WILKES-BARRE TWP. — As the one-year anniversary of the devastating EF-2 tornado approaches, the real story has become the amazing manner in which the businesses have come back and new development has brightened the future for not just the township, but for the entire region.
No one was killed by the storm and officially only six injuries were reported when the twister roared through the commercial area around Mundy Street and the Arena Hub Plaza around 9 p.m. on June 13.
Had the storm struck earlier, when the plazas were filled with shoppers, that might have been a different story.
Nevertheless, the storm left tangible scars in its wake: Eight buildings were condemned and 14 were listed as unsafe, several were demolished and damage totals were estimated in the $18 million range.
While several of the damaged businesses were back in operation fairly quickly — some within days — others have remained in limbo, including those in the now-levelled strip-mall that housed Panera Bread.
As we look back at what happened during and in the aftermath of the tornado, we see how all the hard work and determination has paid off for the Arena Hub Plaza tenants and soon for the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons.
And we have seen how the devastation can impact those businesses that were forced to relocate to new sites to continue their successful operations.
At the same time, there have been steps toward significant new projects in other areas of the township that were unaffected by the storm.
A challenging year
Robert Tamburro, trustee and general partner of TFP Limited — owners of the Arena Hub Plaza — said it’s been a challenging year for him and his company.
“A lot of work had to be done in a very short amount of time,” Tamburro said. “We were constantly dealing with a lot off issues — architects, engineers, contractors, insurance companies, adjuster. We worked as a team and we got it all done.”
One of the most high-profile restoration projects was at Barnes & Noble, where the renovated store reopened in January.
Tamburro said a lot of people deserve a lot of credit for what was accomplished. He credited Belfor Property Restoration, a global company with an office in Allentown, for managing all aspects of the clean-up, the initial response, stabilization, safety.
“They rebuilt almost everything,” Tamburro said. “Rycon Construction of Pittsburgh also helped out with Dick’s Sporting Goods.”
Tamburro said the most important thing he learned was when these things happen, you have to remain calm.
“You have to stay loose and allow yourself to think it all through,” he said. “You can’t react too quickly, or you won’t get things done properly.”
Tamburro said sometimes things are beyond your control, so you have to break it down, think it through and problem-solve.
“When something like this happens, you have to remain calm,” Tamburro said. “If we didn’t get this done in a timely fashion, we might have lost it all. We had to stay focused.”
Tamburro said the Arena Hub Plaza generates a lot of tax revenue for the school district, the municipality, the county and it’s a place for jobs.
“There are a lot of stakeholders involved here,” he said.
Tamburro said Wilkes-Barre Township worked hand-in-hand with him during the entire rebuild.
And near the end of the entire comeback, Tamburro and his wife welcomed a new baby boy into the world in January.
“We owe it all to God,” he said. “No question about it, we owe everything to God.”
It’s been quite a year for Wilkes-Barre Township and its zoning & code enforcement officer, Thomas Zedolik.
“Yeah, it’s been a very busy year,” Zedolik said. “I certainly never dealt with anything like that before.”
Zedolik said there was so much to keep track of as businesses went about the task of remodeling and reconstructing as they worked to get to the point where they could secure permits to reopen their busy store.
“There were so many big projects going on at the same time,” Zedolik said. “So many inspections. And we were trying to work with all of them to get them reopened as soon as possible. I think we did a pretty good job — everything that wasn’t condemned is reopened and we’ve had a few new projects.”
One business that Zedolik said a lot of people are patiently waiting to reopen is Panera Bread, which was in the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons off of Mundy Street. That plaza was hit hard by the tornado — all the buildings were condemned and demolished. A new plan has been submitted and approved, but a few more approvals are needed, Zedolik said.
The township planning commission meets Monday night at 5:30 p.m. to consider approving of a sub-division of the property. Zedolik said Urban Edge Properties of New Jersey wants to build a free-standing building to house Panera Bread, including a drive-thru, on the land and also a strip of retail spaces.
“They want to get Panera Bread open as soon as they can,” Zedolik said. “A lot of people really miss Panera Bread.”
Zedolik said once the land development plan is approved, architectural drawings will be submitted and them a ground-breaking can be scheduled.
Over on Mundy Street, Zedolik said the foundation has been poured for the new Mission Barbecue restaurant being built by Robert Tamburro’s TFP Limited.
TFP also purchased the land that formerly occupied Ashley Furniture, but no plans have been submitted for that development.
As the businesses affected by the tornado worked to get reopened, Zedolik said the township did lose a considerable about of mercantile tax revenue. But he said the township has managed to retain several businesses that moved from the tornado-affected area, but remained in the township.
America’s Best reopens
America’s Best Eyeglass Store that was next to Panera Bread in the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons, reopened last Friday next to Walmart. And GameStop opened during winter in the Walmart Shopping Plaza.
The other businesses in the Commons — Tovon & Co., LA Nails, Sneaker King and Famous Footwear — were also displaced. Zedolik said he didn’t know what businesses will occupy the new 11,600 square foot space to be built by Urban Edge. Tovon has relocated to the Dallas Shopping Center.
“I’ve lived here all my life, but I never expected to see something like that,” Zedolik said of the tornado. “It’s been a real learning experience for sure — a lot to deal with for everybody.”
Other buildings in the Commons are Smokey Bones, Petco, The Dress Barn, Marshall’s, Bob’s Discount Furniture, Catherine’s and Target. They were largely spared damage and reopened days after the tornado.
Zedolik said the Latona Building located near Mundy Street has been demolished and a new building with two restaurants and office space above will be built. The Latona Building is owned by Tamburro, trustee and general partner of TFP Limited — owners of the Arena Hub Plaza.
Kurlancheek Home Furnishings has relocated to a new space on Welles Street in Forty Fort after the twister destroyed its Mundy Street store.
The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the grand reopening at 10 a.m. Thursday — one year to the day after the tornado hit.
“I am so thrilled to actually know that I will be going to the same place very day,” Ronne Kurlancheek said. “And it’s really pretty — a very nice store.”
Two weeks after the tornado, Kurlancheek opened a temporary space in Edwardsville Gateway Shopping Center.
Now Kurlancheek and her 12 employees are settling into the new 6,000-square-foot location, which will open to the public after the ribbon cutting.
Kurlancheek Home Furnishings is a family business in its 114th year of operation, she said. It was founded in Duryea by Jacob Kurlancheek as a mining supply store.
Other township projects
Zedolik said the re-purposing of the former Lucky’s Sporthouse across from Walmart is progressing as Chick-Fil-A gets ready to open a full-service restaurant. Zedolik said he didn’t know when the Chick-Fil-A will reopen.
Zedolik said drawings in for the new hotel to be built near the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza will also be considered at Monday’s planning commission meeting. A 110-room, four-story Residence Inn will be built on the site owned by Singh Realty. He said two other adjacent parcels are being sold separately by Singh Realty, Zedolik said.
Zedolik said the township’s planning commission also recently approved plans for a new Turkey Hill to be built at Blackman Street and Route 309.
Zedolik said several existing buildings on Route 309 and Blackman Street, which once housed a repair garage, a bar and other businesses — along with three private homes — were purchased by Turkey Hill’s new parent company, U.K.-based E.G. Group. He said everything will be demolished and a new Turkey Hill will be built, with a car wash.
In April, Cindy Rantanen, vice president of brands and public relations for E.G. America, said the company has the property under contract. She said five properties were purchased from four different owners and the site measures three acres.
Rantanen said the plan is to begin construction in spring 2020 and the new Turkey Hill will include a full convenience store, a fast food restaurant with a brand partner still to be named, a car wash and fuel stations.