Coal Street Project adds two lanes, revamps park

Austin Loukas

Amanda Leonard, Correspondent

Every day, people drive on Coal Street to get to popular Wilkes-Barre destinations, to commute or to get to the other side of town. As of late, it has become a congested, dangerous road giving headaches to many.

Coal Street is a vital road that links Wilkes-Barre Boulevard to Business Route 6309. It also leads to Mohegan Sun Arena, the Wyoming Valley Mall and other commercial businesses.

The $13.7 million Coal Street Project, a plan that will expand the three-lane road to a five-lane highway and revamp a 31-acre park, has been under construction since 2009.

However, the project is not a new idea; it has been talked about since the 1990s.

Butch Frati, Wilkes-Barre director of city operations, said that the idea for the project was developed in the late 1990s by a group who realized that the area needed to expand for businesses to flourish.

“The conceptual idea for the Coal Street Project was put together by the local Metropolitan Planning Organization,” Frati said. “The group identified a need to expand both the areas and roadways leading from the interstate system to urban areas as a way to encourage business investment specifically in the Wilkes-Barre area.”

The MPO is a federally mandated and funded transportation policy making group. Along with the Coal Street Project, the MPO is adopting a Long Range Transportation Plan that will serve as a guide when selecting projects for future transportation improvement programs. These two organizations coincide for the Coal Street Project.

Along with the widening of the existing Coal Street from three lanes to five lanes from State Route 309 to Wilkes-Barre Boulevard, residents of Coal Street will also see a revamping of their front yard.

“New curbing and sidewalks on both sides of Coal Street will be implemented, along with 97 new street lights, updated traffic and pedestrian signalizations and new pavement markings,” Frati said.

Michael Simonson, assistant Wilkes-Barre director of city operations, works closely with Frati and is optimistic about the project.

“It’s our hope that this project will inject life into one of the city’s most trafficked roadways,” he said.

Along with the widening of the road, the 31-acre park, now named the Coal Street Complex, is complete and has office space to rent. It is a two-story structure that houses a 500-seat hockey rink with training facilities and opportunities for the public to skate.

The Coal Street Complex is the former Ice-A-Rama structure. It has been renovated and connected to the new two-story structure. The Coal Street Project also demolished the swimming pool, in preparation for reshaping the park section of Coal Street. Over $600,000 is earmarked for two lighted basketball courts, tennis courts, a playground and a sports field.

This sports complex will be available for ice hockey leagues, tournaments and camps. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins also hold practices at this complex, which is closer to their arena than their formerly used ice rink in Pittston, The Ice Box.

The financing of the $13.7 million project has a breakdown of 80 percent federal funding and 20 percent local funding, Frati said.

“The local match is a combination of three local taxing bodies contributing to a fund that is managed by the Luzerne Count Redevelopment Authority,” he said.

On May 18, 2009, the Coal Street Project received $950,000 in federal funding from Senator Bob Casey and Congressman Paul Kanjorski. This funding will be specifically used to construct new basketball courts, a sports field and other public recreational amenities.

Though Coal Street has already seen its fair share of demolition, renovation and construction, it is not over yet and Coal Street businesses are hurting due to lack of customers and difficulty with entering their business.

Nicole Theodore, owner of Arena Bar and Grill, said that the project has been affecting her business.

“We now need to spend more money in the form of marketing and advertising to compensate for our lack of traffic flow,” she said.

Corridors blocked the entrance for Arena Bar and Grill and Walgreens, making it difficult for customers to enter their businesses with ease.

Across the street from Arena Bar and Grill and Walgreens, Sam’s Club sees similar problems.

Sharon Holloman, Sam’s Club employee, has to redirect her route to work due to the congestion of the road.

“I usually come up Northampton Street instead of Coal Street since it’s always so busy,” she said.

James Conlon, a Sam’s Club supervisor, faces the problem of traffic congestion when cashiers report late to work due to traffic.

“Not only is the construction inconvenient to us, its also dangerous,” he said.

Coal Street is a popular street that many need to travel every day. However, the construction deters some people from going to Coal Street businesses.

“If I ever went ice skating, I’d be stuck there for five days trying to get out of the parking lot,” Conlon said.

Though residents, commuters and businesses have shared in the stress of the project, Frati said that the end of construction is in sight.

“The project is scheduled for completion by the end of October 2012,” he said. “As the project stands now, it is relatively close to the original schedule, however by the end of 2011 the project was a few weeks behind schedule but with the extraordinary warm winter the contractor was able to make up time.”