After a decade of government ownership, the deteriorating historic New Jersey Central train station in downtown Wilkes-Barre will be sold to a private developer.
The Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority, which had acquired the property at the urging of past county officials in April 2006, voted Tuesday to finalize the property’s sale for $1.2 million to Market Square Properties Development LLC, an investment group led by Pittston engineer and developer George Albert.
Market Square must pay $120,000 at the closing and will have up to 18 months to pay the remaining $1.08 million. The sale will close in 60 days.
The authority isn’t being put at financial risk by the transaction because Market Square must submit an irrevocable letter of credit within 30 days of Tuesday’s agreement, guaranteeing the authority $1.08 million if Market Square encounters unforeseen problems coming up with the money within 18 months, said authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly.
Market Square requested this payment arrangement so it could start work on the train station while continuing negotiations with prospective tenants and finalizing its financing structure, officials said.
The station at the corner of Market Street and Pennsylvania Avenue has sustained increasing damage from graffiti and vandalism in recent months, Albert said.
“There’s an immediate need for repair and restoration of the station,” he said.
Albert said Wednesday he plans to house his real estate and consulting business offices on the train station’s second floor and is seeking a restaurant or commercial tenant for the first floor.
He set an end-of-summer target to renovate the train station and strip mall.
Old train cars and non-historic additions will be removed, leaving the original brick station built in 1868, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.
Work on the station will include roof and window repairs, new utilities and facade improvements, he said.
A new metal roof with dormers will be added to the strip mall along with facade upgrades and landscaping, he said.
The $7.5 million to $8.5 million project eventually will include three new structures housing eateries, a grocery store or other retail/commercial tenants, he said.
All structures on the 6-acre complex, which includes land fronting Northampton Street, will be designed with a traditional look to blend in with the train station and nearby landmark Stegmaier Building, he said.
“We’re excited about it. We really are,” Albert said. “I think it’s going to be a real improvement.”
The purchase also will return the property to the tax rolls, George said.
Assessed at $1.2 million, the real estate taxes are $6,900 to the county and $19,600 to the Wilkes-Barre Area School District under current tax rates, records show. The city tax payment was unavailable because the city is the only municipality in the county that continues to use its own assessments. The payments to taxing bodies will increase as new structures are added, George said.
Another entity created by George — Red Talon Group 1 LLC — is buying the Innovation Center @ Wilkes-Barre on South Main Street in Wilkes-Barre from the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business & Industry for $2.6 million as part of a project to create high-tech jobs and spark other growth.
George expects to close on that purchase in June.
Citizen Brian Shiner, who attended Tuesday’s authority meeting, said he supports the investment of private funds to boost the economy and save a historic structure that has become an eyesore. Shiner attended a county council tour of the station one year ago that commenced with the discovery of two homeless people dozing on sleeping bags inside.
A prior county commissioner concept for the project was not as attractive because it would have involved the investment of additional county community development funds and did not include the construction of new structures at the site that will help the tax base, Shiner said.
“The important thing is that it is finally progressing and something good is coming out of it, moving not just Wilkes-Barre city but also the entire county forward,” Shiner said.
The redevelopment authority had purchased the complex for $5.8 million in April 2006 using federal community development funds provided by prior county commissioners.
With no money to fund renovations, the authority started marketing the property for sale in 2014. Market Square was the only entity to submit a purchase offer. The offer was made in June, but the developer had obtained extensions to complete due diligence and negotiate with prospective tenants.
An outside appraiser had estimated the property was worth $1.88 million in 2014. However, authority officials said appraisers must value a property for its highest and best use — which for this property means the worth without the historic train station. Appraisers indicated the value would be lower if a buyer kept the station due to renovation costs, officials said.