Steve Barrouk served as president of the Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry for 18 years and still is chairman of the Diamond City Partnership. We sat down with him to talk about the changes in the Wyoming Valley the past 40 years and some of the most influential projects.
Barrouk said the most challenging and one of the most rewarding projects was bringing an arena to Luzerne County. Faced with opposition, supporters forged ahead after a vote failed to use public money to guarantee loans.
The arena in Wilkes-Barre Twp. opened in 1999 and has caused an economic boom to the surrounding area, leading to the construction of shopping centers, restaurant and hotels.
The project included a new exit off Interstate 81. The arena, now called the Mohegan Sun Arena, attracted the minor league hockey team for the Pittsburgh Penguins and has constantly brought in big-name concerts acts and other shows.
Prior to that project, the area was old mine-scarred land.
“It was a mess up there. It was a Godforsaken property,” Barrouk said. “This turned out to be one of the best reclamation projects.”
The nonprofit organization Earth Conservancy was formed in 1992 to reclaim former mine-scarred land. The organization acquired 16,000 acres, much of it filled with unsightly culm banks and acid mine water pool. New developments have been built on much of the land with other projects in the words.
Mohegan Sun Pocono casino
The casino, which opened in November 2005, has delivered new entertainment options to the area while creating nearly 2,000 jobs and tax revenue. In addition, gambling revenue is used to fund grants to area communities.
“Every year, they spin off big grants back to the community,” Barrouk said.
While the flood of 1972 decimated the Wyoming Valley, it also led to better flood protection. Millions in federal money was used to create the Wyoming Valley Levee System, a series of flood walls built along the river in the early 1990s.
The flood walls were tested in September 2011 when the river levels surpassed that of 1972.
“We now have greater protection than in 1972 and that proved itself in 2011,” Barrouk said.
Additionally, part of that project created the River Common, a riverside park.
Barrouk credited the work and seniority of former U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski with getting federal money for many Wyoming Valley projects, like the levee system and transforming the former Stegmaier Brewery into a federal office building. Kanjorski served from 1985 until 2011.
W-B theatre project
Barrouk said the project to build the movie theatre complex in downtown Wilkes-Barre was almost as big as the arena project. In addition to the theatre, the complex features loft apartments and retail space.
The complex attracts up to 600,000 people per year who otherwise wouldn’t be visiting downtown, he said.
In 1986, department store owner Al Boscov led the effort to reopen the former Paramount Theatre on Public Square as the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. The venue has been a popular place to go see concerts and comedy acts.
New airport terminal
The Joseph M. McDade Terminal Building, which opened in 2006, changed the first impression out-of- town travelers have of the area. The new modern terminal is 70 percent larger that the 47-year-old terminal it replaced.
“Talk about perceptions,” Barrouk said.
The loss of locally run banks was a big hit to the area, Barrouk said.
Some institutions like First Eastern Bank, United Penn Bank and Wyoming National Bank were purchased by national banks.
“The change in banking had a major effect on our city. Those were good, high-paying jobs,” Barrouk said.
Banks still had branch offices with tellers in the city for years, but back office jobs were done out of the area. Over the years, that office space remained vacant.
In recent years, private developers in Wilkes-Barre have started to build loft apartments in the upper floors of some of the former downtown bank buildings.
“People can’t seem to build apartments fast enough,” Barrouk said.
Coal Street project
The Coal Street widening project became a nice gateway to downtown Wilkes-Barre.
“What once was the back door to Wilkes-Barre is now the front entrance,” Barrouk said.
The local colleges have reinvested in the area tremendously, Barrouk said.
“They have done a fantastic job in maintaining the historic districts,” he said. “They have really grown.”
Barrouk said two of the most pressing concerns are saving the Irem Temple building in Wilkes-Barre and bringing a second hotel to the downtown.