027 After photo of Wilkes-Barre home chosen for Gateway Facade Improvement Program.

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WILKES-BARRE – First impressions are important.

That’s why the city applied for a grant to improve the exterior appearance of homes along the city’s gateway streets.

The Department of Community and Economic Development announced last week the city will get $225,000 for the “Gateway Façade Improvement Project,” with the goal to improve some 50 homes at a maximum of $5,000 each.

The money is part of some $12.2 million in gaming tax revenue that will be used to fund 19 projects in Luzerne County.

“The city modeled this façade program after the federal Elm Street program that saw 72 homes improved at a $250,000 investment,” said Mayor Tom Leighton. “To the best of my knowledge, this is a unique program for the gaming funds. The city hopes to grow this program in the years to come and use this pilot program as a springboard to other similar neighborhood improvement initiatives.”

The program would target the main gateways that run through the city connecting neighborhoods both to the downtown and to major routes and highways that connect the city to other municipalities and interstate highways. Eligible streets include Blackman Street, Carey Avenue, Coal Street, East Main Street, Northampton Street, North Main Street, North Washington Street, River Street, Scott Street and South Main Street.

Leighton said the incentive-based program to help build the tax base and improve the makeup of the most heavily trafficked roadways in the city.

Leighton said state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Wilkes-Barre, and Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, were strong advocates for the project in Harrisburg.

Pashinski said great strides have been made in revitalizing Wilkes-Barre and the façade improvements will offer a positive and welcoming image for residents and visitors alike.

“When the economy of downtown Wilkes-Barre is thriving, it is good for property values, it’s good for business, and every resident benefits,” he said.

Greg Barrouk, the city’s economic development coordinator, originally conceived the program. Barrouk said he was looking for ways to improve the city’s housing stock. With more than 14,000 people working downtown, Barrouk said it’s imperative to improve the way properties look on the city’s main arteries.

“If we want to attract those commuters to move into our neighborhoods, we have to improve the homes they pass every day,” Barrouk said. “This is only the beginning. We hope to move further into the neighborhoods over the coming years. With a down economy, property owners are finding it difficult to invest in their homes; this program will help them do that.

While this program targets gateways of the city, Leighton feels it could easily be adapted to other areas, including blocks that immediately surround city schools or used to systematically rehab housing options in every neighborhood.

“The façade program would help entice new employers and employees to consider relocating their residences and families into the city, which would continue to foster the growth of a diverse community,” Leighton said.

The grant funds will allow the city to help property owners make improvements that may be difficult to afford in the current sluggish economic climate.

“When people are trying to pay bills and put food on the table for their children, they are not considering investing thousands of dollars into the exterior of their homes,” Leighton said. “Most, if not all, homeowners recognize these improvements as necessary, but not financially justified.”

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