South Main Street business owners in limbo
One South Main Street business owner plans to reopen her shop this summer.
Another isnt sure if shell be back.
Michaelene Coffee plans to move merchandise back to Place One at the Hollywood, a womens clothing store, in July.
She moved her goods to a Scranton location when her Wilkes-Barre store closed in 2013 for the demolition of city-owned buildings next door. Business has been too busy lately during the prom season for her to spare the time needed to clean her Wilkes-Barre store and reopen.
Up until May, I was open seven days a week. The last proms are this week and some out-of-town proms are next week. I couldnt take the days of being closed to move, she said.
The city made a request for proposals for the vacant parcels in January, leaving her wondering what is planned for the space. Asked about the proposals, city spokeswoman Liza Prokop had no comment.
My biggest concern is I dont want to move everything back down there, something happens and I have to move out again, Coffee said.
Another small business owner, Ilona Bruns, said she doesnt know if shell return Frank Clark Jewelers to downtown. Bruns also closed for demolition. She reopened in December, but pulled her inventory from her Wilkes-Barre location last week. She owns another jewelry store, Ocean Gold, in Nanticoke.
For now, Im hoping to be able to go back in. Im just not sure when with what the city has done to me, she said. I dont want to lose my Wilkes-Barre business and the nostalgia, the history of the building. Thats why I opened the jewelry store. Its not something I want to lose.
The city demolished the buildings after two engineering firms hired to inspect 61, 71, 73 and 75 S. Main St. found the structures to be in danger of collapsing.
The citys actions were necessary to prevent a life-threatening situation, and the city took action to allow both tenants back in their buildings for the holiday season, Prokop said in an email.
The corner is an important part of the downtown, Diamond City Partnership Executive Director Larry Newman said.
I obviously prefer if we could figure out how to get both business back. It has not been a fun process, not for them and not for the downtown in general. Im still hopeful that this whole saga can result in something positive both for downtown as whole and also for the displaced business owners, that we can get them back in place, he said.
Its hard to say if any potential developers would be more interested in the corner now that the parcels are vacant, Newman said.
It really depends on what the nature of redevelopment is, it depends on what the development goals are, he said. On the one hand, certainly the rehab of an older building can be challenging because youre dealing with existing conditions and you dont know what youre going to discover. On the other hand, you already have a building.
The idea behind the current RFPs is that entity selected needs to incorporate the facade of the city-owned part of the Engle building into a new project, he said. One of things the city is doing that is the right thing is saying Heres a piece of city-owned property, here are objectives, submit a proposal.
One downtown business forced to vacate while neighboring buildings were demolished last year will not return to its South Main Street location and another remains undecided.
Michaelene Coffee of Place One The Hollywood, and Ilona Bruns of Frank Clark Jewelers, said the situation last year at a critical sales time may have driven them out of the city for good.
Bruns closed her jewelry store last week, and she criticized the city for not helping her. She said she wont be coming back.
Coffee said she would have to close her Scranton location for two days to return her merchandise to Wilkes-Barre. She said rumors of a planned development of the South Main Street vacant lots that border her store have caused her to reconsider her return. She said the development plan could include the sites where her store and the jewelry store are located.
Mayor Tom Leighton said Wednesday there has been interest in the vacant lot at South Main and Northampton streets, and the city is talking to potential developers.
Were working on it, Leighton said. But we cant say anything more at this time.
Asked if an announcement is near, Leighton declined to comment, saying he is bound by confidentiality agreements with the interested parties.
I have no comment on any development as there is no information to release at this time, he said.
But Coffee and Bruns said they have heard unconfirmed reports that include a chain drug store to a new hotel as possible developments.
Just down South Main Street in space owned by Humford Equities, interior demolition work is being done where downtown nightclubs once operated.
Rob Finlay of Humford said there is no news to announce, adding he is having the space cleared to better market it to potential tenants.
There has been public speculation about that space as well, with the most popular theory being an independent grocery chain is considering locating downtown. Finlay denied the report, saying he is talking to possible tenants, but no deals have been struck.
Joe Amato and his company, City Centre L.P., purchased the $8.4 million mortgage on the University Corners complex. He said a grocery chain representative contacted him about renting space, but he did not have a large enough area to lease to accommodate a store.
But a grocery store would be ideal for the downtown, Amato said. It would be another piece of the plan.
Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, said the site at the corner of South Main and West Northampton streets is key to downtowns overall success.
Newman said the site is the missing piece connecting a number of existing and new downtown investments such as the theater complex, the two loft projects along the first block of East Northampton Street, Wilkes Universitys projects in the second block of South Main Street, the retail and restaurants of the first block of South Main, and the YMCA and the River Common to the west.
The two privately owned buildings remaining represent two displaced businesses as well as two of the best historic commercial facades left in downtown, so its critical that the development on the corner integrates with them as well, Newman said. If we want to maximize the walkability of the downtown core and keep the positive momentum going, then that site has to be developed correctly.
Newman said its important for any future developer of the corner site to meet the development objectives that are outlined in the Citys RFP for development.
And, based on what we hear, we remain optimistic that those goals can be met, he said.
In order to blend in with the University Corners across the street, the city indicated the new development should be mixed used with specialty retail shops and restaurants on the ground floor. The upper floor would be residential or office space.
Last fall, the city contracted to demolish four vacant buildings at 69, 71, 73 and 75 S. Main St. The city owned the properties and condemned them in October due to their deteriorating conditions.
The demolition took place around two privately owned properties in the middle of the cluster where Place 1 and Frank Clarks were housed.
Bruns, 38, a single mother of two, continues to operate her Nanticoke store, Ocean Gold, and she said she had intended to renovate the Wilkes-Barre store but could not finance the project.
Bruns said the demolition of the buildings that required her to vacate the premises couldnt have come at a worse time. She said she lost Black Friday business and pre-holiday business because she could not open her store.
People who wanted to purchase jewelry went to other jewelers, she said. Buy the time I reopened in mid-December, the holiday shopping season was pretty much over.
Bruns said there wasnt much call for jewelry after the holidays.
It just devastated me, she said. I invested a lot of money to restore a historical building in downtown and pretty much I was forced out of there.
Bruns contends the city put her out of business, and she is contemplating taking legal action. Leighton said the city received two engineering reports that indicated the surrounding buildings were in danger of collapsing and advised they be taken down immediately.
When Bartikowskys closed I was hoping to get some of that business, Bruns said. Then all of a sudden the buildings were demolished and that shut me down.
Wait and see
Coffee said she really cant say when she will move back to her Wilkes-Barre location.
I really dont have an answer to that question, Coffee said. Im hearing that the city is talking about doing some project there.
Coffee said she is taking a wait-and-see approach. She said a big development project could result in a developer seeking to purchase the remaining two buildings to make for a larger space.
My fear is that I will move back and then somebody will want to buy the building, she said.
Place 1 dress shop will continue to have one storefront for awhile.
Michaelene Coffee, the owner of shops in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, said her South Main Street location Place 1 at the Hollywood will remain closed until she can repair broken pipes caused by the recent frigid temperatures.
Coffee said her Place 1 Scranton store remains open and local customers have been going there to get their prom and wedding dresses.
Coffee had to closed the Wilkes-Barre store last fall when the city had condemned vacant nearby structures over fears they would collapse. The city entered a $194,861 contract to tear down two stores, leaving the Place 1 and the Frank Clark buildings, located in the middle of the commercial cluster, standing.
I wont be moving back to Wilkes-Barre for a while, Coffee said Monday. Its March and its my busy season.
Coffee said she has estimates to fix the pipes, but if the boiler needs to be replaced, the price could double. Theres nothing I can do about it, she said. I just have to get through it. Right now, I have to sell dresses.
Coffee said she has asked her attorney to look into the possibility of filing an action against the city. She contends the citys notice to vacate was not lifted from her building until late January, preventing her from entering the building. The city says Coffee was given a letter in early December informing her she could return at any time.
She said she has letters from her attorney that clearly show she was denied access to the building until on or about Jan. 29.
However, Coffee said she doesnt want to create a contentious situation. She said that for now she is too busy with her Scranton shop to devote any time to re-opening the South Main Street store.
It will take weeks to get everything fixed, she said. Then the store needs to be cleaned and all of the racks have to be re-installed. Im just too busy right now to take care of all of that.
Mayor Tom Leighton said the city informed Coffee that she could return in early December.
It was her decision not to go back, he said. Its been three months since the demolition.
Coffee says she was restricted longer because her building is next to the still-standing portion of one of the demolished buildings.
Ilona Bruns, owner of Frank Clark Jeweler, moved back to her business well before Christmas. Bruns temporarily relocated to Nanticoke, where she operates another store. She returned to Wilkes-Barre in mid-December, reopening the store at 63 S. Main St. nearly 45 days after closing for the demolition.
Coffee reached a deal with the city to pay approximately $8,800 to transport her merchandise to and from a property in Scranton.
Coffee said she is thankful her customers have weathered the inconvenience of traveling to Scranton for their dresses.Ive been in business for 25 years, she said. Im now selling dresses to the daughters of women who were my first customers when I first opened.
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