The suspended animation at the former Sterling hotel and much of the University Corners retail development is evidence that "build it and they will come," while an attractive notion in the movie fantasy "Field of Dreams," may not be the most effective way to attract new residents and businesses to downtown Wilkes-Barre.
The two projects in purgatory also illustrate how things can go off track when good intentions and easy money overwhelm realistic expectations in the cutthroat world of commercial real estate.
Both the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber, backer of University Corners, and CityVest, the nonprofit behind the Sterling, convinced themselves and others that latent demand would reveal itself once a suitable property was available. Both also had the benefit of millions of dollars in public funding that most private developers lack.
The absence of fiscal discipline allowed costly projects to go forward despite an absence of commitments from potential occupants or purchasers. A more pragmatic evaluation of University Corners might have spawned a smaller complex with full storefronts rather than the shiny but empty shell most of the ground-floor retail space now is. And it surely would have meant that before spending $600,000 — in state gambling taxes — to prepare a vacant 7,418-square-foot section as an Irish pub there would have been an actual tenant ready to move in.
At the Sterling, there apparently was so much certainty an eager buyer would surface that $6 million provided by Luzerne County was spent largely to take down an unwanted tower and to acquire more property rather than to preserve the integrity of the structure that is now damaged beyond repair.
I know what advocates of these projects will say — that if it wasn't for their efforts these parts of the city would now be crumbling, unsightly fire hazards that would discourage businesses and residents from moving downtown. In fact, if it wasn't for the theaters at University Corners, fewer new restaurants and shops would have opened on South Main Street, they'll claim.
There may be some truth in that, but there are reasons for doubt. First, few of those businesses are located in the theater block and other than the ones there, none are in new buildings. Also, it's likely that new sidewalks and streetlights had a lot to do with filling spaces that had been empty for years. Given that many of the new businesses are bars and restaurants, it may simply be that some smart entrepreneurs decided to take advantage of the long-neglected college market.
Certainly the Great Recession had some effect on the viability of both projects. But an honest appraisal of the risks and potential rewards would have taken into account that the real estate boom of the early 2000s could not be sustained. Combined with an honest look at the demographics of the city and region, that would have signaled a more cautious approach, one that might have resulted in less grand but also more successful developments.
Thankfully, the theaters seem to be doing fine and undoubtedly attract some shoppers and diners to downtown. But the forlorn-looking empty spaces there and the unsightly Sterling block project a poor image, one fueled in part by plans that leaned too heavily on misplaced optimism and not enough on clear-eyed realism.