Former Luzerne County controller Walter Griffith was driving by the former New Jersey Central train station in downtown Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday and noticed an entrance door had been pried open.
“The concern I have is there’s a historical building left to its own devices, much like the Hotel Sterling,” Griffith said, referring to another landmark city property demolished in July after a failed, government-funded attempt to preserve and market that structure.
Plans to renovate the train station, located off Market Street and owned by the county Redevelopment Authority, were halted last year when county Manager Robert Lawton canceled an additional $2 million community development allocation to the cash-strapped authority because the project won’t create jobs.
Authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly said an authority maintenance worker checks the train station along with other authority rail property most days. He asked the worker to examine the door and shore up the entrance when he learned about the break-in Wednesday.
“He tries to secure the property as best as he can, but when you have a vacant building, if someone really wants to find a way to get in they will,” Reilly said. “Police can’t be everywhere.”
Reilly said he suspects cold weather prompted the homeless to enter the building for shelter, though the maintenance worker was examining the interior for evidence of theft.
The building’s stained-glass windows and other historic fixtures were moved to a secure location years ago after an attempted theft, though the building still contains original paneling and molding. Thieves stole sections of copper roofing material earlier this year.
Sleeping bags and other evidence of squatters have been found in the building in the past.
The authority does not have funds to mothball the structure until preservation, he said.
Proposals seeking developers interested in purchasing and restoring the property should be publicly posted by the end of the month, Reilly said. The proposal will appear on websites targeting historic preservationists and economic developers, he said.
Developers will have until April 1 to submit proposals, he said.
Authority members want to see if any private developers are interested before entertaining a request to donate the 6.24-acre train station property, which includes a strip mall and parking lot, to the county Historical Society.
The Historical Society voted to request ownership in July to ensure the deteriorating property will be preserved. Payment wasn’t offered because society members estimate they must raise around $2 million to demolish deteriorating additions constructed in 1975 and restore the 145-year-old station, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
An outside appraiser recently estimated the property is worth $1.88 million — less than a third of the 2006 county purchase price of $5.8 million funded by federal community development money.