WILKES-BARRE — Standing in the foyer of the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City partnership, told members of the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association that in the early 1980s, the building nearly became a parking lot.
“But thanks to the vision of people like Gus Genetti and Al Boscov, the building was saved, restored into this beautiful center that differentiates our downtown,” Newman said. “Think of what this center has become. Think of what the Kirby Center has returned to this community.”
Anne Rodella, artistic director at the Kirby Center, welcome about 30 members of the downtown group and she talked about all of the holiday events coming up over the next three weeks. Rodella said a few of the partnerships helping to make the Kirby Center’s holiday schedule robust include Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic with Hourigan Kluger Quinn law firm and the Dance Theatre of Wilkes-Barre’s Gina Malsky.
John Maday, president of the downtown association, waxed nostalgic about the Kirby Center building, recalling his youth when he attended movies shown in what was then the Paramount Theater.
“This is hallowed ground,” Maday said of the Kirby Center.
In August 1938, the Comerford Movie Theater opened its doors to the public — later becoming the Paramount Theater, That was the beginning of a rich and colorful history for the building that is now called the F. M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts.
Following the Agnes Flood of 1972, a group of local residents banded together under the acronym S.T.O.P. — Save The Old Paramount — and they were successful in having the building added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, but the building was basically abandoned until 1985.
That’s when Albert Boscov, owner of one of the nation’s largest, privately owned department store chains, got involved and became co-chairman of the committee to purchase and restore the Kirby Center building.
In 1985, Boscov, along with August L. Simms, and with the invaluable assistance of Fred M. Kirby II and the Kirby Foundation, a team was assembled including local business and civic leaders, to put together a drive to raise the necessary $3.3 million for the acquisition and restoration of the theater.
Announced as the Paramount Civic Center on Dec. 21, 1985, the project was launched, designed, and completed in just under nine months. It was renamed the F. M. Kirby Center in honor of Fred M. Kirby I, the co-founder of the Woolworth’s chain and a native of the Wilkes-Barre area.
Doors to the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts opened on Friday, Sept. 19, 1986. In the 33-plus years since, the Kirby Center has hosted countless acts, shows, and events to earn it a top 100 ranking of venues in the U.S.
Newman went on to say how the recent holiday events in the downtown were successful and provided thousands of people to visit. He highlighted the recent Christmas parade, the city’s Old Fashioned Holiday Market and Small Business Saturday as a few of the successful and well-attended events.
Newman cited recent business openings — Eden A Vegan Cafe on South Main Street; AmberDonia Bakery, South Washington and East Northampton streets, and the Down Pour in the former Bart & Urby’s building on South Main Street — and plans of D&D Realty to create larger housing units and office space on the third floor level of the former PNC Bank building— now called Riverview West — at West Market and Franklin streets.
“The market demand is there,” Newman said.
Newman also discussed the recent revelation that Wilkes University and King’s college are considering returning their bookstores to their respective campuses in 2021, a move that would likely end joint operation at the Barnes & Noble College store on South Main Street.
George Albert, owner of the building, said the leases for both colleges expire in 2021 and they have expressed interest in moving their bookstores back to their campuses. Albert has been trying to sell the building.
Newman said that whatever action the two colleges take, it will in no way reduce their commitment to the downtown, as evidenced by all of the development by both schools in recent years.
As far as what may become of the space, Albert said he has not had any discussions with the Barnes & Noble College store, or any other prospective tenants.
“I’m not aware of any plans for Barnes & Noble to move out,” Albert said earlier this week in a Times Leader story. “Nor have I had any inquiries from any businesses looking to locate in that space should it become available.”
Barnes & Noble-branded college bookstores, such as the South Main Street location, are part of a separate company than the brand’s retail stores, having spun off from the parent in 2015.
Gabrielle D’Amico, executive director of Communications & Graduate Marketing at Wilkes University, said their lease at the Barnes & Noble bookstore expires in August 2021. She said Wilkes is exploring all options that might be suitable for a possible relocation, including space on campus, but there are no firm plans at this time.
John McAndrew, King’s College director of Public Relations, said King’s is currently in a lease relating to its bookstore location on South Main Street. He said the college will consider all options for its future bookstore needs when and as appropriate.
The colleges have had their bookstores in the South Main Street location since October 2006.
Anne Rodella, artistic director at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, addresses the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Association Friday morning.