WILKES-BARRE ‚?? In the heart of the city, Tom Healey located his restaurant at the intersection of opportunity and desire.
The retiree opened Big T‚??s Coney Island Deli in August on South Main Street to fulfill a dream and take part in the downtown‚??s revival.
The 62-year-old South Wilkes-Barre resident spent years helping others get their businesses up and running and knew the recipe for success was more than a good hot dog on a bun with meat sauce, onions and yellow mustard.
‚??I remember when downtown was something,‚?Ě Healey said Thursday, stepping out from the deli‚??s kitchen. ‚??Maybe I can be part of bringing that back.‚?Ě
Healey spent 14 years with the Small Business Development Center at Wilkes University and helped some of his neighbors put together business plans.
He has joined store owners, restaurateurs and business people on both sides of the street in the transformation of the downtown once known for falling streetlights, decay and empty buildings into a busy hub of office space, entertainment and shopping.
‚??I see it coming back,‚?Ě Healey said.
A visioning project begun in 2001 has kept the focus on the downtown‚??s improvement with the goals of making it a more attractive place to live, work and play. The R/C Wilkes-Barre Movies 14 multiplex and the Barnes & Noble College bookstore have helped turn the tide.
The Diamond City Partnership grew out of the project and in 2007 established the Business Improvement District as a means to raise revenue from commercial property owners to do just that.
Elizabeth Graham, chief operating officer of Riggs Asset Management, moved back to the area from working in Washington, D.C., around the time the project was under way.
The state of the downtown ‚??disheartened‚?Ě her, she said. ‚??One of my first priorities frankly was to get involved.‚?Ě
Under her watch as partnership chairwoman, the BID was renewed on Aug. 1 through 2018. The BID encompasses the area between River Street and Pennsylvania Avenue bracketed by North and South streets.
‚??The first five years was building that foundation of a clean and safe city,‚?Ě Graham said.
With a 2012-13 budget of $372,000 for the BID the next phase will continue with the upkeep of the district and begin marketing and recruiting new businesses downtown.
Since the inception of the BID, there has been a net gain of 28 occupied storefronts and 23 new market-rate housing units.
But downtown took a hit last week when Frontier Communications announced it would relocate approximately 110 employees from the Wilkes-Barre Center office building to the company‚??s complex in Dallas Township by the end of the year.
Graham noted the connection between the commercial and the residential components of the downtown.
The more people living downtown, the more businesses will locate there, such as a coffee shop, dry cleaner or small grocery store, she said.
Big T‚??s Healey moved in to fill a vacancy left by Carol‚??s Deli.
‚??I thought the concept (of a Coney Island restaurant) was good,‚?Ě he said.
His patrons range from students from either King‚??s College or Wilkes University, some of the estimated 15,000 workers downtown and residents of the Provincial Towers building.
‚??We exceeded projections as for our sales (for the month),‚?Ě Healey said, adding late-night hours to attract customers from the nearby bars and restaurants.
The downtown has reached the saturation point of restaurants for Rob Finlay of Humford Equities, and he won‚??t lease any of his available space unless it‚??s something unique.
The next growth spurt is under way with the construction of apartments and condominiums.
‚??I think there‚??s a real demand for housing,‚?Ě Finlay said.
Developers have noticed and invested private money in a number of projects, added Larry Newman, a downtown resident and vice president of planning, policy and development with the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce.
The 22 condominium lofts at University Corners are nearly full. A dozen luxury apartments occupy the two top floors of the Luzerne Bank Building on Public Square.
The 40 West Apartments occupying three floors in the Wilkes-Barre Family YMCA have been marketed to students.
‚??Among the best signs of a downtown revival, people with choices are choosing to live here,‚?Ě Newman said.
The number of new housing units fell below the minimum 50 units a year a 2003 study suggested the downtown needed to support additional retail development and retain and attract businesses.
Newman acknowledged the downtown has come a long way and still more has to be done.
‚??It‚??s very much a work in progress,‚?Ě Newman said.
The mixed-use University Corners made up of the lofts, the multiplex and street-level retail and office space has been a draw.
Two other mixed-use projects are in the works ‚?? the Hampton Park on the corner of East Northampton and South Washington streets will have 14 luxury condos and commercial space; and the site of the Sterling Hotel.
The landmark building on the corner of West Market and River streets is slated for demolition and the property will be developed. One proposal was submitted to the city last month.
The city‚??s philosophy toward the revitalization of ‚??Live, Work, and Play,‚?Ě is the same as the chamber‚??s, said Greg Barrouk, director of economic development for Wilkes-Barre.
‚??Office space is pretty much filled. We have entertainment. Our last component is the living,‚?Ě he said.
Drew McLaughlin, assistant to Mayor Tom Leighton, pointed out that most of the improvements have occurred during the economic crisis still gripping the country.
When the economy turns around, he said, the city will be ‚??right there ready for new investment.‚?Ě