Rather than allow rain and rot to destroy yet another empty downtown building, owners — including the city of Wilkes-Barre — should abandon the strategy of buy and hold, hold, hold in hopes of landing the perfect occupant.
Any reasonable occupant is better than leaving a space empty.
Other downtowns troubled by vacant storefronts have tried, or are experimenting with, ways to fill the spots and reap at least nominal monthly rents until more permanent tenants emerge. Presumably, those cheap rents can pay for emergency repairs to, for example, leaky roofs. But in Luzerne County’s seat, it seems certain landlords are content to watch their places crumble.
Witness the latest casualties of benign neglect: four South Main Street addresses condemned Friday and slated for quick demolition. The collateral damage: two desirable businesses, whose owners were told because of their retail spaces’ proximity to the deteriorating structures, they would have to abandon the sites at least temporarily — overlapping with the critical holiday shopping season.
The city or its redevelopment authority own the dilapidated buildings, making an unfortunate situation all the more maddening for those people directly involved.
Michaelene Coffee, owner of a dress shop called Place One at the Hollywood, last week received notice that she had only five days to evacuate a showroom loaded with gowns, dresses and accessories. Her structurally sound building at 67 S. Main shares a wall with one of the endangered ones.
The city’s pronouncement, she initially said, would likely be the death knell of her women’s formal wear shop. “It’s going to put me out of business, quite honestly,” she said.
Mayor Tom Leighton indicated the city will do “whatever we can” to assist Coffee’s clothing store and a similarly impacted jewelry store. But any resolution is likely to involve plenty of lawyer hours and lots of cash.
Unfortunately, many structures dotting the city appear to be in limbo and endangered: the former Central Railroad of New Jersey station, the Irem Temple mosque, the First National Bank building. And more modest structures, too. What will become of them in the next few years?
Couldn’t the city as well as private owners of vacant sites try a different tactic than dreaming of better days? Why not put small and startup businesses in some storefronts, even if initially leased at low rates? Might nonprofit groups be willing to pay low rents for high-traffic office space, with the understanding they would be displaced when tenants capable of paying market prices signed on the dotted line?
Future Tenant Art Space, a Pittsburgh nonprofit, provides one model worthy of discussion. Artists use an empty storefront as a gallery until they get the boot, then move to the next site, demonstrating to would-be leaseholders the property’s potential. (See futuretenant.org.)
In Hartford, Conn., two businesses and a radio station moved into empty storefronts last month as part of a government initiative called iConnect, aimed at reinvigorating vacant properties. (Visit www.hartford.gov/meca/iconnect-hartford.)
For Wilkes-Barre, the silver lining is that a developer reportedly expressed interest in its South Main Street properties, which ultimately led to the unfavorable building inspections. At least someone was willing to mull doing business in the city’s heart.
As the economy locally and across the nation continues to slowly improve, let’s be ready for new opportunities. Let’s give prospective entrepreneurs something to see — other than bulldozers busy reducing the shopping district to rubble.