Wico van Genderen: Region ‘sustaining a vibrant economic engine’

By Bill O’Boyle - [email protected]
Wico Van Genderen, president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader file photo
A look at the Wilkes University Karambelas Communications Center on South Main Street. The Sordoni Art Gallery is housed in the same building. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader file photo

WILKES-BARRE — While the city has seen a significant resurgence in recent years, the head of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Partnership says there has been a regional economic surge as well.

Wico van Genderen, president/CEO at the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, said the city is going through an economic resurgence, but the area is attracting national, regional, entrepreneurial and start-up businesses.

“We are retaining and growing our small, mid-sized and large business base,” van Genderen said. “We are surgically building-out our downtown, growing our industrial parks and expanding our traditional legacy businesses throughout the region and in doing so, we are transforming the valley, diversifying the base and sustaining a vibrant economic engine.”

Now in the third year of the Chamber’s strategic plan, van Genderen said it’s all about execution, execution, execution.

“With a coalition of our ABCs — academic, business and community leaders — we have very strong value propositions to leverage,” he said. “We have made key strategic investments to build upon and broadening it out on the academic front, the business front and the quality of the community.”

Academic front

Van Genderen said the region’s colleges and universities are working together with business and community leaders to transform the Wyoming Valley from a town of individual colleges to a collegiate region focused on STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) and Business.

• Luzerne County Community College continues to expand and drive the workforce feeder system for the higher ed and specialty trades and LCCC’s expansion throughout NEPA localizes that mentality.

• Wilkes University is gaining momentum as an internationally recognized STEM Research Center of Excellence through their investments in their Sciences, Engineering, Pharmacy and Business School as well as in the Arts.

• King’s College has invested in STEM and is nationally known for their finance, accounting, business and health sciences programs exemplified with King’s on the Square, their upcoming engineering school on North Franklin Street and their Allied Health and Health management expansion on North Main Street.

Van Genderen said while Wilkes is wrapping up its new home for engineering, King’s has initiated its own civil and mechanical engineering program bringing life back into a long vacant North Franklin Street downtown building.

“All three colleges in the downtown are making our center city an innovation district, creating a Petri dish for start-ups and entrepreneurs and a nascent business model that makes up a full third of the technology jobs in our NEPA region,” van Genderen said. “And it is paying dividends with some of the largest student enrollments at all of our higher eds.”

Berkshire Hathaway GUARD

Van Genderen said Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance’s recent announcement to locate its headquarters on Public Square and expand its business in the downtown has created hundreds of new family-sustaining, living wage jobs.

And, van Genderen said, the announcement comes on the heels of Warren Buffet’s prediction that GUARD will quadruple their business in five years.

“Already GUARD represents a $29 million annual economic impact in the city with more than 500 jobs in the downtown,” van Genderen said. “Add Highmark’s growth with their United Concordia Dental Care and Commonwealth’s and Geisinger’s multi-million dollar investments in the city and you create a transformational health, tech and services sector that creates a strong economic base along with the colleges for the area.”

These business sectors contribute to make Wilkes-Barre northeast Pennsylvania’s largest single concentrated employment center with more than 13,000 people working in the city each and every day, van Genderen said.

Arts and entertainment

And, van Genderen said, the region is seeing growth not just in STEM jobs, but also in the transition of the downtown as a magnet of the arts and entertainment.

The FM Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, with its nationally-ranked programming, generates close to $10 million of economic impact to the city. In parallel, the second block of South Main Street is being transformed by Wilkes University into an arts district anchored by the relocation of the Wilkes Sordoni Art Gallery, the Karambelas Communication Center and the Sidhu School of Business.

“The arts, the innovation and the renaissance vibe are creating a desire to once again live downtown creating an influx of housing development in the city,” van Genderen said. “Our western riverfront gateway into the city has seen the Citizens, Wyoming Valley and PNC bank buildings transformed into apartments and restaurants. The recent announcement to build upon the old Hotel Sterling site and turn it into a multi-use condo/business conference/retail center adds to that transformation.”

Success breeds success

Van Genderen said the coalition, collaboration and partnerships between academia, business and community are transformative.

“Through those partnerships, we have built-out a great economic development ecosystem called Wilkes-Barre Connect,” van Genderen said. “We are now executing full throttle on five specific initiatives within Wilkes-Barre Connect — Pitch, Spotlight, 101, Intern and Honor.”

Pitch — is the Chamber’s version of Shark Tank, linking entrepreneurs with the investment community.

Spotlight — the Chamber’s version of TED Talks: a non-partisan, nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design.

101 — provides business basics videos and podcasts to get experts and mentors to coach young professionals and entrepreneurs on how to turn their ideas into operational businesses.

Intern — links college students to the businesses community to provide a bridge to keeping our best and brightest in the area.

Honor — channels the region’s large veteran population to bridge their great training in the military and leverage that into the entrepreneurial business community.

Van Genderen said Wilkes-Barre Connect provides the intact form to connect businesses into the economic ecosystem no matter where they are in the business life cycle to help maximize the diversity, the success and the sustainability of why the Wilkes-Barre region is good for business, good for growth and a solid investment into the future.

Wico Van Genderen, president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/web1_TTL042917BizClimate1.jpgWico Van Genderen, president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce. Sean McKeag | Times Leader file photo

A look at the Wilkes University Karambelas Communications Center on South Main Street. The Sordoni Art Gallery is housed in the same building.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/web1_tech-pic.jpgA look at the Wilkes University Karambelas Communications Center on South Main Street. The Sordoni Art Gallery is housed in the same building. Sean McKeag | Times Leader file photo

By Bill O’Boyle

[email protected]

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.