WILKES-BARRE - The improvements to Coal Street not only straightened out and widened the roadway, it also smoothed the way for further development in the city.
The more-than-$20-million-construction project was completed last fall and had been in the works for years.
If the city has its way and the funding is arranged, the road would extend farther to intersect with North Pennsylvania Avenue at East Union Street. But in the meantime, the project is paying off, said Attilio “Butch” Frati, director of operations for Wilkes-Barre.
“Since it’s been completed we’ve had a lot of interest from developers in certain areas and some existing developers that decided to spend some money upgrading their facilities and expanding their facilities,” he said during an interview at City Hall.
Frati kept mum about specifics and teased with a comment more is yet to come.
“You’ll see something very shortly in the next few months,” he said.
Developers want to protect their interest and concept, keeping details confidential with city officials and others.
That’s not the case with Frati and others at City Hall who gushed about the improvements.
It widened the nearly mile-long stretch of roadway to five lanes from three, provided on-street parking, installed new curbing, sidewalks, streetlights and traffic lights, expanded the stormwater retention basin and included new storm and sanitary sewer lines.
The project earned Pennoni Associates Inc. the Diamond Award certificate in the transportation category from the American Council of Engineering Cos. Pennsylvania chapter.
Mayor Tom Leighton said the new Coal Street was “a crowning achievement for the city of Wilkes-Barre and the design team” from Pennoni.
“It will significantly improve access to the city for years to come and will spur economic growth and opportunity,” Leighton said.
The project dates back to his predecessor Mayor Tom McGroarty who held public meetings on it.
Frati became familiar with it when he joined Leighton’s administration in 2004. At that time the funding package was available but the project was on the back burner. It took almost two months to get the file on it in order. The directors from the city administrator “was to get this project back on track,” he said.
“The concept of the expansion was to open up a main thoroughfare to the downtown in Wilkes-Barre,” he explained.The neighborhoods also were to get easier access to Coal Street.
A combination of federal, state and local funds covered the project’s cost and it was given Tax Incremental Financing program status by Luzerne County, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and Wilkes-Barre Township. The TIF program directs tax revenue from those entities toward infrastructure improvements.
“There’s an economic impact to this and that’s one of the reasons it was funded in this fashion,” Frati said.
Existing businesses such as Odyssey Fitness, the Arena Bar & Grill, the Frog Pond have benefited, added Drew McLaughlin. The Coal Street complex that’s the training facility for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins hockey team and Guardian Warranty shared in the improvements.
Once people travel the new roadway they’re impressed, Frati said. “People come in here for meetings and they’re amazed at how nice it is,” he said.
It could be nicer if Phase 2 comes to fruition. The holdup, as usual is funding, said Frati. It was included early on but former Gov. Ed Rendell put a hold on extension projects back in 2006 and 2007 and ordered that the money be spent on bridge repairs.
There is a preliminary design nearly complete and would qualify for final design, Frati said.
“It’s not a big ticket item. It’s expensive, but it’s not something that’s going to take a lot of effort,” he said. The big challenge would be lowering a railroad track and making a crossing there.
The extension would provide a direct link to the River Common park along the Susquehanna River and King’s College that’s along the way, McLaughlin said.
Coal Street is a big first step that the city can build upon, he said.
“It’s a good foundation piece for not only infrastructure upgrades in other parts of the city, but also it enhances some of the property values,” McLaughlin said.
He used the nearby Morgan B. Williams Park on Scott Street as an example. The city has put up the property up for sale and “having that roadway just up the block certainly I think it increases it’s potential” to a commercial developer,” McLaughlin said.