Pittston engineer and developer George Albert confirmed he is the lead investor in a Wyoming Valley-based group that submitted a $1.2 million offer to buy the historic former New Jersey Central train station in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Albert said his group is planning a $7.5 million to $8.5 million project that will restore the historic train station, upgrade the facade of the adjacent strip mall and add three new structures totaling an estimated 32,000 square feet in the complex at the corner of Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard.
“It’s going to be a huge improvement to that area if we can make it a success,” Albert said.
The Luzerne County Redevelopment Authority voted in June to enter into a letter of intent to sell the property to Market Square Properties Development LLC but said the investors asked not to be publicly identified until they reached a final decision to proceed with the purchase.
Albert said this initial confidentiality is common as prospective buyers negotiate contracts with tenants, but he said he agreed to identify himself because he has “nothing to hide.” Some county council members and citizens criticized the anonymity of the potential buyer during Tuesday’s council meeting, saying full disclosure is warranted because the train station property was purchased with public funds.
The authority purchased the 6-acre parcel housing the train station and strip mall 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 hired Scranton-based Hinerfeld Realty at the end of 2014 to try to market and sell the property.
Market Square Properties Development is the only entity that has submitted an offer.
Albert said his group, which includes silent partners, has been completing property surveys, environmental assessments and other due diligence while working “extremely aggressively” to market the site to prospective local and national tenants.
The group also developed a master plan that proposes:
• Removal of non-historic train station additions so the original structure can be restored to house a bank, credit union or national franchise restaurant. The station would be the “centerpiece” of the complex.
• A new roughly 2,000-square-foot fast food restaurant or doughnut shop at the corner of Market Street and Wilkes-Barre Boulevard.
• A new 20,000-square-foot building at the center of the property to house a grocery store or retailers.
• A new 10,000-square-foot retail property closer to McDonald’s, which is not part of the complex.
• Exterior sprucing of the strip mall, with plans to retain several existing tenants.
The design plans for a more traditional look so new construction ties in with the historic train station and nearby landmark Stegmaier Building, he said.
“We want to get some uniformity there, some continuity with the rest of the property,” Albert said.
Albert said he is working on the Turkey Hill project at Coal Street in Wilkes-Barre and has been involved in projects throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania for more than 20 years.
The brick train station was built in 1868 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The vacant structure has attracted the homeless in recent years.
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.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.