Our Community Is Moving Forward

April 22, 2019 GMT

On multiple occasions over the years, I have heard Dr. Pat Leahy, the outgoing president of Wilkes University, say with great conviction that our community’s best days are still ahead of us. I believe him and share his optimism. Critics could argue that the area will never rebound from the bustling days of when coal was king. To be sure, our society and the economy are different from what they once were. Yet, as Teddy Roosevelt told us, “it is not the critic who counts” and there are a number of things currently happening that should give all of us encouragement that Dr. Leahy’s words are more than hollow hype and Pollyannaish thinking. Nearly five years ago, I wrote an editorial that welcomed Wico Van Genderen as the new president of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce. In that column, I emphasized that our community needed a strong chamber. At that time, however, the chamber was carrying more than $13 million in debt on real estate investments and those obligations were impeding the chamber’s ability to truly serve its members and execute on a vision for our community’s future. With strong volunteer leadership from people like Frank Joanlanne, Troy Standish, Bill Sordoni, Tara Mugford Wilson, Liz Graham, Steve Clemente and many others, the chamber has been completely transformed. Today, the organization is one pending transaction away from being free from all that debt. More importantly, the chamber team, led by Wico, Joe Boylan and Lindsay Griffin, is moving forward and aggressively focused on supporting the community and improving our local business climate. In those five years, more than 5,000 new jobs have been created and our local unemployment rate has dropped from 11 percent to around 5 percent today. The chamber has developed a dozen new programs and initiatives to promote business startups, innovation, growth, and expansion. Today, the chamber is stronger and the best is yet to come. In March, a ribbon was cut on another transformational change that was a decade in the making. The Jewish Community Alliance celebrated the opening of the Sidney and Pauline Friedman Jewish Community Center. The new JCC isn’t just about a brand new $12 million building. It is an investment in the long-term future of the local Jewish community. Kudos to Rob Friedman, Chuck Cohen, Paul Lantz, David Schwager and others for their visionary leadership and thinking about future generations. For those generations, the best is yet to come. There are many more examples of considerable progress being pursued. For example, Wilkes University and King’s College are making very significant investments in the downtown. Misericordia University, my alma mater, is having a genuine impact on how state government is addressing long-term human service needs and Luzerne County Community College continues to play a critical role in workforce development opportunities. Also, the decision by Berkshire-Hathaway Guard Insurance to stay in Wilkes-Barre and keep hundreds of local residents employed was a huge win for the area and the purchase of the former Guard Insurance buildings by Kris Jones for the purpose of accelerating hi-tech business startups holds promising potential. Additionally, Rob Mericle is creating “Discover NEPA,” a social media platform to better market Northeastern Pennsylvania and attract even more investment here. Among all the many good things that are happening and will impact our future, perhaps the biggest game-changer will be our community’s young professionals. A couple of weeks ago, the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce co-hosted a full day conference for young professionals. It was a sold-out event and the talent, energy, leadership ability and commitment to the community that was on display that day was very inspiring. As the conference ended, I certainly believed that the best is yet to come. I am certainly not suggesting everything is perfect and there aren’t more hurdles to cross, but I do have a sense that our community is truly moving forward. Henry Ford once said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Our community clearly has some momentum. I am remaining hopeful that we can keep moving forward together and, as Dr. Leahy said, “our best days are still ahead of us.” BILL JONES is president and CEO at United Way of Wyoming Valley.