Putting on a new face

June 25th, 2015 4:59 am

First Posted: 4/25/2013

The loud purple facade of the former Flaming Star Tattoos shop will soon be toned down to fit in with the downtown Wilkes-Barre neighborhood’s historical character — a subtle yet significant sign of once-shuttered storefronts being renovated or reopened around the theater complex.

It wasn’t just the color that unsettled city officials who saw the potential for the shop’s row of old architecture on South Main Street. It was the way the vibrant hue stopped midway up the building in an uneven line, accentuating the unfinished progress of the paint job and much of the neighborhood.

“One of the first things the new owners will do is repaint that facade,” said attorney William Vinsko, who bought the building at a Luzerne County back-tax auction for $33,000 last week on behalf of private clients who will be identified when the deed is recorded. The buyers plan to renovate the property at 86 S. Main St. to attract tenants, Vinsko said.

Next door, Joseph and Pamela Masi are redoing the facade and interior of their property, which previously housed Topper’s topless bar, Vinsko said. The Masis, who purchased the property for $85,000 in 2010, have added an ice cream shop at the rear of the property.

Also, at 91 S. Main, Mark Miscavage is redoing the front his building across the street which houses his dental office and the David Blight School of Dance, Vinsko said.

“That whole area is going to be completely transformed,” he said.

More downtown changes

City Economic Development Director Greg Barrouk points to other development activity in older buildings around the theater:

• Several commercial tenants are slated to move into the Hampton Park building at the corner of East Northampton and South Washington streets, which is undergoing a $1.5 million rehab. Owner Nicholas Dye, of D&D Realty Group, said he’s already sold two of the 13 condominiums in the building without marketing them.

• The city is preparing to issue a public request for proposals from private developers interested in overhauling three attached properties at the corner of South Main and Northampton streets, including the former Norton’s dress shop. The city purchased these properties, which face the Main Street lofts above the theater complex, at prior back-tax sales, projecting they would be a key part of downtown redevelopment.

• Michael Taylor and his wife, Ilona, are opening Ocean Gold jewelry store in the former Frank Clark Jeweler building.

“There’s some momentum here, and the momentum is undeniable,” said Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, which supports downtown businesses. “There’s been a lot of good positive activity occurring in the vicinity of Northampton and Main.”

Newman has a soft spot for this part of the downtown because it largely dodged demolition, particularly after the 1972 flood.

“This section still has the pre-flood character of the older three- and four-story buildings, 20- to 25-feet wide,” Newman said. “Those are the buildings that have historic character.”

Private investment

Newman and Barrouk stressed the projects unfolding around the theater involve the private funding that was promised to result from past government investment toward the theater project.

Dye said he wouldn’t put $1.5 million on the line for his project if he did not see an upswing. The sale of all 21 condominiums above the theater project was a driving factor in his investment.

“We are excited about what is going on in downtown Wilkes-Barre,” he said.

The Hampton building, which had been vacant about a decade, will have a mix of retail, office and residential space. The Ibop Coffee Company is set to open a coffee shop in the building in a week or two. An ophthalmologist also is locating there in the near future, and a beauty and wellness spa is opening this summer, he said.

The building’s 3,700-square-feet of office space will feature a hub allowing small businesses and entrepreneurs to rent individual suites with a shared receptionist to reduce overhead. A basement fitness center for building workers and tenants also is in the works.

The condominiums on the second and third floors will range from 850- to 1,800 square feet and be sold for $130,000 to $220,000, he said. The units have spa-like bathrooms.

“We’re really trying to create a high-end urban lifestyle at an affordable price,” he said.

Luzerne County Councilman Rick Williams, an architect and one of the owners of the corner building next to the former tattoo parlor, said he’s “optimistic” the neighborhood is in a revival. “We’re thrilled these events are happening,” he said. “Like changes to county government, changes to the urban fabric come in incremental little steps.”

Pat Reilly, who operates Downtown Dojo Karate in Williams’ building, which is owned by FCD Realty, said the tattoo parlor next door has been vacant since he opened his karate studio about four years ago.

“I’m excited to hear that it sold. I’d love to see some foot traffic next door,” Reilly said.

Reilly hopes the owners of several empty storefronts in his row and nearby recognize the potential to attract college students, workers and theater goers and choose to invest in building improvements and marketing tenants.

Michael Miscavage, the longtime owner of Top of the Slopes ski shop a few storefronts down from the karate place, said he’s encouraged by activity. He and his family own three buildings in the row, including the vacant five-story Allegheny Building.

Miscavage said he was told the Allegheny was the “fanciest hotel in town” when it opened in 1912. He and his father operated a rooming house there. He recently updated the electrical service and has been making other improvements, though he hasn’t actively sought tenants.

“The downtown was great, then it went downhill. It seems to be getting better with more money being pumped into the area,” he said.

Owner’s viewpoint

Michaelene Coffee, who owns the Place One women’s clothing store, celebrates the Taylors’ plans for the former Frank Clark Jewelers next door and other activity around her but said the attached city-owned properties on the other side of her property are a concern.

Coffee said she wants to invest thousands of dollars in a new awning with lighting for Place One, but not until the deteriorating roof of the Norton’s building is repaired. Shingles from the roof have been blowing off and ripping her awning. She said a bowling ball attached to the city-owned property by a prior owner for decorative purposes also dislodged and landed on the sidewalk in front of her store.

Coffee opened her business in 1991 and doesn’t want to be anywhere else. She’s crossing her fingers a developer won’t be put off by the repairs required to renovate the adjoining properties. “It makes me sick having to look at my awning because I take great pride in my store, but I’m not going to invest that kind of money in a new one until the problems next door are addressed,” Coffee said.

Barrouk said the proposals will determine if developers are interested in the city-owned properties in a “prime location” near the theater.

Real estate developer Joe Amato recently purchased the University Corners complex University Corners complex containing R/C Movies 14 and said he is attracting tenants for unoccupied storefront space, including Judd Shoval’s business, Ambit and Shoval. The loft-style condominiums above the complex are owned by a separate company.

The city will look for mixed-use commercial and residential proposals for its properties at 69, 71 and 75 S. Main St., Barrouk said.

The upper-level facades of the buildings in that cluster and the stretch containing the former tattoo parlor are “magnificent,” Barrouk said.

“We want to keep the historical look of the rest of the block and match what’s been done at the movie theater site,” Barrouk said. “There’s a need and demand for more residential housing within the downtown, and that goes with the city’s philosophy of live, work and play in downtown Wilkes-Barre.”