WILKES-BARRE — When Amazon announced last year that it was actively seeking a site for its new HQ2, every economic development guru went crazy trying to find the right way to convince Jeff Bezos to choose them
In case you forgot, here is what having HQ2 in your neighborhood would mean:
• Amazon HQ2 will be Amazon’s second headquarters in North America, with an expected $5 billion investment in construction and as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs. Additionally, HQ2 is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership in Wilkes-Barre, said Amazon’s “HQ2” proposal made it apparent that the company’s preference is for an urban or downtown site, planned in a fashion similar to their Seattle campus, making it simple for workers to commute on foot, on bike or by transit.
“Long before Amazon ever issued its HQ2 request for proposals, our downtown plan embodied the principles outlined in their RFP,” Newman said. “Our downtown plan is a conscious effort to create a walkable, live/work, mixed-use downtown core with a critical mass of activity.”
Newman said it all started about a decade ago, with the theater project and the Innovation Center, and continuing with developments such as the colleges’ various downtown projects, the restaurants, the multiple residential conversions, the River Common, and GUARD.
“We’ve deliberately encouraged investments that foster vitality at street level and act to knit the downtown back together again, so that people have more reasons to walk around downtown, as well as a better environment in which to walk,” Newman said.
The long-term goal, Newman said, is to position downtown as a place where you need only park once before walking to a variety of destinations. Alternatively, he said, the goal is it to be a place where you don’t have to drive at all — and, in fact, downtown already has higher numbers of people commuting on foot, by bike and via transit than does the community as a whole.
“To be sure, we still have a long way to go,” Newman said.
It’s also worth noting that there’s a website called WalkScore.com, which ranks the walkability of almost every address in the U.S. from 1 to 100. According to WalkScore.com, downtown Wilkes-Barre currently has a “Walk Score” of 92, which puts it in the “Walkers Paradise” category reserved for neighborhoods where daily errands do not require a car.
“In comparison, the city as a whole has a Walk Score of 61, so, we’re headed in the right direction,” Newman said.
Newman said the HQ2 proposal repeatedly stressed Amazon’s desire for a walkable, connected, mixed-use campus in a setting that would attract the necessary technical talent. Respondents were directed to outline the availability and diversity of the housing options adjoining the proposed sites, and to identify all transit options — specifically pedestrian access and bike lanes.
And, Newman said, the proposal repeatedly asked respondent communities to outline all “connectivity options: sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train, and additional creative options to foster connectivity between buildings/facilities.”
So despite not being among the final 20 possible sites for HQ2, Wilkes-Barre has a solid plan in place to progressively improve the downtown and beyond.
As Amazon seeks a vibrant, walkable live-work environment, a much smaller version has been unfolding right here in Luzerne County.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.