WILKES-BARRE — Wilkes-Barre’s historic New Jersey Central Train Station gets another crack at preservation next week when hotelier Gus Genetti pitches his proposal to the Luzerne County Historical Society board of directors at its monthly meeting July 30.
Genetti is hoping the society will take on the project, which would be unlike any it has handled.
“Talk is cheap,” Genetti said as he stood outside the the visibly decaying building Friday. “This will probably cost more than $1 million. But I believe the community wants to see it saved.”
Genetti, a member of the society’s board of directors, is preparing a more detailed pitch of an idea he floated earlier this week in front of the current owners of the station, the Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority. He wants the society to accept ownership of the station and raise money for preservation and restoration.
Other historical projects
It would be the fifth historic building owned by the society if the board accepts the challenge. But accepting the deed is the easy part. Raising enough money for restoration — and assuring a steady stream of cash for maintenance — is the giant question mark, society Executive Director Tony Brooks said.
Brooks stressed he could not speculate on what the society would do if the transaction is approved by both its board and the one running the Redevelopment Authority. But he did explain how things work with the society’s other four buildings.
“The Swetland Homestead and Denison House were given to us,” said Brooks. “The museum was built for us through Isaac Osterhout’s will, and our library was paid for by a generous donation of the Bishops sisters.”
The Swetland Homestead, in Wyoming, is sustained by a “generous endowment” left by the philanthropic Darte Family, which donated the building to the society. The Denison House, in Forty Fort, is supported by “a wonderful group of volunteers” called the Denison Advocates. The rest of the society’s costs for other buildings are covered through membership fees, an annual appeal and corporate donations.
The society has no reserves handy for taking on the train station project, which doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to see it saved, Brooks said. “At the third annual countywide summit of community historical societies this past June, the train station made the top of the 10 most endangered historic sites list,” he said.
Technically, it tied for first place with the Irem Temple and the Huber Breaker, but the significance is not diminished. The heads of 15 different societies throughout Luzerne County agreed that the station in Wilkes-Barre needs action, and soon.
Genetti said he has some seed money lined up to get the ball rolling and believes donations and grants can be found, but that the Redevelopment Authority isn’t the right agency to attract that cash.
Genetti also believes the Luzerne County Convention and Visitors Bureau is almost a guaranteed anchor tenant; Genetti is also involved in the bureau. Bureau Director Merle Mackin said the agency would have to “see the final plans,” for such a move, but has been open to the idea for years.
The visitors bureau could be a tenant, but it couldn’t be a landlord, Mackin said. The bureau survives on about $480,000 provided through the hotel room tax created to fund the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza, getting about 20 percent of the total raised. Additional state money, which once topped $100,000 a year, has “dried up.”
“Our dollars can’t be spent for capital improvement,” Mackin said. “It’s strictly for marketing and promotion.”
The bureau pays about $12,000 a month for a spot on Public Square, which he noted “has its advantages” being centrally located near two hotels and at the hub of many city events, so it would be a reliable tenant in the station, but it couldn’t be the only one, Mackin said. The two-story station would easily handle additional tenants.
If the Historical Society Board decides not to get involved, said Genetti, he will work to “bring community leaders together” and form a separate nonprofit entity to try to take on the task.