Check-out time for Sterling Hotel

Bill Thomas, Assistant News Editor

The fate of Wilkes-Barre’s Sterling Hotel seems to have been sealed once and for all by a recent controversial announcement. The 113-year-old Sterling was officially condemned late last month by Michael Simonson, Wilkes-Barre’s assistant director of operations.
City residents and Wilkes University students traveling in either direction along River St. or westbound along W. Market St. must now take the long way around the crumbling hotel. A detour redirects northbound River St. commuters to turn right onto W. Northampton St., southbound River St. commuters to turn left onto W. Union St. and westbound W. Market Street commuters to turn right onto South Franklin Street. Only W. Market’s eastbound lanes remain open.
It may be an inconvenience for drivers and business owners in the area, but the detour will remain in place until the Sterling is demolished and the area cleared. Demolition is expected to occur within the next 30 to 60 days, said Simonson, who added that, during demolition,  more lanes may also be closed.
“The damage sustained (by the Sterling) from the flood was the tipping point,” Simonson explained. “We put this detour up because that’s how bad it is inside. We’re also afraid of objects falling from the building.”
Thomas Leonard, professional engineer and owner of Leonard Engineering, Inc., entered the Sterling in mid-September to investigate the effects of floodwaters from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee on the already unstable building. Commenting on his findings, Leonard asserted that the state the Sterling is in now is hazardous enough to warrant both the cordoning-off of the building and a recommendation for immediate demolition.
“No good could come from waiting,” Leonard said. “It’s beyond repair. There’s no feasible way we’re going to restore this building, as much as some people would like to. I would love to see it (fixed). From the outside, you can’t tell how bad it is on the inside. … It’s very unfortunate it was let go like this and the interior was left to deteriorate.”
Some allege that such statements overplay the severity of the Sterling’s post-flood condition as an excuse to push for demolition over preservation. One such individual is Sally Healey, an adjunct English professor at Luzerne County Community College who once served as coordinator for Wilkes-Barre’s now defunct Neighborhood Impact Team.
“The Sterling has withstood floods long before our time,” Healey said. “Do I think it could still be repaired? Of course.”
Leonard refuted such allegations, arguing that his report on the post-flood instability of the Sterling is based purely on facts, not politics.
“Everybody thinks that somebody’s out to do something underhanded,” Leonard remarked, “but this was just a case of (Wilkes-Barre officials saying) ‘We need to know what the condition of the Sterling is like,’ and we told them.”
Healey is one of the most vocal proponents of the “Save Our Sterling” movement. She and several like-minded protesters are planning to hold a demonstration on the river side of the Sterling on Saturday, Oct. 15 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. However, Healey herself conceded that the upcoming protest may, in fact, be the last.
Though Healey remains committed to averting the Sterling’s seemingly inevitable demolition, she remarked that what she is most upset by is not necessarily that the building may be demolished, but that it was ever allowed to fall into its current condition to begin with. Some may argue that what’s past is past and cannot be undone. But, for many, there is no shortage of questions that still need to be answered.
For Healey, the biggest question, she said, is simply, “What happened to the money?”
The money in question is $6 million total in grant funds that the non-profit organization CityVest received from Luzerne Country, first starting in 2002, to rehabilitate the ailing Sterling. With the decrepit structure now on the verge of being torn down, Healy opined that those funds were misused.
Currently, CityVest claims it is out of money, and thus unable to contribute to the cost of the building’s demolition, which is estimated between $800,000 and $1.2 million. In a letter to Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton, CityVest’s attorney George A. Reihner argued that the responsibility of demolishing the Sterling should fall to city officials.
“(Wilkes-Barre is) combining with (Luzerne County) on this, so it’s a joint effort,” Simonson said, explaining where the money to demolish the Sterling will be coming from. “There will be some state and federal funds used on this, but none of that is from FEMA. None of the funds used on this are going to be disaster-related.”
In July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began an audit of Luzerne County’s community development block grant program, emphasizing in its investigation the grant money given to CityVest.  Though the department estimated then that the audit would be finished by the end of September, that investigation is not yet complete, Andrew Reilly, Luzerne County’s executive director of community development, said.
Neither CityVest Executive Director Alex Rogers nor attorney George A. Reihner was available for comment.
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