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The State of Scranton: A Resilient City

A newly launched seminar series informs the University ‘gown’ about its beloved town, opening discussions to further engage faculty, staff and students.

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We hold a place in our hearts for this city.

Some of us grew up here, roaming the city’s hills. Some of us passed through, interning downtown or leasing a house on Vine. Some stayed. Some chose to return with a family in tow. Whatever the scenario, we’ve gained something from Scranton. Its history, born of coal mines, forged from iron works, made it what it is today. Its wondrous, complicated history became a little part of our own. Yet, that history is not complete.

Several University groups organized a seminar series titled, “The State of Scranton,” to inform faculty, staff and students about issues facing the Greater Scranton area. Topics have included everything from the city’s financial recovery to development of a regional trail system.

The Office of Community and Government Relations and the Campus Ministries’ Center for Service and Social Justice created the series in cooperation with the Jesuit Center, Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and Education for Justice.

“We saw this as a great way for faculty, staff and students to engage further in both the challenges facing our city, and its progress,” said Julie Schumacher Cohen, director of community and government relations. “We hoped that through these seminars our campus community would have the information and connections to foster even more positive collaboration between the University and the city.”

Cohen gave the first talk of the series alongside Patricia Vaccaro, director of Campus Ministries’ Center for Service and Social Justice, in March 2015.

“Because we are such a large part of the Scranton area, we have a responsibility to try to better our local community with the wealth of resources that the University has to offer,” said Vaccaro.

Vaccaro added that bettering Scranton means anything from offering free University events to encouraging student volunteers to provide health care to uninsured residents through the Leahy Clinic to translating documents for the immigrant population.

The benefits go both ways, said Vaccaro. The Scranton region provides endless educational opportunities for students and offers everything from events to natural resources to a vibrant and generous spirit. “We try to bring in various civic, nonprofit and social service organizations to make the campus aware of the many opportunities available in our area,” she said.

In the series opening, Vaccaro gave an overview of Scranton’s nonprofit organizations, which work together to address problems, while Cohen outlined the city’s revitalization efforts and socio-economic context. Cohen explained that according to Census Bureau statistics, Scranton has a lower median household income than the state average and a higher percentage of persons living below the poverty level. At the same time, Cohen shared how, “downtown development, active neighborhood groups, thriving arts and culture, and increased focus on wellness and recreation all bode well for the city’s future.”

So Scranton, like many small- to mid-sized cities, has its share of struggles, as well as opportunities. What this series confirmed is that an open dialogue about the issues and points of cooperation can make all the difference.

Challenges and Solutions

“All the foundation is here. All the positive stuff is here,” said Henry J. Amoroso, whose company was hired to assist the City of Scranton with its financial recovery plan.

In his seminar presentation, the second in the series, Amoroso, founder and executive director of HJA Strategies, associate professor and chair of the Department of Economics and Legal Studies at Seton Hall University, discussed his work for the city. He compared Scranton, which built an infrastructure for a population twice its current size, to some cities in western Pennsylvania, parts of upstate New York and parts of eastern Ohio, cities that also went through population shifts and economic downturns. Those other modern cities, however, turned into “ghost towns.”

According to Amoroso, Scranton has resiliency and the benefits of strong education and health care, — “Eds and Meds” — which not only provide jobs, but support economic growth even in a city that was challenged with the “loss of industry, the growth of government and pension obligations, and the loss of population.”

At its height, Scranton had 150,000 residents. In 2013, the population was down to nearly 76,000, but that number is now increasing.

Reducing the city’s accrued debt, said Amoroso, also means addressing underfunded pensions, restructuring police and fire contracts, moderately increasing property taxes and monetizing the sewer and parking authorities.

Amoroso is confident that there is a solution. And, even now, while Scranton is still considered a “distressed” Act 47 city, he and his colleagues see promise in the downtown living boom, thanks in part to new luxury apartment buildings, new restaurants, a new gym and a soon-to-be marketplace and theater at the Mall at Steamtown, now the “Marketplace at Steamtown,” which is under new ownership.

Despite perceived high property taxes in the city, housing is affordable at the median income, an attractive selling point. In fact, Forbes recently named Scranton among “America’s best cities for raising a family.”

“We need to take advantage of the new millennial population shift that wants to be back in good, solid semi-urban centers just like Scranton. We need to remove those barriers and bring them back to the city,” said Amoroso. “There’s not a study that does not show that this is the migration over the next 10 or 20 years.”

Welcoming Strangers into Our Midst

In addition to the potential that Amoroso highlights for attracting more millennials to the city, another new group is already arriving in Scranton: refugees. This group is upping the population and infusing the city with a special diversity. Catholic Social Services has reported that more than 1,200 Bhutanese refugees have arrived since 2009, as well as 400 Meskhetian Turks and several Syrian families. In the Scranton School District, an estimated 36 languages are spoken.

“Scranton is a small city with many resources,” said Om Timsina, a proud Scranton resident who was forced from Bhutan with his family when he 3 years old.

Timsina spent 18 years in Nepal as a refugee, learning and then teaching English. In 2009, he was among the first groups of Bhutanese refugees to come to Scranton. Since then, he has become a U.S. citizen and now works as a case manager for Catholic Social Services (CSS) of the Diocese of Scranton.

He told his story during the seminar series, speaking alongside Sonya Sarner, program director for refugee and immigration services for CSS. Together, they discussed resettlement services to refugees, immigrants and migrants.

Sarner and her team meet refugees upon arrival, and provide “safe and affordable” housing, as well as basic furniture and other household items. They assist in enrolling refugees in ESL classes, registering children in school and finding employment. Although the CSS team is “always there for our refugees,” said Sarner, the aforementioned services only last for three months.

“I wish we could give them three years of services,” said Sarner. “Whether you speak English or not, you have to go to work.”

In general, Sarner believes that the community has graciously welcomed refugees. Members of the University’s refugee crisis committee have worked closely with CSS, from welcoming refugee families at the airport to helping to coordinate a unique “pop-up” eatery experience featuring local Syrian refugee women as chefs.

The Living Wage

There are many efforts in the city to attract new jobs and increase workforce development opportunities, which is why the University chose to recently focus on what constitutes a “living wage” in NEPA, the subject of a new study and a State of Scranton seminar.

During the past year, the subject of minimum wage has been a topic of debate, both locally and nationally. The last time Pennsylvania raised the minimum wage was in 2006. Since then, 29 states and D.C. have raised their minimum wage.

According to the “Living Wage Report 2016” — a subject of a State of Scranton talk — a significant gap exists between the minimum wage and a “living wage” for families in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. The report, released by the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development, The University of Scranton’s Education for Justice program and the Office of Community and Government Relations, sheds light on what families need to secure “a modest and dignified life” for their children. Additionally, serious economic challenges facing low-income families were explained, pointing to the need for more family-sustaining jobs.

According to the study, while many families fall below official federal poverty measurements, there are also many others who work full-time, and are above the poverty line, but still fall short of earning an adequate living wage to provide for themselves and their children. Since they do not earn a living wage, they will likely have trouble meeting basic expenses, such as housing, food, child and medical care, transportation and taxes.

“There are so many variables that are feeding into this problem, yet there are also so many opportunities to mitigate it in the future,” said Teri Ooms, the institute’s executive director and an author of the study. “The report brings these complex issues to a granular level, so we understand what is happening in our own community.”

The study draws on the region’s network of community agency leaders who pointed to the fraying social safety net and their struggle to help families overcome financial shortfalls. “We heard about the real difficult trade-offs that families in our region are making,” said Michael Allison, Ph.D., coordinator of Education for Justice and chair of the University’s Political Science Department.

The authors, who recommend increasing wages, supporting tax credits for low-income families, and adequately funding and expanding existing social service programs, said that this is just the beginning.

Addressing Homelessness

With a living wage that is unattainable for many, it comes as no surprise that some in the Scranton region struggle to find affordable housing and are left homeless. The official number of homeless has decreased over the years, but because so many do not admit to being without a home, “you can’t rely entirely on the ‘official’ number,” said Msgr. Joseph Kelly who, upon his retirement as the executive director of Catholic Social Services last year, The Times Leader has called “a champion for homeless people.”

In his talk to the University community, Msgr. Kelly told stories of the homeless in Scranton. A family who spent nights sleeping in their car said they did not ask for “help” because they feared that their children would be taken from them if they did.

A woman — confined to a wheelchair — slept on a friend’s couch. She eventually had a falling out with her friend and began to sleep on the street. Still, she did not consider herself homeless, but between homes. “People are embarrassed. People are scared. They don’t report that they are homeless,” Msgr. Kelly said.

“Our shelter, St. Anthony’s Haven, is open 365 days a year. And it’s always full,” he added. “But because this problem is faceless, because it’s nameless, the vast majority of people in Scranton would say we don’t have a homeless problem.”

And when the numbers are skewed, the funding doesn’t come through. Then, the services just are not there when they are needed.

Both longtime citizens and recent arrivals must recognize that there is a problem, even if they don’t see it on the streets, said Msgr. Kelly. Once the problem is recognized and openly discussed, there are numerous ways to help.

In the past, Scranton students have taken part in an intense, weeklong poverty simulation downtown led by Vaccaro, called “Trading Places,” to attempt to better understand the community issue. They sleep outside, use public transportation and visit community agency offices.

Msgr. Kelly is grateful for the University community’s continuous efforts to understand and serve the homeless population, particularly through the Leahy Clinic and active student and employee volunteers. But, there is always more to be done.

Exploration and Beautification

Coal mining, iron and steel production and lace fabrication are all part of Scranton’s history. With deindustrialization, buildings and warehouses were abandoned, creating blighted sections of the city. As the rest of the story goes, the city’s sudden loss of wealth and population left generations picking up the pieces. Now, despite financial woes, there is an influx of residents moving downtown and plenty of revitalization.

The Lackawanna Heritage Valley (LHV), which aims to connect (and reconnect) residents to the region in unique ways, is developing 70 miles of regional trails. Since 2007, more than $8 million was spent on development of the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, and Scranton saw the opening of many new trails and trailheads. In addition, there is now a Scranton architectural walking tour and a bike-share program to encourage everyone, from students to longtime residents, to explore the city and region. One of the bike-borrowing locations is at the University’s Weinberg Memorial Library.

LHV’s director, Natalie Gelb, explained the importance of preserving and enhancing the physical character and economic vitality of the communities in the Lackawanna Valley during her State of Scranton talk.

“We tell the region’s story and try to create a sense of pride and a sense of place,” said Gelb.

The LHV is spearheading various efforts to connect both the University and the local community to the city’s history. For example, the Scranton Iron Furnaces (“remnants of a once extensive plant operated by the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Company that began in 1840,” according to the Anthracite Museum) is the subject of a “Scranton, What if?” plan to imagine something more for the city.


Architect and Scranton native Michele Dempsey of DxDempsey Architecture, envisioned and laid out the “Scranton, What if?” plans. She joined Gelb for the series talk.

Dempsey acknowledged that Scranton is more than its deficit and distressed status. “Scranton is alive with people who have hope and see the power of possibility,” she said.

Consider Dempsey among the hopeful … and the realistic.

“We kept an eye on reality,” she said, during her talk, noting that her firm’s visions for revitalization are economically feasible.

“Scranton, What if?” projects include the Mall at Steamtown, which she and her team reimagined as a mixed-use development with a marketplace. The mall was subsequently bought and is being converted with these ideas in mind. Her team also devised a plan for the Iron Furnaces, which would include a restaurant, microbrewery, meeting spaces and interactive displays about the history of the iron industry. A new path would also connect the furnaces to the trails, making it a destination.

“Scranton, What if?” is just one example of the many ways that the Scranton and University communities envision an even brighter future.

“We must use ‘imagination and creativity together’ to solve problems,” said University President Kevin P. Quinn, S.J. While introducing a series talk, he quoted Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., former President of the University of Central America in El Salvador. “It’s up to all of us,” concluded Quinn, as he reflected on how the wellbeing and future of the University and city are integrally connected.

“The State of Scranton series highlighted for me the interconnectedness of the University with the City of Scranton, as well as other institutions and entities in Northeastern Pennsylvania," said Meg Hambrose, director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, who attended several seminar talks. "The future success of all of us depends on our ability to collaborate and address the issues we all share.”  

This is not the end of the discussion. There are more State of Scranton seminar talks scheduled for the 2016-2017 academic year. Topics will include the needs of Scranton’s aging population and the way in which arts and culture organizations are helping to enhance tourism and economic development. The series will further inform the University community about the mutually beneficial relationship between the town and the “gown.”
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