WILKES-BARRE — When the state told the city to retool plans to improve its housing stock, it did so to the delight of homeowners.
It cut in half its $500,000 request for a share of the gambling revenues casinos contribute to the state and narrowed its focus to certain streets rather than the entire city.
The targeted areas were the main gateways in and out of the city, said Drew McLaughlin, Wilkes-Barre’s administrative coordinator.
“It’s a lot of people’s first impressions of the city,” he said.
At the end of last year, 38 properties received new siding, windows and exterior makeovers through the Gateway Façade Improvement Grant Program.
The city provided $147,609 in direct grants to property owners who leveraged those funds with more than $300,000 in private investments, McLaughlin said.
He and Greg Barrouk, the city’s Office of Economic Development director, devised the program that matches up to $5,000 in private investment from city residents who own property in the targeted areas. The work had to be done by contractors licensed in the city.
It answered the question, “How can we improve that housing stock and give a better appearance to that first impression,” McLaughlin said.
“We were thinking of ways to improve the housing stock, especially in such a down economy and we thought no better way than to incentivize the homeowners to do so,” Barrouk said.
Grants were also awarded to additional homeowners who were unable to have the work done last year. It should be started this spring when the weather breaks. That left between $25,000 and $35,000 in uncommitted funds available from the original $225,000 award.
Gina Marsicano and her mother Angela participated in the program and had work done on their houses next door to one another on Blackman Street.
“We just decided it would be silly not to take advantage of it,” said Gina Marsicano who co-owns her house with Mike Baloh.
They had new stonework, front window, front door, porch rail, porch roof installed and her aluminum siding painted.
“There’s a significant difference,” Marsicano said.
Her mother had new windows installed, shutters, a concrete foundation and porch steps put in.
They declined to provide the cost of the improvements.
“It’s a good feeling when you drive through a town and the homes and properties are kept up and clean,” Marsicano said.
“It doesn’t cost a lot of money to take pride in your home and neighborhood. It’s easy to rake up garbage and debris and cut the grass and trim the weeds.”
Mariscano complimented Barrouk for his assistance.
City Hall helpful
“Any time we had questions he was so helpful,” she said.
She also had good things to say about her contractor John Unvarsky.
“It was definitely worth it. We’re so happy with the grant and contractor,” she said.
Based on the success of the program the city applied for another $225,000 to be used in Phase 2 for properties on “secondary main streets,” McLaughlin said.
“We’re hoping that this program can develop every year. We’ll just target different streets, different areas,” he said.
Among the areas in the next phase are Horton Street, Old River Road, George Avenue, Academy Street, Park Avenue, Parrish Street, South and North Sherman streets, Kidder and Spring streets, Pennsylvania Avenue and Courtright.
“We haven’t had a complaint yet on the program,” Barrouk. “Everybody’s gracious that received it. They’re happy with the work that was done. There were some contractors that were even doing their own advertising using this gateway grant.”
Barrouk said they hoped to create a “domino effect” among property owners. Neighbors seeing their neighbors fixing up their houses would be motivated to do the same.
More grants available
The Commonwealth Financing Authority included the program in the more than $12.5 million in grants awarded in late March. The funding is enough for a minimum of 60 properties.
McLaughlin said it was entered into a competition set up by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The Mayors Challenge sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies awards cities that develop innovative ideas to solve major challenges and awards a total of $9 million to winners.
Wilkes-Barre didn’t win, but the program attracted the interest of West Pittston officials who contacted the city for information.