Sunday, July 13, 2014

OUR OPINION: RAMADA SALE King’s purchase could pay off for downtown

October 30. 2013 11:50PM

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King’s College soon might expand its ever-widening campus footprint with the acquisition of the Ramada hotel in Wilkes-Barre, providing a welcome shot in the arm for the city’s central district.

Blueprints call for a $14 million conversion of the stale lodging facility into an academic center, presumably mixed with other uses. If all goes as planned, the sale will be completed in December, with initial phases of the reconstruction to be finished in mid-2014.

The new classrooms will cater to students in an emerging exercise science program, plus in-demand fields such as athletic trainer and physician assistant.

Beyond signaling that this city-based educational institution is in good health — which should be seen as a positive for the entire area’s future growth and development — the pending sale bodes well for Public Square’s ambiance. Lately, there’s been plenty of legitimate concern expressed by downtown visitors about public safety.

Increased foot traffic from students, faculty members and visitors to the building can begin to discourage loiterers as well as people with criminal intent. The college’s campus security, no doubt, will make rounds near the building, bolstering the city police presence.

The Catholic college’s amplified activity on the Square also could generate a youthful vibe, supplementing the energy of nearby places such as the Barnes & Noble joint college bookstore — a collaboration between the bookseller, Wilkes University and King’s College — and Luzerne County Community College’s corporate learning center.

Naysayers howled at news of the proposed sale, noting that King’s College is seeking $7 million in taxpayer money, via state grants, to tackle this project. Some people also worry how the city and other entities might be impacted by the loss of property tax income and hotel taxes after the nonprofit institution acquires the large parcel. Those are legitimate concerns, but they don’t begin to outweigh the upsides. Most notably: King’s re-use of the property will prevent it from slipping into disrepair or abandonment, as has happened with other hulking structures in the city.

Keep in mind: The college intends to pump $7 million into this project, matching the state’s contribution. Plus, the new center will spur downtown business by, according to the college’s estimate, about $1 million per year.

Detractors of the project should consider whether Marriott, Hilton and other big-name hoteliers have shown any inclination to enter a market like downtown Wilkes-Barre. Then those folks should take note of a large building on the opposite side of Public Square: the long-vacant, former First National Bank. It, too, generates no tax income.

Given the choice, we prefer an occupied structure.

And if a city’s hub is going to be tied to a particular activity, higher education ranks among the more desirable ones. After all, through education, there is hope for a better tomorrow.

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