It was just a matter of timing.”
The park is in a C-4 Zone and permits heavy commercial uses, he said. One of the factors in who the city would sell the lot to is how many jobs could be created by the buyer.
Leighton said he'd rather sell the property to a buyer for $900,000 with the promise of 40 jobs than to a buyer for $1 million who promises five jobs.
“We'd look at what they want to put in there,” he said.
A sale would add a considerable sum to the tax rolls, spur job creation and give the city a much-needed infusion of cash. Leighton has nothing specific in mind on which to spend any gains, but said he is sure he could find some infrastructure need or use it to help balance the budget.
“I have not spent money frivolously for 10 years, and I wouldn't start now,” he said.
A small portion of the parcel, along with an adjoining lot the city owned that once housed a Department of Public Works garage, was swapped years ago with the owners of Chacko's Family Bowling Center. The bowling alley was built on the former city lot next to the park, and the city acquired the property along South Main Street on which Chacko's once stood, and it became the Call Center.
One longtime neighborhood resident, Ed Mengak, who owns nearby Professional Photographic Services, said he always was told the city was given the property with a requirement that it remain a park. Leighton was unaware of such a prerequisite and he said he will ask the city attorney to look into it.
The city has owned the park for at least 60 years, and a sign on the property that can be seen from Wilkes-Barre Boulevard said it was donated to the city by John Lance and family. It's unclear if the park itself or only the wooden sign were donated. Leighton and Mengak also were unsure who the Lance family was or the park's namesake, Morgan B. Williams.
There was a Morgan B. Williams who served as a congressman representing Luzerne County from 1887 to 1889. His biography notes he was a native of Wales who moved to Scranton in 1862 and then to Wilkes-Barre three years later when he was appointed superintendent of the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Co. He went on to serve as a city councilman for a dozen years and served as chairman of the public property committee. He also was a state senator before winning a seat in Congress.
He died at age 72 and was interred in Hollenback Cemetery in 1903.