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Empty Bank Buildings Difficult to Fill in W-B
By Denise Allabaugh Staff Writer

(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice, April 24, 2006

WILKES-BARRE - While landmark buildings in central Wilkes-Barre are being preserved - like the Hotel Sterling and the Irem Temple Mosque - bank buildings on West Market Street, once the office hubs of downtown Wilkes-Barre, have fallen into major disrepair.

But the multi-story, historic structures are mostly vacant, and owners say they donít see much sense in fixing them up unless they can lure new tenants.

Officials from the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry have been working with the owners to lease space, but it hasnít been an easy task.

Forty percent of the First National Community Bank building at 23 W. Market St. is vacant, said Ali Kazimi, who has owned the building since 1988. The bank and opthamologist Dr. Muas Hindi are the only remaining tenants in the three-story building.

Walls are crumbling on the vacant third floor. Kazimi said he would be happy to renovate it if tenants would move there, but he has not received any interest. He has been working with the chamber to lease the space.

Eighty-five percent of the Wachovia Bank building across the street is vacant, said Bill Wolf, senior vice president of CBRE Richard Ellis Realtors. The only tenants remaining in the three-story building, which was the former Wyoming National Bank, is the Wachovia Bank and the U.S. Post Office. Since a water pipe burst on the ninth floor of the 11-story PNC Bank building at 11 W. Market St. in January, the bank is the only tenant left in the historic downtown skyscraper.

The fifth to eleventh floors were condemned. Wilkes-Barre Fire Department posted a sign in the PNC Bank buildingís lobby warning the upper floors are dangerous and the public should keep out.

The water damaged the fire alarm system, said Wilkes-Barre Fire Inspector Bill Sharksnas.

Owner Barry Singer of Eastern Parkway Realty in Irvington, N.J. has been notified of the damage. Code violations must be corrected before the upper floors can reopen, Sharksnas said. Singer could not be reached for comment.

Chamber officials have been working with Michael Tomarelli of the Markward Group of Allentown to find a buyer to renovate the building and find office tenants to occupy it.

"Itís a beautiful old building," Tomarelli said. "The integrity of the building is sound and it is a prime candidate for restoration."

Attorneys Robert Panowicz, Jerome Dunham, Darren Mendrzycki, Joseph Comerota, Christine Trottini and Bernard Kotulak, who were located on the 11th floor of the PNC Bank building, moved into the Citizens Bank building across the street.

Panowicz suspects that homeless people who loitered in the building may have caused the water damage. Millions of dollars need to be invested before it is brought back up to par, he said.

At the Citizens Bank building, Panowicz said the new owner has made a "concentrated effort" to maintain the building and bring in new tenants.

Brooklyn, N.Y. businessman Zalmar Reiss, owner of the electronics, computer and camera distribution company Z. Reiss and Associates, purchased the 14-story Citizens Bank building at 8-18 West Market St. in December for $2.5 million.

Reiss plans to turn the historic building back into first-class rental space, Schwager said.

In the meantime, about 60 percent of the building is vacant, said Wilkes-Barre Attorney David Schwager, who represented Reissí holding company, Wilkes-Barre Holdings L.P., in the transaction. More than 100,000 square feet of office space is available, he said.

"We have lost some major tenants," Schwager said. "The bank doesnít use as many floors as it once did."

When the law firm Hourigan, Kluger and Quinn moved out of the Citizens Bank building in 2002 into a new facility at 600 Third Ave., Kingston, two floors were left vacant.

The law firmís new building in Kingston has less space, but it has a surface parking lot, which is important for injured clients, said Sue Greenfield, business manager. When the law firm moved out of the Citizens Bank building, it was starting to deteriorate, Greenfield said.

"If the downtown continues to come back, weíre not opposed to coming back," Greenfield said. "We still believe in the downtown area."

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