Downtown Wilkes-Barre businesses are witnesses to rough times

Last updated: April 19. 2014 11:19PM - 2997 Views
By James O’Malley Times Leader Intern

Frank Nemeth a shop employee at The Trading Post in Wilkes-Barre feels the economy locally is not doing well. He said people are selling 'DVDs just to get milk.'
Frank Nemeth a shop employee at The Trading Post in Wilkes-Barre feels the economy locally is not doing well. He said people are selling 'DVDs just to get milk.'
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Frank Nemeth, of Wilkes-Barre, doesn’t need a study to tell him the region is in rough shape.

Nemeth works at the Main Street Trading Post, a pawn shop south of Public Square, and he said his job has exposed him to the harsh realities of the city’s economy.

“I don’t see any recovery happening,” he said.

Instead, Nemeth said he sees some of the same people everyday — sometimes two or three times — trying to sell their belongings to afford necessities like food and gas.

“It’s a sad situation,” Nemeth said, “people trying to sell DVDs just to get milk.”

There is a study to back up Nemeth’s observations.

The Brookings Institute’s 2014 Metro Monitor report released this month ranked the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area’s economic performance as 100th — out of the 100 regions studied — during the recent recovery period.

Nemeth, a former Philadelphia resident, said he has worked at the trading post for nearly eight years, and he first noticed changes about three years ago. According to Nemeth, that’s when much of the store’s clientele stopped trading items to make extra cash and started selling to make ends meet.

According to the Brookings study, that’s just before unemployment in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre reached its peak.

Nemeth said he hears, on a daily basis, stories of people trying to feed themselves and their children and people looking for gas money to get to work, while others come in looking to scrounge enough for bus fare to try to find a job.

He said one type of customer bothers him the most.

“I think the worst thing for me is seeing an old person, who’s worked their whole freakin’ life, come in here because they can’t make their light bill,” he said.

Disposable income

A few blocks away Around Town Bicycles shop co-owner Rich Adams said the lack of recovery is obvious.

“People don’t have as much disposable income anymore,” he said.

Adams’ store has been in Wilkes-Barre for 10 years, and at one time, he said, “serious” cyclists would spend $3,000 or more on top-quality bicycles. Lately though, he said even die-hards are often unwilling to part with half that amount or less.

He also said he gets phone calls several times a day from people simply looking to sell their cycling equipment.

Retired schoolteacher Bob Sabol, of the Back Mountain area, said he frequents the North Main Street bike shop. According to him, a thriving Wilkes-Barre is essential to a healthy Wyoming Valley.

“I think people have to have an awareness of how important the city is,” he said.

Sabol said in his experience, what happens to Wilkes-Barre affects the region as a whole. He reflected on a more prosperous time for the city.

“When I was a kid, you’d come to Wilkes-Barre on the bus,” the 61-year-old said. “The sidewalks were like New York City.”

Adams said he thinks the region needs to attract large employers, like manufacturing companies. He admitted, though, that he doesn’t claim to have the answers to the region’s economic problems.

“I don’t have the good ideas,” Adams said. Still, he added, “raising the minimum wage is probably a good idea.”

Just around the corner, Bill, 60, of Wilkes-Barre, who said he’s a seasonally unemployed road-worker, waited for a ride outside the Pennsylvania CareerLink office.

The CareerLink website labels itself the “Commonwealth Workforce Development System” and helps the unemployed re-enter the workforce.

Bill, who didn’t give his last name, said he was denied unemployment benefits this past winter due to a legal technicality.

“It really would have helped me squeeze by,” he said.

He also said he’s a veteran of the Vietnam War, and any veteran’s assistance he receives proves insufficient in making it through the winter. While Bill said he doesn’t enjoy being unemployed, he said low pay and lack of benefits being offered deter him from taking on employment outside of roadwork season.

“I want to work,” he said. “I’m proud to work.”

Bill was just one of dozens of people in and out of the East Union Street office early Thursday afternoon.

Call to action

One local professor said he thinks the results of the Brookings study should be seen as a call to action.

“It’s time for us to wake up and smell the coffee and make some changes,” said Wilkes University business professor Anthony Liuzzo.

He said residents, business leaders and elected officials from both Luzerne and Lackawanna counties should take note of the data and begin “pushing the rock in the same direction.”

“People in Scranton view Wilkes-Barre as the enemy and vice versa,” he said. “Rather than compete, they should try to complement each other.”

View the full April 2014 Metro Monitor report at www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/metromonitor.

Former Times Leader reporter Andrew Seder contributed to this story.

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