Michael Lombardo sometimes calls himself delusional.
The former mayor of Pittston has been a key component in the revitalization of the city’s downtown, and it didn’t happen by him always playing it safe.
Some of his so-called delusions are on their way to becoming reality, such as Pittston’s partnership with Luzerne County Community College to bring classes and programs downtown. He estimates the project will be completed in summer 2018.
But that “delusion” has been 20 years in the making.
The development of Main Street in Pittston — including new facades and sidewalks — is just one of the ways Luzerne County is experiencing growth in its business sector.
Experts acknowledge, though, that the county’s business climate is about more than attracting new companies and entrepreneurs to the area. All of the stars need to align in order to build and sustain a healthy and robust local economy.
While there is still work to be done, business leaders in Wilkes-Barre and Pittston — the county’s largest and fourth-largest cities, respectively — say the time is ripe for business gains in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Pittston’s Main Street is just one part of the Greater Pittston area that has begun to blossom after years of decline, according to Michelle Mikitish, executive vice president of the Greater Pittston Chamber of Commerce.
Even before that, there was a focus on industrial site development throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. The chamber saw the development of the Quackenbush and Grimes industrial parks in the late 1980s through the 1990s.
While commercial development is still a big part of growth in Greater Pittston — especially when one considers the number of national corporations with locations in the CenterPoint Commerce and Trade Park in Pittston Township — the chamber itself no longer is the facilitating entity when it comes to land development.
As new businesses increase in the area, Mikitish said it’s becoming more important to focus on offering resources for small businesses to succeed.
The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce also got into the real estate game, focusing on expanding the Hanover and Crestwood industrial parks while prepping three new sites in the 1990s.
Wico van Genderen, president and CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre group, said chambers in Northeastern Pennsylvania have done a good job of getting projects started and then moving aside to allow the private sector to take over. Nowadays, the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber is focused on providing programs and opportunities for businesses to flourish.
Another important aspect of ensuring that the area’s path to economic success is on track is the willingness of local chambers and other nonprofit resources to work together.
“You can’t be an isolationist anymore. Things don’t work that way,” said Lombardo, who was Pittston’s mayor from 1998 to 2006 and now is on two boards in the city — the Redevelopment Authority and the Housing Authority.
Van Genderen said in the past, different services available to businesses locally — such as PA CareerLink, the Small Business Development Center and the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development at Wilkes University — worked with those businesses separately.
Now the organizations are teaming to create a seamless process for employers to find everything they need in one place.
“We don’t say we have all the answers, but we are trying to bring a coalition of these services and play off their strengths,” Van Genderen said. “The chamber moves to being like a conductor in an orchestra.”
Local business leaders say Northeastern Pennsylvania is a perfect place for companies to set up shop. With its proximity to several of the country’s largest cities and easy access to major transportation veins such as Interstates 81, 80 and 84 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it seems like a no-brainer for companies to flock to the Wyoming Valley.
But the location has always been the same. So why have globally recognized businesses such as Amazon established a presence in the area?
Van Genderen said he believes companies are looking at what he calls the ABCs of surveying a potential business location: academic capital, business value propositions and community.
“If those all line up, you could really leverage that,” he said.
Academic capital refers to the ability of local educational facilities to be involved with the economic development of an area.
In Wilkes-Barre, King’s College and Wilkes University have expanded their footprints downtown and have had their largest incoming freshman classes this year, and businesses have taken notice.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, the steward of downtown revitalization in Wilkes-Barre, said the higher-education facilities are a key component to the city’s competitive advantage over other areas.
He said companies such as internet marketing agency Pepperjam have moved downtown to attract college students, and private investments made to create housing downtown also are part of that impact.
Business value propositions are reasons why a company should do business in the area, Van Genderen said, citing the transportation grid, the job market, and the work ethic of Wyoming Valley residents.
Mikitish agrees, especially because of the region’s strong association with the coal mining industry.
“Imagine how hard these men had to work to live and to raise their families,” she said. “So the work ethic that’s been instilled in the families in Northeastern Pennsylvania is, in many cases, second to none.”
Community is another important pillar for businesses to consider whether to set up shop here.
Lombardo said a major reason why he has worked so hard on rebuilding Pittston’s downtown is because he is from this area and firmly believes the people make it a great place to live.
Current Pittston Mayor Jason Klush, who took office in 2010, noted several projects that have contributed to the city’s revitalization during his tenure. Among them: the Geisinger CareWorks building on North Main Street, the apartment condos on Kennedy Boulevard, and the refurbishment of the Newrose and Napoli’s Pizza buildings on South Main Street.
When he looks at what’s been completed in his 7 1/2 years as mayor, Klush said it’s hard to think of one project he’s most proud of.
“We’ve brought the pride back to Pittston, and people want to be downtown,” he said. ” … There are people all over who talk about Pittston, and they use us as an example for other towns with what we’ve done and accomplished. You need a whole team to get things done, and you can’t say one project has done the job. It’s been all of the projects that have turned (Pittston) around.”
Mikitish said the revitalization of Main Street helped to re-energize the area, but an “incredible sense of community” has always been felt.
She also said the increased demand for shipped goods plays a part in why companies have settled here.
Mikitish cited tenants at CenterPoint as proof: Isuzu Commercial Trucking, Boden USA, FedEx, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Greiner Packaging, along with Amazon.
“So it’s exciting that in NEPA, certainly within the last 10 to 15 years, we’re not just attracting business, we’re attracting big business,” Mikitish said.
Other perks include business-friendly tax programs that help support the local economy.
Tenants at CenterPoint are subject to the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance act, an abatement program that allows local municipalities to give tax-exempt status to businesses that develop in deteriorated areas.
The Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ) program aims to help tech-based businesses flourish.
Companies located in a KIZ can apply for and receive tax credits if they’ve been in operation for less than eight years and fall under specified industry categories, such as information technology/new media, health care and others.
The Keystone Opportunity Zone is another program that allows state and local tax exemption for businesses that develop in undeveloped or underutilized areas to promote economic growth.
According to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, as of January 2015, the program had created nearly 10,000 jobs, and applicants had invested more than $1.5 billion in private capital in properties with the KOZ designation.
Change and challenges
In 2015, the Diamond City Partnership developed a five-year action plan for downtown Wilkes-Barre, which included five “big goals” to accomplish.
In 2017, much of that work has been finished or is in the process of being completed, such as rehabilitating the New Jersey Central train station and marketing the downtown as the “Innovation District.”
Newman’s explanation? Realistic expectations.
“There’s a reason why you choose those particular goals,” he said. “It’s because you think they are achievable. It’s because you know there’s already momentum. Rather than trying to be something we’re not, we’re trying to build off of and embrace the things that give us a competitive advantage as a downtown.”
Lombardo believes in the same strategy. The more goals that can be successfully completed, the more confidence that can be built. As confidence rises, more businesses and companies are willing to venture into the area.
He said improving and building on the city’s infrastructure, from fixing street lights to creating murals, also have an effect on the businesses’ and residents’ confidence.
“It’s all about image,” Lombardo said. “It’s about looking like it matters the way we look.”
Van Genderen said he believes the changes that have occurred in the past few years have helped swing the area into a positive momentum, but residents need to be open-minded about the future.
“I like the name Diamond City. It’s going to be a new, re-cut, re-polished Diamond City,” he said. “It will be different, but we need to embrace the change and prepare for it.”