WILKES-BARRE — With fewer properties to develop and sell, the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber is taking a different approach to job creation and business development.
Chamber officials Wico van Genderen and Joseph Boylan discussed the new strategy Monday with the Times Leader Opinion Board, saying it will no longer rely on real estate as the economic driver and instead provide the tools and resources for businesses to grow.
“When we start to refocus, it’s how can we be what we need to be — an advocate for the business without being that real estate arm,” said Boylan, vice president, economic development.
He and van Genderen, president and CEO, looked no further than the “Wilkes-Barre Connect” program, a collaboration between the Chamber and a variety of business services and providers that launched last week in the basement of the Innovation Center.
“It aligns all the business providers the services and facilities (that) start-ups and existing businesses need to grow in Northeastern Pennsylvania. That’s something that we knew we couldn’t do on our own,” Boylan said.
“We’re essentially the clearing house,” van Genderen said of the free services.
It was also part of the house cleaning of Chamber properties to pay down an estimated $7 million in six outstanding loans to Luzerne County’s Office of Community Development.
The Chamber wants to sell the building just off Public Square in downtown Wilkes-Barre to a private developer, Red Talon Group 1 LLC, for the Innovation Squared project. It’s anchored by Pepperjam, formerly known as eBay Enterprise, an Internet marketing company that started in the city and created up to 120 full-time positions, paying an average $60,000 annually.
The county council earlier this month refused to forgive the complete $1.7 million in loans the Chamber used to create the Innovation Center in 2004, a move that still resonated with van Genderen and Boylan. They said it created more than 141 jobs, the limit attached to the loan, and generated an estimated $36 million in tax revenue over the past 12 year and should be viewed as a grant.
But they plan to go ahead with the sale of the property for $2.6 million and have other land to sell to pay back county debt, none of it which goes back to the general fund and instead to the Office of Community Development revolving loan fund.
The former Poseidon Pool property in the Crestwood Industrial Park in Mountain Top is getting attention and, if sold, the proceeds will pay off an approximate $890,000 loan from the county, Boylan said.
The other major deal involves approximately 100 acres in Hanover Crossings. The Chamber sold 42 acres to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for the construction of the South Valley Parkway. The $561,000 from the sale is in escrow and will be paid to the county, van Genderen said.
The remaining 60 acres carries an approximate $2 million loan debt, Boylan said. Of that total, approximately 20 acres is difficult to develop, he added. But the other 40 acres should increase in value due to its location “sitting on a brand new highway” to completed by 2020, he said.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.