Aggressive policy helps turn Scranton around
For years, Scranton, Pa.’s, Central Business District, always the city’s historical, commercial and retail hub, was riddled with vacant properties and a deteriorated infrastructure. Recognizing the need to turn the city around, Scranton’s leaders identified downtown redevelopment as the number one priority and called for renewed investment in the Central Business District.
The idea was to revitalize an entire three-city-block area – rather than engage in a parcel-by-parcel redevelopment – by aggressively pursuing a plan for a major downtown retail facility that would create jobs and ultimately encourage local citizens to return to the area.
The redevelopment also would serve to complement the adjacent land being developed for the Steamtown National Park, which, since 1986, has provided a showcase for the nation’s largest collection of steam locomotives century rolling stock.
The revitalization effort began in 1988 when the city adopted the Lackawanna Avenue Urban Redevelopment Plan that envisioned the development of an entire three-block area in the core of the city’s downtown into a $101 million, two-level, 700,000-sq. ft. regional downtown shopping center called The Mall At Steamtown.
The project created 394 jobs during its construction and an additional 1,350 new, permanent jobs, 810 which were geared to low- and moderate-income persons.
Since The Mall’s November 1993 Grand Opening, retail sales have soared, surpassing the expectations of tenants like the Bombay Co. and Eddie Bauer, national retail chains that generally do not make a practice of locating in untested areas. Additionally, The Mall has become a hub for civic activities.
The redevelopment plan ultimately integrated two significant areas, the Steamtown National Park and Historic Site and the Lackawanna Avenue Commercial Historic District, which received National Register designation in 1983. The Steamtown National Historic Site, located on 43 acres in the heart of downtown adjacent to the redevelopment site is linked to The Mall by a pedestrian bridge.
The original proposal for the site met with much opposition, but an integrated site plan that mitigated citizen concerns was eventually formed. The overall design now blends with existing architecture in the Historic District. Nearly half-a-million visitors are expected to visit Steamtown this Summer and Fall after its July opening.
The plan also called for the restoration of three long-vacant, historically significant buildings across the street from the proposed mall site. Now fully restored to their original grandeur, the buildings are occupied by state and- National Westminster Bank employees and the Internal Revenue Service.
The entire project was fraught with obstacles and took nearly seven years to complete, but the rewards to the community and its citizens have been great. Still, even with this aggressive development downtown, Scranton was facing severe economic difficulties and was formally declared “financially distressed” by the state. However, over the past five years, the city has seen nearly $500 million in capital investment and the creation of jobs in a local economy that suffered a high unemployment rate.
Six hundred new businesses have been created in Scranton since 1990, increasing revenues through mercantile taxes on gross profits of retail businesses, permit fees for new construction and occupational taxes as a result of employment in new and expanding businesses.
Financing for The Mall was a collaborative effort, with the state Department of Community Affairs providing more than $10 million and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development providing another $25 million.