WILKES-BARRE — On days when the weather is nice, Bill McLaughlin of Mountain Top likes to take walks in the River Common park during breaks from his job at North Penn Legal Services.
“I believe they did a beautiful job fixing the riverfront up. I work here in Wilkes-Barre, and usually every day if the weather is nice I try to get out and take advantage of walking around. It’s a beautiful area,” McLaughlin said. “The city certainly needed to beautify things, and I think they did an excellent job with it.”
The $30 million River Common opened to the public in June 2009. In the four years since the park was opened, public interest has remained steady, despite setbacks. That year, Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority Executive Director Jim Brozena, who has since retired, said it would help revitalize the downtown area.
“This park will bring people to Wilkes-Barre, and once they are there, they will go to the downtown (area) to help spur business,” Brozena told The Times-Leader in 2009.
Planning for the park began in the 1990s with the initial goal for it to protect the city and the Wyoming Valley from flooding with a secondary goal of bringing people to the riverfront for recreation. The idea to build the park came from former U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski. He said the project was one that spanned the full 25 years of his term.
Four years later, Brozena said the River Commons’ capability as a flood protection feature is without question. Although it is maintained as a county park, River Common is part of the flood protection system.
“It worked exactly as it was supposed to in preventing water from reaching the downtown,” Brozena said.
Sponsorship still needed
As for the River Common’s future, Brozena said he still is hopeful the park can offer more organized activities.
“Hopefully, as the economy improves, we’ll start to see more events at River Common and find more sponsors willing to donate and therefore the number of activities downtown,” he said.
Riverfront Parks Committee member and past president John Maday said River Common has brought people to the riverfront area.
“What I’ve seen over time is that people who wouldn’t necessarily even go that two blocks to take a walk are down there now,” Maday said. “It’s always an awareness (of the park) that constantly has to be enforced.”
The park does not offer parking. Brozena said the intent was meant to utilize existing facilities in the downtown because most recreational events occur on the weekends and evenings, when parking is least problematic in the city.
“The intent was to have people park downtown so after the event they would patronize downtown business,” Brozena said.
The recent downturn in the economy is one major issue the park faces. Brozena, one of the primary supporters of the project from the beginning, said businesses and governments have tightened their belts — especially the county government. Recreation is one of the first items cut on budgets, he said.
Brozena said finding people willing to contribute to the activity programming presents another challenge. He said there are events that take place on the Common, although they are limited in scope.
“There’s not a lot that goes on because it costs money to stage events, and we rely on volunteers for a lot of activities and events,” he said.
Merging of groups
Riverfront Parks Committee Board of Directors Treasurer Marleen Troy said the biggest challenge for the board is figuring out how the park will be managed with the merging of the Riverfront Parks Committee and RiverCommon.org, which are both run exclusively by volunteers.
“To take (the organization) to the next level, I think it’s going to take more than volunteers,” Troy said. “So it’s time for that conversation from all parties involved what’s the best way to move this forward. I think it’s a great venue but it’s a little bit beyond just volunteers running it.”
Troy added that the River Common park is a great resource to the city, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to manage it.
“Finding out what’s the best way to manage it I think is the biggest challenge right now,” Troy said. “It seems like everybody’s got limited resources, but what’s the best way to manage it with the resources we do have.”
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton said River Common has given city residents a place to relax and hang out.
“It’s become a tremendous asset to have concerts; King’s and Wilkes both utilize that as a classroom sometimes where they take a class over there, and businesses have gone over there for lunch hours and have short seminars for their employees,” Leighton said.
He said the River Common has brought people into downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“You see people consistently walking over to the River Common from the downtown (area), so it’s definitely an attraction for people that are coming into the downtown (area),” Leighton said.
Protection from flood
With the levees being raised in conjunction with the recreational use, it has saved the city and surrounding area from extensive flood damage.
“Not only is the recreational part of the dike system beneficial to the city, but the safety of preventing flooding is a tremendous asset not only to Wilkes-Barre but the surrounding communities,” Leighton said.
He said that if the levee system had not been in place, about 15,000 people who work in downtown Wilkes-Barre would have been out of a job because they wouldn’t be able to get to work and their place of employment wouldn’t have been able to re-open for six to nine months.
Many residents around the area seem pleased with the park. Josh Lewhead, a student at King’s College from Warminster, has enjoyed the space the River Common offers him and his friends to hang out.
“Me and my one friend, we use it all the time. We actually come down here almost every day now and we’ll go fishing all along (the portal), or we’ll just hang out and enjoy the nice weather when we have the chance,” Lewhead said.
He thinks the River Common is a good addition to the area and is very easily accessible.
Tim Donohue of Wilkes-Barre thinks building the park was an excellent idea and he is glad it was done.
However, he said, the drug use, homeless, graffiti and garbage found in the park create the need for more patrols by police and security cameras.
Donohue said the homeless take advantage of the lack of patrols.
Some workers from the state Department of Environmental Protection said they go to the River Common daily on work breaks. One worker said it was a decent idea, and all agreed that it’s nicer than walking around on the street.
Kanjorski, who secured federal funds that made River Common construction possible, said he feels positive about the investment.
“It is widely attended and will continue to be,” the former Democratic congressman said.
“I think what we built in terms of design and the amount of money spent was probably one of the best expenditures after (1972’s Hurricane) Agnes,” he said.
“We built a good, strong levee system and it has held up against major flooding. The people of Wilkes-Barre never cease thanking me for the time we spent on getting it built correctly,” he said.