City could benefit from schools buying buildings, some say

Last updated: March 06. 2014 11:15PM - 3447 Views
By - jlynott@civitasmedia.com

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WILKES-BARRE — Some property owners see the purchase of two downtown buildings by King’s College and Wilkes University as a positive, despite the loss of tax revenue.

The schools’ purchases move them closer to center city and have the potential to bring more people through the doors of stores, restaurants and business, they said.

King’s bought the former Ramada Hotel on Public Square in December as part of $16 million project to expand the school’s physician assistant program. On Wednesday, Wilkes announced a major renovation project that included the purchase of the former Bartikowsky Jewelers building on South Main Street for $1.2 million.

The ideal situation would be for the properties to remain on the tax rolls and be occupied, said Jeff Pyros, who owns the Luzerne Bank building on Public Square.

“I’d rather see the buildings full than empty,” Pyros said Thursday, adding that the schools maintain their properties.

The hotel was still operating at the time King’s bought it. Bartikowsky’s had been closed since early 2013.

Tax implications

The city Thursday was unable to provide the tax information on the properties.

The city has a separate assessment from Luzerne County and the Wilkes-Barre Area School district, the other taxing bodies in the city.

The Ramada was assessed at $2.25 million by Luzerne County and the school district. At the county millage rate of 5.7456 mills, the Ramada was taxed at $12,927 annually. The school district has a higher millage rate of 15.522 mills, so the property was taxed at $34,924. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.

The Bartikowsky property was assessed at $492,500. The county taxes were $2,829 and the school district’s were $7,644.

The schools make annual payments in lieu of taxes that are line items in the city’s annual general fund budget.

King’s increased its PILOT payment to $72,500 from $61,050 after the Ramada purchase. Wilkes was budgeted for a $63,916 PILOT this year.

Wilkes spokeswoman Vicki Mayk said Mayor Tom Leighton and school President Patrick F. Leahy agreed to meet this spring and discuss the school’s PILOT. The school will continue to make its voluntary contribution to the city and an increase would not be tied to any particular acquisition, she said.

The Wilkes project has been placed on the agenda for the March 19 meeting of the city’s Zoning Hearing Board.

Genetti weighs in

Hotelier Gus Genetti supported the purchases and wondered what the city would look like without King’s or Wilkes.

“We should be grateful for our two institutions of higher learning,” Genetti said.

Joe Amato, owner of the retail and entertainment components of the downtown theater complex looked favorably on the schools’ acquisitions. There’ s likely to be some short-term pain as a result, but it could spur future development, he said.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” Amato said.

From his building, Pyros said he has a view of the hotel and the work being done. His residential and commercial tenants share that view, and the King’s project, once it’s completed, could be a selling point.

“I’d rather look out across the square and see something nice,” Pyros said.

The schools already have a big presence in the downtown and more can be done to capitalize on it to really make it a college town. He suggested reaching out to students and graduates to fill empty offices and buildings for start-up businesses, creating more affordable housing and marketing to students because of their spending power.

“I feel that we should be working closer with the two schools,” Pyros said.

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