by Dave Gardner
Among the most visible signs of Scranton’s resurrection is the city’s downtown residential revival. According to Leslie Collins, executive director of Scranton Tomorrow, developers can’t create apartments fast enough to house the scores of people who now wish to live downtown.
The majority of these renters are young professionals and graduate students, plus some empty nesters who fled their former residences for convenience and simplicity. The “liveliness” of the downtown is also a draw.
Collins cites the example of the historic Samters retail building in the downtown as a classic reuse of a former business location. The facility is being developed into a five-floor apartment complex offering 34 one-bedroom units, with the bottom level housing retail space. She explained the building’s developer owns other revamped apartment complexes that are 100 percent occupied.
Other development success stories such as Penn Avenue also show Scranton is demonstrating renewed economic success by the private sector.
“The downtown no longer is just the courthouse square area,” said Collins. “Building is now occurring toward the Lackawanna River, creating a larger footprint.”
An interesting area of development involves plans to create a pocket park at the corner of Wyoming Avenue and Linden Street. This 11,200-square-foot parcel, now destined for community green space, was purchased with a $400,000 state grant and financial assistance from the Scranton Area Community Foundation.
Collins said a healthy level of investment dollars now flow into the downtown from both governmental and private sources. Downtown capital assistant grants with gaming money, plus bank funding, also exist.
Scranton Tomorrow is also involved with plans to designate a formal business improvement district. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are utilizing this tactic, which involves creation of a cohesive look for the downtown that projects safety, cleanliness and beauty.
“We will develop our own unique brand for Scranton that promotes the feel of the Electric City,” said Collins.
A fertile partnership is now evolving within Scranton between the mayor’s office, council and The Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, according to Bob Durkin, president of the chamber. He contrasts this new reality with the less-than-ideal conditions that often existed in the past, and remarked that the cooperation is fueling substantial growth around the city.
Among these is the use of Federal Opportunity Zones, which allows corporations and banks with stranded capital gains and liabilities to avoid paying taxes. Instead, the organization is allowed to participate in investment opportunities that can later be sold without a capital gains liability.
The chamber identified 11 city areas for zone designation which can be identified as distressed by Harrisburg. Stranded tax liabilities can be invested into these zones, creating pools of development capital.
“Bustling construction sites and cranes are now a common sight within the city” said Durkin.
Durkin is also a supporter of the federal Community Reinvestment Act. This program requires all banks to participate in and report lending that must include small business loans for economic development, investment for community development and mortgages for home ownership in low-to-moderate income areas.
Among the most transforming efforts being pursued by the chamber, and a high priority for Durkin, is the drive to develop a 21st Century workforce trained in job skills with contemporary demand. Among these facets is the chamber’s new Educators in the Workplace program, which allows members of the education system to visit employers working within the sectors of transportation and logistics, advanced manufacturing, construction utilities and professional services, and take their observations back to the classroom.
“We’re also working vigorously to develop paid internships with small business,” said Durkin.
Teri Ooms, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development, agrees that Scranton’s downtown revitalization is amazing. She noted the Marketplace at Steamtown successfully moved forward using the mixed-use formula of the Reading Marketplace, and this effort is now tying in with the downtown housing demand.
Central to this housing growth is the reality that scores of millennials, as opposed to generations past, often prefer to rent in an urban environment. Some baby boomers have also discovered the ease and convenience of downtown apartments.
“Upgrades are therefore being studied for mass transit improvement within Scranton,” said Ooms. “The city also needs a downtown grocery store that will compliment the existing success in food service, hospitality and with the retail entrepreneurs.”
Ooms voiced concerns that urban property taxes, including those within Scranton, are too high and have contributed to the problem of city blight. When property owners can’t afford their taxes, they may abandon a parcel, with this occurring at the same time rents are being pushed up. This discourages young families and low wage earners from living in the city.
“Blight must constantly be battled,” said Ooms. “Real solutions with taxation are vital, and we must do this quickly while the economy is good because the development window is not open forever.”
Despite Scranton’s current bailout of its financial problems by selling the sewer authority, Ooms also voiced what she calls “universal concerns” about the fiscal situation within municipalities. She charged that, in general, government finances are vulnerable because of municipal pension problems and overspending, and that a realistic investigation will indicate these pensions around the state simply are not sustainable.
“Unfortunately, there’s little initiative to solve this problem,” said Ooms. “We need long-term solutions because the pay-out dollars are not there with defined benefit pensions. We need conversion to defined contribution formats.”
The student body within Scranton’s biggest college is now experiencing several game changers as the city’s higher educational system evolves. Joseph Roback, associate vice provost for admissions and enrollment at The University of Scranton, described how recent changes to the FASFA financial aid system now allow the college enrollment process to begin earlier, with prospective students receiving information about financial aid offers quicker than in the past.
These perspective residents of Scranton can therefore take their campus visits earlier, decide upon a school, and enroll before the deadline of May 1.
“This change is affecting everyone in the admissions process, while also giving the student, school and parents longer to decide upon their choices,” said Roback.
In another swing, prospective students who are selecting courses of study are sometimes leaning away from a 100 percent career focus that almost guarantees a job upon graduation. Instead, the enrollment pendulum is swinging to a recognition to the value of liberal arts.
“The skill sets learned from liberal arts are invaluable,” said Roback. “These include critical thinking plus an ethical and moral grounding, which employers have always been interested in.”
A third change cited by Roback involves the number of students who are becoming interested in five-year programs. Graduation will lead directly to advanced educational recognition, such as a master’s degree, CPA certification, and select special education opportunities.
The university also is experiencing a true boom with the number of students choosing life sciences as a curriculum. These include pre-med, occupational therapy, physical therapy and community health administration, with the school recently receiving 1,400 applications for nursing, among which 400 were accepted and 60 students enrolled.
“It’s true that the upcoming students are increasingly concerned about the price of higher education,” said Roback. “We have been generous if the with the aid packages we are offering.”
Ron Zibo, interim CEO of the two Commonwealth Health System hospitals in Scranton, noted that technological advancements within his Scranton health care system are numerous, as well as ongoing.
The Commonwealth Health Heart & Vascular Institute at Regional Hospital, which has garnered national attention for its array of programs, recently became the first hospital in the region and one of four nationwide to receive the HeartCARE Center Award. This is a national distinction of excellence by the American College of Cardiology.
“Expansion of the hospital’s cardiology program also now offers transcatheter aortic valve replacement and the watchman procedure for treatment of atrial fibrillation,” said Zibo.
Nearby Moses Taylor Hospital has been recertified by The Joint Commission for Perinatal Care, an accreditation it was the first in the nation to receive. As the only hospital in Lackawanna County that delivers babies, Moses Taylor has added 24-hour EEG service for pediatric patients.
Moses Taylor also continues to focus on women’s health and opened the Women’s Imaging Center at Advanced Imaging Specialists in Dunmore. This facility offers breast tomosynthesis, or 3-D mammography.
“Regional Hospital has undergone a major renovation of its intensive care unit,” said Zibo. “Moses Taylor has also added navigation bronchoscopy, a procedure that uses electromagnetic technology to localize and guide endoscopic tools through the bronchial pathways of the lung.”