Wilkes-Barre eyes name change to South Scranton

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First Posted: 3/30/2015

WILKES-BARRE — Frustrated by the region’s reputation for violent crime, leaders here are advancing efforts to rename the city “South Scranton.”

Their efforts, unveiled at a City Council meeting last week and scheduled to be put up for a vote later this month, aim to capitalize on Scranton’s reputation as a safe, progressive community where unemployment and crime rates are much lower.

“We’re not throwing in the towel, but we are thinking outside the box,” Councilman Jeanette Saunders told Weekender. “There’s also a certain elegance and sophistication to the name South Scranton that will resonate with residents.”

The name change is widely expected to pass unanimously.

Pocono inspiration

Wilkes-Barre’s hardly alone in its efforts to turn to a name change to reinvent itself. In 1954, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged to form Jim Thorpe, named after the iconic athlete.

Decades after the name change, Jim Thorpe saw its fortunes change as it billed itself as a tourist community. What had been a long-suffering coal town has transformed itself into one of the most-visited locales in the Poconos.

In a nod to those efforts, Saunders said the city sought bids from celebrities who would pay Wilkes-Barre for naming rights. Ultimately, though, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a choice.

“I thought Courtney Love, Pa., had a nice ring to it, but others were insisting on Dustin Diamond, Pa., which sounds a little tacky to me,” Saunders said.

Among those rooting for Dustin Diamond was Mayor Gina Scalise, who said she “liked the interplay between Dustin’s last name and our legacy as the Diamond City.”

“Could you imagine the money that could roll in if we were a destination for Dustin Diamond fans?” Scalise said.

A lack of consensus ultimately led lawmakers to look closer to home.

Northern neighbor

During what was described as a series of tense meetings, officials mulled numerous options before deciding on South Scranton.

When the celebrity idea failed, leaders went back to the drawing board, focusing largely on names centered around the region’s most aesthetically beautiful communities: Nanticoke and Hazleton.

It wasn’t until several meetings had elapsed that Councilman Nick Divisio tossed out the idea of South Scranton.

Divisio said his suggestion stopped the council dead in its tracks.

“The solution was so simple, so brilliant and so obvious, that, when I said it out loud, you couldn’t hear a pin drop, Divisio said. “Here we were trying to figure out how to capitalize on our proximity to Hazleton when the answer was right up Interstate 81.”

Saunders said she and others “felt foolish that we hadn’t thought of South Scranton before.”

Council members say they expect the name change to be met enthusiastically by city residents.

“When our claim to fame is the number of murders we can rack up in a single year, it’s time to start over,” Scalise said. “Scranton’s nailed it. They have transformed themselves into the Paris or Milan of the Northeast. Why wouldn’t we want to capitalize on how well they’ve done?”

In many respects, Scalise said, Wilkes-Barre already is an extension of Scranton.

Universal appeal

Leaders say the name change should be quick and painless, with lawmakers in Harrisburg having already indicated in public remarks that they support the change.

“If there’s one thing I’ll say for us, when we want to roll up our sleeves and get things done, we roll up our sleeves and get things done,” Saunders said.

The council’s quick action comes amid broad support among state leaders.

“Too often, Americans view Philadelphia or Pittsburgh as Pennsylvania’s greatest cities. When, in reality, Scranton’s leading the charge,” said Abigail Yates, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “Culture? Scranton. Jobs? Scranton. Innovation? Scranton. Crime? Wilkes-Barre. From the governor’s perspective, piggybacking on Scranton’s success makes a lot of sense.”

Scalise said that while Yates’ remarks sting a bit, “the facts speak for themselves.”

Many residents say they agree.

Murray O’Toole has been trying to sell his house off of Coal Street for three years.

“People see that Wilkes-Barre address and they won’t even consider taking a look,” he said. “But you change my address, you put Scranton in the name and, boy, it wouldn’t surprise me if I have my choice of buyers.”

His neighbor, Edwin Quaker, echoed those sentiments.

“It’s nice to finally see some positive changes around here,” Quaker said. “I just hope this isn’t done half-assed. We need to cleanse ourselves of the Wilkes-Barre name everywhere — even the roads.”

Scalise said her administration is committed to the change, noting that Wilkes-Barre Boulevard is being renamed to honor one of the city’s most cherished treasures.

“We’re all-in,” she said. “When all of us are unveiling our new ‘Welcome to South Scranton’ signs on Sherman Hills Boulevard, you’ll know just how serious we are.”