WILKES-BARRE — Mayor Tom Leighton took center stage outside of the entrance to the F.M. Kirby Center on Monday and said he was there to mark another day of progress in the city.
Leighton announced the start of the $1 million Streetscape Enhancement Project’s Phase 5 — calling it “another down payment on the ultimate goal of remodeling the entire Public Square.” Construction was slated to begin Monday evening, Leighton said. The project should be completed in October.
Phase V will reconstruct the sidewalks from Rodano’s past the Kirby Center and continue along the outside of Public Square between the Geisinger building and the bank offices on the corner of North Main Street. West Market Street between the Square and South Washington Street will also be reconstructed on both sides. Trees will be planted and benches installed as well under this phase.
“This section of the square is one of the most heavily trafficked areas and also greatly in need of repairs,” Leighton said. “We are steadily creating a uniform and modern look to our downtown business district that is home to 15,000 daily workers. It will be an inviting destination to businesses, workers, shoppers, and people seeking recreation.”
The construction will continue the already completed $10 million in Streetscape improvements that includes decorative lighting, sidewalk improvements, installed benches and bike racks, and planted trees among other curb appeal items.
The project is funded through $600,000 from the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and $400,000 from the Federal Highway Administration administered by Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
“In 2004, the downtown business district was dark, storefronts vacant, and there were many sections of sidewalk where a pedestrian risked injury,” Leighton said. “We have a remarkably different downtown landscape today where restaurants and businesses are thriving, the district is well lit and clean, and slowly but surely, a modern 18-hour central business hub is taking root.”
Butch Frati, the city’s director of operations, said the goal is to have a uniform look to Public Square. He said funding has not yet been secured to complete the final leg from North Main Street to West Market Street. Leighton said the city is also seeking funding to renovate the center portion of Public Square.
Joining Leighton for the announcement were Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership; Bill Moore, president/CEO of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Partnership, and Marilyn Santarelli, executive director of the F.M. Kirby Center.
“This is a tremendous announcement to enhance the downtown,” Moore said.
Newman said the project was long anticipated to continue the improvements around Public Square.
“The project is being done in increments,” Newman said. “But the wait is well worth it.”
A couple of doors down from the Kirby Center, the city-owned former First National Bank Building sits vacant at 59-63 Public Square. Long known for a tree growing on its roof, the building has not caught the eye of a developer, despite the city receiving about $1.4 million in gaming funds to stabilize it and get it ready for a possible project.
The mayor has also said there has been “a lot of interest” in the building. The building has been vacant for nearly 40 years.
James Burke and architect Don Sanderson had proposed to establish an Anthracite Miners Museum in the former bank building, but withdrew their interest two years ago.