WILKES-BARRE — Brenda Sokolowski, owner of Circles on the Square, this week said business is picking up at the deli and she hopes that trend continues.
“I’m starting to see familiar faces that I haven’t seen in three years — since start of the pandemic,” Sokolowski said. “I’m also seeing new faces, so I believe more people are being hired to work downtown.”
Sokolowski said the increase in business has been steady, but not “crazy busy.”
“It’s been going at a nice pace,” she said. “Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday seem to be busier than Monday or Friday — those are the days when there seems to be more people downtown.”
Circles opened in 1985, and Sokolowski took over at the end of 2020, after having worked there for 15 years.
So what does this all mean?
Larry Newman, Executive Director at the Diamond City Partnership, has been at the center of the downtown’s ups and downs.
“There’s no question that Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s recovery has gained speed in 2023,” Newman said. “Whether we examine hard data or anecdotal evidence, there are clear signs that our center city is rebounding from the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
And Newman has the data to support his claims.
Newman said activity has picked up as office workers have slowly returned — since the start of 2023, Newman said the total number of workers in downtown has been 23% higher than the same period in 2022 and 43% higher than 2021. Similarly, downtown visitors, diners and shoppers have reached 82% of 2019 levels.
“Nonetheless, the damage done to downtown’s economy has been consequential,” Newman said.
Again, he points to the data.
In March of 2023, Newman said the number of people coming to work in Downtown Wilkes-Barre was 56% of the March of 2019 total.
“There are newly vacant storefronts to be filled, and buildings whose uses must now be re-imagined,” Newman said. “The disappearance of daily foot traffic has made people with social service needs more visible, and the uncivil behaviors of some have led to additional concerns and frustration. These challenges aren’t unique to Downtown Wilkes-Barre — the story’s the same in every office-dependent business district across the nation.”
Newman said that message was reinforced in April, when he joined executives from other downtown organizations at the International Downtown Association’s Economic Development Summit to share strategies for moving forward.
“Our conversations underscored the challenges facing America’s downtowns in the wake of COVID — but they also clarified the soundness of DCP’s strategy for downtown recovery,” Newman said. “Because we can’t count on downtown office headcounts returning to pre-pandemic levels, DCP is redoubling its focus on reinforcing other pillars of the downtown economy — residential development; the colleges; arts and entertainment; and destination dining and shopping.”
‘But we need to do more’
Make no mistake, Newman said the past three years would have been much worse if Downtown Wilkes-Barre didn’t already have a strong base of downtown residents, or the presence of the colleges and the Kirby Center as significant activity generators.
“But we need to do more, further diversifying the mix of downtown uses as we continue to enhance the quality of downtown’s public environment,” Newman said. “The repositioning of Downtown Wilkes-Barre as an appealing and walkable ‘live-work’ mixed-use neighborhood isn’t just a way to recover from the pandemic — it’s also an investment in the creation of a district that can attract the jobs and talent of the future to our city and region. There’s economic value in the creation of great places.”
Newman said this is the focus of DCP’s current work plan, which can be summarized as:
1. Ensuring that Downtown Wilkes-Barre is consistently clean, safe, and attractive.
2. Helping Downtown’s existing businesses and venues.
3. Improving the product by creating lively, interesting, high-quality places.
4. Marketing those places to the people we wish to attract.
5. Planting the seeds for new economic growth.
“Put another way, we’re simultaneously trying to improve Downtown’s environment, Downtown’s image, and Downtown’s economy,” Newman said.
In terms of Downtown’s environment, Newman said the most recent product of the City’s partnership with DCP to re-imagine Public Square — the new stage canopy — was recently completed.
“It’s the result of a broader strategy to renew our city’s most iconic public space and make it a destination for all,” Newman said. “The City is now repairing Public Square’s walking surfaces, and DCP has secured funding for the next step — evaluating design alternatives for the renewal of the park’s other signature elements, including the fountains.”
However, Newman said the work on Public Square is just one part of a larger effort to improve the pedestrian experience throughout downtown.
While DCP’s Downtown Ambassadors already tend to center city’s public environment on a daily basis, Newman said the pandemic created a need to expand services — and new funding provided by Luzerne County’s ARPA grant program will provide the ability to do just that, allowing DCP to put uniformed Ambassadors on the street at night and on weekends.
“As we work to improve downtown’s curb appeal, we’d be foolish not to take advantage of our roster of historic buildings,” Newman said. “Through DCP’s ‘West Market Street Gateway’ project, architects are currently planning the rehabilitation of historic facades on both sides of West Market Street — something that can have a transformative effect on this key downtown block.”
Newman said Downtown Wilkes-Barre has long been asked to bear a disproportionate share of the regional burden of accommodating and caring for those in need. While that work is critical, he said it must be performed in a way that reduces the negative impact on downtown’s businesses, residents, and public realm.
“The downtown is demanding change, and this community can do better,” Newman said. “DCP is committed to working with social service providers, public safety agencies, and local government to improve the provision of services to at-risk individuals in downtown.”
Newman said Downtown’s image is shaped by first impressions, which is why DCP’s environmental work is so important. It’s also shaped through marketing, which is why DCP is so excited about its new downtown website — www.downtownwilkesbarre.org — and other initiatives, made possible through funding from the City of Wilkes-Barre’s ARPA program, that have given DCP the tools to improve promotion of Downtown’s businesses, venues, and events.
In 2023, Newman said those downtown events will be back in full force. DCP-run programs like the monthly Sunsets on South Main live-music series and the Downtown Discoveries family program, begun as part of the pandemic-recovery strategy, are now fixtures on downtown’s annual event calendar. They enhance the roster of other signature events, such as the Fine Arts Fiesta, Farmers Market, and Rockin’ the River, that attract thousands to Downtown each year.
“Everything I’ve described is in support of a larger goal — long-term economic vitality,” Newman said. “The work of the past 20 years resulted in the tangible growth of Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s economy — hundreds of new housing units; a thousand new residents; a 16-year streak of increased storefront occupancy; and Downtown’s emergence as a major employment center, the region’s startup hub, and an arts, entertainment, and dining destination.
“COVID ended that momentum, but we’re determined to ensure that the halt is only temporary.”
Berkshire Hathaway GUARD, Highmark workers returning
Elizabeth Ferris, spokesperson for Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance Companies, said the company is continuing with a hybrid work model of remote and in the office.
“All local employees have been required to be in the office three days a week since January 2023 (when we increased from two to three days per week) and many choose to be in the office 4 or even 5 days a week,” Ferris said. “We have over 650 employees in our Wilkes-Barre offices working at least three days a week.”
At GUARD, Ferris said there is a strong culture of collaboration, teamwork, and ongoing process improvement.
“We recognize the importance of in-person meetings, and ‘water cooler/elevator’ conversations that can be invaluable to our company,” Ferris said. “Also, we know that employees will have personal reasons to need to work from home at sometime during the year. Therefore, we give our employees the flexibility they need by allowing each employee to work remotely any four weeks per year.”
Ferris added that the employees continue to support the local community in many ways, including contributing news of local events to share on the company’s intranet, contributing both time and money to the United Way of Wyoming Valley and other local charities, and actively supporting local businesses during lunchtime.
Ferris said the company employs local caterers and vendors for corporate meets and other businesses as essential suppliers, and also sponsor local events such as Rockin’ the River, Light Up the Valley, and the Fine Arts Fiesta.
“We continue to recruit and hire locally as just one example of our commitment to the Wilkes-Barre area,” Ferris said. “We have positions available across all disciplines from customer service to sales to underwriting, both experienced and entry level.”
Joe Haddock, Highmark’s market president for eastern Pennsylvania, said the company has been reviewing every job title over the last several weeks to determine which employees would benefit from returning to the office and having those face-to-face interactions.
“We think being together in the office can lead to more collaboration and more efficient work,” Haddock said. “Since there are more than 42,000 employees in the organization, it hasn’t been determined yet exactly how many are returning to each location, including Wilkes-Barre.”
Haddock said there is no mandate to return on a certain date, but most of the employees who are returning began coming back in September. He said managers will be talking to employees who are returning to work out specific details.
“We are asking employees to come back an average of three days a week,” Haddock said. “Again, managers will be working with their employees on the exact details.”
Haddock said once it is determined which jobs will benefit from returning to the office, he doesn’t anticipate that additional employees will be asked to return to the office.
“As different jobs are reviewed, we expect that some will remain as work from home based on their role and nature of their work,” Haddock said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Haddock said Highmark pivoted very quickly to having most employees working from home to ensure everyone’s safety.
“Now that we have come through the worst parts of the pandemic, we see a need and real benefit for our employees to be in the office together and to meet in-person to help foster problem solving, collaboration, team building and engagement,” Haddock said. “We are not calling this a mandate, but instead see it as something that will benefit employees and the customers and members we serve.”
And just as employees will benefit from being together in the office, Haddock said the downtown area will benefit from the employees going out to lunch, shopping, visiting the Farmers Market or staying after work for a movie or event.
Slow but steady
Newman said DCP continues to see slow but steady increases in the numbers of downtown office workers.
“The most recent step is Highmark’s announcement, earlier this month, that a larger number of employees are being called back to the office three days a week,” Newman said. “That’s very encouraging news, and it’s another sign that more and more employers are concluding that a hybrid strategy — involving a blend of in-office and remote work — is the correct path for moving forward. Some level of remote work is here to stay, but because there’s no substitute for in-person collaboration, communication, and mentoring, the office environment will continue to be a key element of most successful businesses.”
This can be seen in DCP’s cellphone location data, which Newman said documented 125,240 total employee visits within the Downtown Wilkes-Barre Business Improvement District in August 2023.
“Compare that to 110,710 total downtown employee visits during the month of August 2022 and 77,950 total employee visits during the month of August 2021, and it’s clear that the trends are moving in a positive direction,” Newman said.
However, Newman noted that there remains some distance to travel. He said during the month of August 2019 (prior to the pandemic), there were 214,300 total employee visits within the Downtown Wilkes-Barre BID. In other words, last month’s downtown employee count was 58% of pre-pandemic total.
But when it comes to people visiting for dining, shopping, events, and other reasons, Newman said Downtown’s recovery has been faster — last month’s total non-work visitation was 88% of the August 2019 total.
“As I’ve said before, the key to Downtown Wilkes-Barre’s recovery is to continue doing the things that reposition Downtown as an appealing and walkable mixed-use neighborhood,” Newman said. “That repositioning isn’t just a COVID recovery strategy — it’s also an investment in our ability, as a city and region, to attract the jobs and talent of the future.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.