Last updated: March 16. 2013 11:41PM - 565 Views

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WILKES-BARRE – Real estate developer Joe Amato wants to offer downtown residents and workers another convenience of urban life: a grocery store to which they can walk.

Amato, whose company is finalizing its purchase of the University Corners complex containing R/C Movies 14 at the corner of South Main and Northampton streets, said he believes an up-market grocery store and deli would be the perfect tenant for the unoccupied storefront space on the South Washington Street side of the property.

I think the grocery store would be a natural for people that work here, people that live here and people that go to school here, he said.

A grocery store would also help bring more of the estimated 600,000 people who patronize R/C Movies 14 annually outside the theater doors to shop, Amato said.

He noted there is ample parking at the intermodal center behind the building and in the lot across Northampton Street.

Amato said Tuesday he was in the final stages of acquiring the theater complex and first-floor retail space at the property through his company, TLC One Holdings LLC, for about $5 million. A notice of deed transfer indicating the sale price had not been filed with Luzerne County on Tuesday.

In addition to R/C Movies 14, the building houses Januzzi's Pizza, Refer Local, Letts Eat Flavors of India, Akeno Sushi and Volunteers of America. There are four vacant storefronts, the largest of which contains about 7,400 square feet of first-floor space and a 2,000-square-foot mezzanine area.

$31 million invested

The storefronts that were never occupied qualify for Keystone Opportunity Zone and Keystone Improvement Zone tax credits for an additional seven years, said Amato Properties property manager Liana Fisher.

The property was developed for $31 million by Carlsberg Management Co. along with the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry, which held a 25 percent stake.

Carlsberg management principal William Geary, of Los Angeles, has since filed for bankruptcy in California and is being sued in California and Florida over allegations of fraud and failure to meet fiscal obligations in other real estate development ventures.

A subsidiary company, University Corners LLC, is also involved in a suit in U.S. District Court, Scranton, with R/C Theaters Corp. over the amount of taxes the theater owes to the city, Luzerne County and the Wilkes-Barre Area School District.

Fisher said the dispute was not settled in the purchase agreement and nothing changed between last week and this week on that front.

The $8.4 million note on the University Corners property was acquired by a consortium of 10 local banks led by Citizens, which took ownership of and put up for sale the note on the property.

Loft condos not in deal

The loft-style condominiums upstairs above the theater are owned by a separate company, Susquehanna Real Estate, and were not part of the sale.

Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber executive Bill Moore also said the complex was absolutely a worthwhile investment for the chamber, even if it ultimately lost money on the project. He noted the hundreds of thousands of visitors the theater attracts annually and the roughly $250,000 in annual tax revenue the building now brings to Wilkes-Barre.

Moore applauded Amato's grocery store plan, saying it can only enhance downtown revitalization, and said he is happy the buyer was Amato, a local developer.

If it were an out-of-state developer with no real loyalty to the area, you never know what's going to happen, Moore said. But given Mr. Amato's track record, I see nothing but positives with the whole deal.

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton also liked the idea.

At a time when more people are living and working downtown, a grocery store and deli will be a welcome addition that will cement downtown Wilkes-Barre as an attractive location not only to work but to live, Leighton said.

Amato, a former drag-racing driver champion, owns several retail developments including The Gateway Shopping Center in Edwardsville and The West End Plaza in Brodheadsville. He also recently purchased and is redeveloping the former Dominic's on the Lake restaurant in Harveys Lake with Brews Brothers owners Mike and Andy Partash.

Downtown bidding war

Amato said he outbid a real estate investment trust from Texas for the complex, which he has rebranded City Centre by Amato Properties, and said he believes the complex is better off in a local developer's hands. In addition to the national economic downturn that began in 2007, he attributed Carlsberg's failure to gain full occupancy of the building in part on the company's location.

People are calling the number and they're talking to a guy in California about renting a place in Wilkes-Barre, Amato said. Now they call us and we're right over in Kingston, so we can come over and see them.

Amato said he has seen interest in the property since he put up advertising signs.

A store selling frozen yogurt by the pound will be opening in the spring, he said, and he has received inquiries about a hot pretzel franchise and a specialty food store startup.

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