Scranton businesses are thriving . . . but see problems with parking, permits and a commuter tax

‘Of the current parking situation, MacDowall said it is one of the most detrimental factors to downtown businesses.’
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Based on feedback from its members, the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce says the business climate in downtown Scranton is “challenging.”

To improve it, said Austin Burke, president, the City of Scranton must adopt and abide by a “realistic” business and recovery plan to restore the confidence of its taxpayers and commuters.

In addition, as the holiday season approaches, local consumers should make a concerted effort to buy local, he said, noting programs like American Express’ “Small Business Saturday (on Nov. 24) that encourage consumers to support their local businesses.

At the same time, said Burke, aspiring and existing local businesses can do their part. Aspiring businesses should properly plan prior to launching, have the appropriate resources on hand to get through the slow periods, and capitalize on their competitive advantages. Existing businesses must be open to change to create additional lines of revenue.

Local businesses

Change has pulled into Radisson Lackawanna Station. From their point of view as a hotel, general manager Michael Kearney, also president of Nexus Hospitality Management, said the Radisson has seen its business clients make very-last-minute decisions to travel.

At the same time, while business travel has decreased during the economic downturn, Kearney says Scranton still offers a stable flow of travelers consistent with similar national markets.
In an espresso bar and café a block and steps away, R. Darby MacDowall also sees a stable flow. MacDowall, owner of Northern Light Espresso Bar & Café, believes the downtown business climate at the moment is very good.

Northern Light, he said is “thriving”. What’s more, he said it’s seen an influx of new people in the downtown area.

While he said he does not know how well other businesses are doing, he said it seems that they’re doing well.

MacDowall said he has had conversations with other business owners and vendors that service Northern Light and they seem upbeat and positive. Many are making investments to improve or expand their businesses.

When it comes to improving the City of Scranton, the owner of a business on a well-metered and especially well-monitored stretch of the Electric City, the 500 block of Spruce Street, said, “We need to straighten out the parking situation in the downtown.”

Business owners have long-accused city parking enforcement of stalking — and thereby — deterring patrons.

Of the current parking situation, MacDowall said it is one of the most detrimental factors to downtown businesses. “It’s extremely inconvenient to work with the current system.”

At present, among other head scratchers, he said, the office that accepts ticket payments closes before the meter readers are off-shift, making it impossible to pay a ticket after 4 p.m. Aggravating matters, coins and tokens, are not immediately—or conveniently — available.

Some suggestions he offers include free parking days, lowering the parking cost to a reasonable rate, and providing a simplified method of payment.

“It is hard on those working downtown. Many employees park in the street (at $1 an hour), taking spaces that could be used for downtown business customers. There should be an incentive (like a reduction in cost) to park in garages for those working downtown so we free up parking and get employee cars off the street.”

Another thing MacDowall would like to see removed from coveted parking spaces are parked food trucks. These trucks, said MacDowall, gobble up the limited parking. Northern Light staff has also noticed many food trucks parked on Courthouse Square over the weekend, using spaces that could be used by business patrons.

“Ironically the trucks aren’t even open for business — they’re just using the free parking.”
MacDowall said Northern Light doesn’t wish the food truck owners ill, but feels they don’t help his business, nor do they look especially attractive.

Downtown restaurants, said MacDowall, increase competitiveness and offer food choices and lower prices, and this attracts more people. “I like all of the restaurants and businesses opening in downtown Scranton. Hats off to The Backyard Ale House, Von Luger’s Restaurant, The Connell Building, First Friday activities and Scranton Tomorrow, to name a few, all signs of positive growth and stability in downtown.”

Building on the idea of First Fridays, he suggests opening up Courthouse Square to start a Saturday Market, a place for the local farmers and crafts people to get their products downtown. And if not Courthouse Square, he said, some convenient area might be found. “And what a great place for food trucks,” he adds.
Lastly, said MacDowall, echoing many fellow business owners, the removal of the halfway houses and parole offices on Spruce Street “would be beneficial to a prime commercial and retail environment.”

A lot of his customers have voiced concern as to their safety while walking in the downtown at certain hours of the day, he said. The loitering in the downtown, also is mostly due to these establishments, he believes. “There are other areas in the city that are appropriate for these types of agencies.”

Coney Island Lunch owner and cook Peter Ventura, 57, has operated Coney Island in the city for 39 years and he said he’s seen some really bad times. But, “we had probably one of the hardest summers we ever had,” he said.

Why? He blames the weather — it was the kind of hot that shrinks the appetite and makes going out seem out of the question, he said.

As for the business “weather,” he said, “When you’re in business as long as us, these trends come and go and you’re used to them — you just have to watch how much money you spend and things like that. Overall, I would say, knowing I’ve been working in this city and doing this business since 1973, and having seen some really, really tough times, I would say that, generally speaking, the climate is good here. We have residents living downtown,” said Ventura, “anybody who’s been in this city as long as I have, when you see people walking on the streets after 6 p.m. — that’s one thing that never used to happen around here.”
Ventura said there are likely more businesses open at night and certainly more restaurants in town.

uildings look better, he said. “And I’m not trying to sugarcoat — I mean we had some tough weeks just this summer. But we get a lot of people in from out-of-town and they always have a good thing to say about Scranton. It’s amazing. Years ago you would hear people putting it down constantly. But they’re upbeat about this city, and that makes you feel good about where you’re at.”

While the increased foot traffic is appreciated, licensing and permits are another story. “When my father was alive, an eating and drinking license was like $10.”

Now, working with his son, Bob, now a partner in the daily operations, it’s $200 and permits; general business expenses add more.

“I think when my grandfather was alive they didn’t even have insurance, nobody had insurance. And these are things you have to have now because that’s the business world we live in. You have to have liability insurance, you have to have some kind of fire insurances, and more.”

Now, said Ventura, the water company wants backflow preventers on every building. So, every restaurant, every hotel—anybody who has a waterline going into their building has to follow suit, which costs about $1,000 — and has to be inspected annually to the tune of a $125.

“You just keep tacking on all these things and that cuts down your profit. Then you’re in competition with the other restaurants and you don’t really want to raise your prices. So that’s where we really need a little more protection in the city. The businesses really don’t have a voice in the politics. Right now the City of Scranton is obviously in financial trouble. It’s nothing for them to raise user fees and things like that because we can’t go down there and complain about it—we need to unlock our doors, we need to pay for our licenses, and there’s no getting around it. So when they raise it $50, $100, well, you know, what are you going to do? It’s little things like that. Logistics is probably more aggravation now than what it used to be — I know that. It’s not as simple as it used to be.”