WILKES-BARRE – While waiting for the owner of the Sterling Hotel to sign off on an agreement to demolish it, the city has been pursuing its own plan to tear down the deteriorating landmark.
Mayor Tom Leighton Thursday cited public safety and financial reasons for developing a contingency plan to proceed independently of Luzerne County and the property owner CityVest.
In a prepared statement, Leighton said he still hopes the city and county can work together with or without CityVest's cooperation on the demolition that has to be done as quickly as possible due to the condition of the building.
Given the significant safety risks posed and the expiration of insurance on the property, the city is pursuing a contingency plan to demolish the building alone if necessary, the mayor said.
County Manager Robert Lawton acknowledged the city might have powers unavailable to the county to address the situation.
Still, he expressed an interest in working with the city in two-party agreement on the North River Street project.
We're willing to go to the table with the city, Lawton said.
The move by the city signaled a possible end to the stalemate in bringing down the historic structure vacant since 1998 and the start of development on the site once eyed for residential and retail space.
Acting as a developer of last resort, the nonprofit CityVest attempted to preserve the building on the corner of River and Market streets.
It spent at least $7 million in government funding on the site, but failed to attract private investment to complete the project and last year began plans to demolish the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city and county have approved the demolition, but CityVest refused to join them. CityVest has been holding out because the county has not agreed to release the organization from future legal claims or actions that could arise related to the project.
A message left with Alex Rogers, the executive director of CityVest, was not returned.
The city has been in contact with the state Historic Preservation Office and the Philadelphia regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for approval to use federal money in place of the $232,729 the county committed to the project.
Community Development Block Grant funds that the city received to raze blighted properties would be tapped for the hotel demolition. The amount would consume the city's entire budget for removal of blighted properties, the mayor said.
Ann Safley, a historic preservation specialist with the state, confirmed that city has taken over for the county in dealing with the Historic Preservation Office regarding the Sterling Hotel.
The city is now going to be leading the consultation process, Safley said.
The contact with the state is necessary because government money was spent by CityVest and the city is seeking to use federal money for the demolition, she explained.
Still to be provided to the office is a Memorandum of Agreement outlining how the city has fulfilled its obligations under National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and what steps it will take to mitigate any adverse effects.
Safley said the memorandum can be submitted without the participation of CityVest.
I know in the past when it has come to MOAs that owners don't necessarily have to sign, she said.
For months state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, has worked with all three parties to come to an agreement on demolishing the structure.
They were on the verge of sealing the deal until a few weeks ago when CityVest asked for the liability release, Pashinski said. It requested that upon the breakup of the organization, it members would not be subject to legal action individually.
It's been very frustrating, Pashinski said.
The project has disrupted traffic patterns in the downtown and cost the city $5,000 a month for rental of concrete barriers to detour motorists around the building, he added.
Pashinski said he supports the city's moving forward on its own.
I don't see how there can be any other decision, he said.