Scranton pins future on a make-over

April 06, 1992|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

SCRANTON, PA — SCRANTON, Pa. -- This city, known for its closed-up coal mines and for its junkyard along the interstate, hopes to become known for something else: Making itself over.

As city officials watched yesterday, five furniture stores were sent crashing to the ground in a three-second operation designed to change forever the way this city in northeastern Pennsylvania thinks about itself and does business.

The stores, ranging from three to nine stories high, were imploded by a Phoenix, Md., firm to make way for a $101 million shopping mall that is widely seen as a key to the survival of Scranton's ailing downtown.

"Everything went extremely well. It surpassed our expectations," said an exhausted Douglas Loizeaux, a partner in Controlled Demolition Inc., which set the 11 charges.

The implosion began with what sounded like cannon fire instantly toppling the brick and concrete structures. It then sent a huge, thick, gray cloud of debris wafting into an east wind on an otherwise crisp, clear morning.

Only two neighboring store windows were shattered by vibrations from the blast, Mr. Loizeaux said. The trickiest part of the operation was getting curiosity-seekers out of harm's way, a task that delayed the explosion for 30 minutes, he said.

The monthlong demolition project cost the developers about $1.1 million. About half that amount paid for the implosion, and the balance funded three weeks of conventional demolition work that cleared 21 smaller surrounding buildings from a four-block site, said Joseph Giantomaso, director of construction for Shopco, the New York-based company that is a partner in the mall development.

Mr. Giantomaso said the Mall at Steamtown, named for its proximity to a railroad museum being built nearby, will include 100 stores when it opens in the fall next year.

Its 682,000 square feet of shopping space will make it about three-quarters the size of Towson Town Center or White Marsh Mall.

The mall comes at a time when political and financial events seem to highlight the contrasting faces of Pennsylvania's fifth-largest city. Scranton's population of 81,805 is about half what it was in 1930 when the mines were operating. Its 3.4 percent tax on wages has sent many homeowners to the suburbs, and nearly 22 percent of the residents are 65 or older, making it one of the oldest population bases in the state.

The city has been running a deficit for three years, and the school board recently had to close one of the three high schools because the building is falling apart.

But Scranton also has become a hub of construction activity, with more than $200 million in projects going on downtown and more than $340 million citywide.

Under construction within a few blocks of the planned mall are a $23 million state veterans home, a $13.5 million library at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton and $65 million worth of work at the Steamtown National Historic Site.

The cost of the Steamtown historic site has sparked criticism on Capitol Hill of the museum and its chief sponsor, local Congressman Joseph M. McDade, as a classic case of pork barrel politics. But the project is seen here as a needed shot in the arm.

Scranton Mayor James P. Connors said the mall will bring 1,500 jobs to the city -- no small claim in a place where February's unemployment rate was 9.1 percent.

The mall, which has been planned for the past six years, generated considerable controversy.

Nancy Bisignany, president of the 250-member Architectural Heritage Association, said her group fought in court to save the facades of the buildings, which go back to the 1900s and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

City officials say the building fronts were too dilapidated. Besides, they say, without the mall, the only department store in town would have closed, leaving Scranton without a central shopping district.

"We're really at the edge of what separates success from failure," said Michael Washo, director of the city's Office of Economic and Community Development. "It's not as if there were a lot of options left here."

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