by Kathy Ruff
George B. Markle, Hazleton’s first borough council president, probably would be smiling about what’s happening in and around the City of Hazleton today. As a mining and banking business tycoon, Markle devoted his time and energies toward developing what is now the City of Hazleton.
A variety of movers and shakers has picked up the mantle to create a renaissance in the city.
“The most exciting thing that’s happening this year is really the fruition of all of our efforts for the past three or four years trying to get some of those projects off the ground and get them under construction,” said Krista Schneider, executive director of the Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress (DHAP). “There are just a lot of improvements going on, a lot of energy, a lot of change.”
Those improvements currently include significant investments into and restoration of seven properties in the core of the city’s downtown. In 2017, the downtown added 15 new businesses, with three more expected by year-end.
“This rebirth of our downtown is way overdue,” said George F. Hayden, owner of Hazleton Development Co. (HDC). “We have a lot of excitement going on with all the new building renovations, including five that we own.”
HDC works to bring technologies and efficiencies to its buildings, efforts that began with the purchase of the Markle building in 2001.
“Every time we build something out, we rent,” Hayden said. “As they say, ‘If you build it they will come.’ It’s happening as we speak. We have really been working about the last three or four years really hard to make things better in our region and for our community and for our people. We’re bringing a face back to downtown and all the beliefs of what we’re all about.”
HDC continues to renovate over 100,000 sq. ft. of space and to bring the newest technologies and energy efficiencies into its buildings.
Observers expect improvement activities to continue.
“It’s a collective work in progress,” said George Leitner, vice president of operations at Downtown Hazleton Development. “When is the last time you have seen every single property from Laurel Street to the other corner of the Wyoming Street under renovation at the same time? It’s everyone. There are several investors, several pieces of the pie that are really helping the downtown revitalize.”
Lackawanna College, which signed a 15-year lease, expects a December completion of its renovations in time for the January enrollment.
“We’re putting in more than half a million dollar investment to bring it to what they want as a state-of-the-art facility,” Leitner said. The company also spent over $3 million in 2017 on the Hazleton National Bank building, including renovations on the sixth and seventh floors.
“Since August we have signed 12 new office leases for their upper floors,” he said. “That is the small business growth that we’re attracting and coming to our newly renovated downtown.”
The company expects to spend another million dollars plus to complete floors 4 and 5 to create newly renovated offices, some to be available as early as January.
According to Leitner, the company’s reinvestment into the downtown properties has generated over 145 jobs so far.
“A lot of buildings that are vacant right now won’t be vacant next year so that will help bring people to the downtown, activate the street and create a reason for people to come here as a destination,” DHAP’s Schneider said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here. There’s a lot of investment being made. We have a vision for the future that we’re working to achieve through a lot of partnerships and a lot of focused effort.”
Those efforts include activities designed to draw people to the downtown including First Friday events such as art exhibits, car cruises, live music and December’s Wassailfest & Holiday Night Market.
“We are a city of immigrants,” Schneider said. “We have a new group of immigrants that are infusing energy into the city. They are adding new flavors, new businesses, new restaurants, new opportunities for growth. We’re trying to re-invent ourselves and make it better.”
Schneider expects to see completion of many projects in 2018 to create more energy in the downtown core.
That energy will be fueled in part by an arts and innovation district including educational satellites for Lackawanna and Luzerne County Community colleges and a potential entrepreneurial business incubator as part of Penn State’s Launch Box program.
“At this point, we have a planning grant to go ahead and plan for the possibility of an incubator in the next academic year,” said Gary Lawler, chancellor with Penn State’s Hazleton campus. “What we’re envisioning is an entrepreneurial program that is led by Penn State that connects Penn State Hazleton and the surrounding community for a culture of entrepreneurship.”
Penn State works to develop a curriculum for the Launch Box to help accelerate growth of entrepreneurial businesses. Part of that curriculum will help potential business owners work through creating and implementing a business plan to spark entrepreneurial development, including assistance to the growing Hispanic population in the city.
“Our point person will be bi-lingual so they can help them get started and get on the right track as they begin their business,” Lawler said. “The downtown location will be more of an accelerator to get them started.”
Development of a partnership between Penn State, DHAP and CAN BE, the Community Association for New Business Entrepreneurship, will expand on current business incubator in the Valmont Industrial Park where startup companies can rent offices at a reduced rate, share services and tap into business mentors.
“Entrepreneurism leads to economic development,” Lawler said. “We are really committed to this because we believe in downtown Hazleton. We think it can be brought back to I think it’s a main street city kind of concept. We’re just really excited about being able to do that.”
The downtown excitement and revitalization gained momentum a few years ago after a road improvement project in the city.
“PennDOT decided they were going to improve the Broad Street corridor with a new road from West Hazleton all the way through Hazleton with new paving, new sidewalks, trees, everything else,” said Kevin O’Donnell, president and CEO of Greater Hazleton CAN DO, Inc. Economic Development. “Then a local company decided they were going to move their offices to the downtown, which would bring more jobs to the downtown. We already had a local developer working on the Markle Building and the Hazleton National Bank Building to try to rehab those. Everybody started to rally around this movement and it seemed like the perform time to start to get more things going in the downtown.”
That activity also occurs in other parts of the city as confidence in the economy fuels economic activity across the state and the country.
“Although I can’t say the name at this point, there’s a plastic manufacturer that has expressed interest and actually has entered into an agreement with us for land in Humboldt Industrial Park,” said O’Donnell. “The project is a very good project from the fact it’s a plastics manufacturer, good-paying jobs, probably about 90 jobs there.”
O’Donnell speculates the Governor’s Action Team will announce that project after CAN DO gets the permits in place, probably around the first of the year.
“Another project we have been involved in recently is with regard to Highwood USA, another plastics manufacturer,” O’Donnell said. “This one is going to locate in the Commerce Center in the City of Hazleton, about 146,000 square-foot building, create about 60 jobs.” Highwood USA manufactures eco friendly synthetic wood used in architectural trim, furniture, fencing, lumber and other outdoor applications.
“Also a local logistics company is looking to purchase a site in Valmont Park to help him with his operation,” O’Donnell said. “We’re working with a hotel which would be the second hotel in the Humboldt Station part of Humboldt Park. They have to go through some issues with regard to variances of height and things like but that hopefully all will go well and we’ll see something happening next year on that.”
CAN DO also works to expedite the permitting process for its available sites, a process that spans nearly 18 months. Other projects in the works with private developer partnerships include construction of a 48,000 sq. ft. spec building in the Valmont Industrial Park, a 450,000 sq. ft. building in Humboldt Industrial Park and construction of spec 70,000 and 200,000 sq. ft. buildings.
“A lot of good things are happening,” he said. “Industrial development and retail development isn’t the end for everything. More and more communities are looking to start up companies from within and Hazleton is no different.”
Other renovation activities in Hazleton include development of a park at the corner of Broad and Laurel streets as the forecourt to the new City Arts Center, now under renovation.
At the entrance way to the downtown, the community’s primary health care facility, Lehigh Valley Health Network-Hazleton (LVHN), expects to begin more renovation and expansion projects in the spring of 2018.
Projects include expansion and renovations to the lobby, room upgrades including flooring, lighting, infrastructure for electronic medical records and flexibility to transform double rooms into single rooms. LVHN also plans to expand its emergency department come summer to include a larger check-in area, more ambulance bays, private treatment rooms with sliding glass doors for privacy, a secure behavioral health zone and creation of a double trauma bay. Two centralized nursing hubs will improve patient access, visibility and flow.
LVHN’s expansion projects include an outpatient care facility in Hazle Township, which expects to break ground next summer.
The Lehigh Valley Physician Group’s (LVPG) also plans to expand its services in center city to include an increase in physical space and the addition of primary care and OB-GYN services to our already existing ExpressCARE and pediatric services. It also continues to recruit primary care and specialty providers to meet the community’s health care needs.
Arts & Innovation District
A key strategy of the Downtown’s Strategic Plan has been to establish an Arts & Innovation District in the core of the downtown, which will become a center for entrepreneurship and new business growth, arts and culture, hospitality, and higher education. We are pleased to see this district taking shape with five building renovation projects now underway. These include:
• The former Security Savings Bank building (31 W. Broad St.), owned by DHAP, which is undergoing Phase One renovation for use as a new City Arts Center (expected completion 2018).
• The former Remember When building (21-23 W. Broad St.), owned by CAN DO, which is to become a new restaurant and brew pub (expected completion 2018).
• The former HNB Bank building (101 W. Broad St.), owned by DHD Realty, which is being renovated for office and retail space (expected completion of floors 5-6 and ground floor, 2018).
• The blighted Bingo building (13 W. Broad St.), owned by DHAP, which is undergoing phased renovation for use as a new business incubator (Phase One completion expected later this year).
• Lackawanna College relocation to the ground floor of the former Trader’s Bank building (2 E. Broad St.) and former KNBT annex to the rear (expected completion 2018).
Source: Downtown Hazleton Alliance for Progress