Developments could change landscape of Greater Hazleton

Mar. 7—Jeff Randolph sees opportunity in hundreds of acres of mine-scarred land off Route 309 between the Hazle Twp. communities of Hazle Village and Beaver Brook.

His Connecticut-based BlueCup Ventures has a plan that would drastically alter the landscape.

BlueCup wants to build as many as four large warehouses on both sides of the highway that could create as many as 2,000 jobs.

But he's not the only developer who wants to invest in Greater Hazleton.

Randolph's project is one of eight larger industrial projects that are in various stages of development in southern Luzerne and northern Schuylkill counties.

Together, those projects could yield at least 19 new warehouse/industrial buildings and combine for nearly 17.7 million square feet of construction — the equivalent of 369 football fields, according to information that developers and local officials released in recent months.

The estimates don't include a yet-to-be determined number of buildings that Mericle Commercial Real Estate would construct for an 1,100-acre business park near Interstate 81, Route 424 and Route 924 in Hazle Twp.

In all, the projects could lead to the development of roughly 2,400 acres in the Luzerne County communities of Hazleton, Hazle Twp. and West Hazleton, as well as Kline Twp. in Schuylkill County.

Estimates provided by five of the eight developers combine for around 6,200 jobs.

In many cases, construction timelines haven't been discussed, as most of the developers are applying for permits and approvals from local and state agencies.

Hazleton Creek Commerce Center Holdings, however, wants to begin moving ground this spring for an industrial center in Hazleton and Hazle Twp. that could feature five massive buildings for wholesale, warehousing and manufacturing.

Mercile representatives, meanwhile, have said their business park — which could accommodate offices, manufacturing, distribution and even medical companies — will be developed over 10 years.

In many cases, information about prospective tenants or companies that would operate from those newly constructed buildings has not been released.

The projects are proposed for a region that is already home to industrial parks developed by CAN DO, the area's local economic development organization. Humboldt Industrial Park is home to some 60 industries and 10,000 employees, according to CAN DO's website.

Why here?

Access to major highways, availability of land and a "solid" labor force all played into BlueCup's decision to build locally, Randolph said.

"They say in real estate, location is so key," he said. "To you, it probably doesn't feel like you're in the center of everything, but it really is. You can reach from Boston to Washington, D.C., in a round trip. That is the cornerstone of it all."

Proximity to Interstates 80 and 81, as well as Interstate 78, influenced the decision.

"We picked the site there because you're on 81," Randolph said. "From that site, you can get to the port of New York two different ways: one from Route 80 or you can drop to Route 78 into the port. If there's some sort of back up or road closure, you don't just have one way in. And, it's close."

James Cummings, vice president of marketing at Mericle, said location also played a part in his firm's decision to develop CrossRoads East Business Park in Hazle Twp. It will be modeled after CenterPoint Commerce & Trade Park that the Mericle firm built in Jenkins and Pittston townships. That park houses about 51 tenants and 6,000 workers.

"There's only one place in the United States where I-81 and I-80 intersect, and that's in Greater Hazleton," Cummings said. "This strategic location is the primary driver of economic activity in the market."

The availability of land also factored into BlueCup's decision, with Randolph saying he personally prefers developing mine scarred land rather than building on fields or clearing forests.

"Reclaiming mine scarred land is cheap because there's not much (other) use," he said. "We're taking this property and improving areas that need to be improved. You can pick other places in New Jersey or Allentown that have similar characteristics, but the land is expensive and you'll probably be plowing over some farmland there."

The number of industrial lease transactions that occurred along Pennsylvania's Interstate 78/81 corridor in 2020 was tops in the nation, according to CBRE, a Fortune 500 commercial real estate and investment firm based in Dallas, Texas.

The firm reported that 11 of the top 100 large industrial lease transactions that took place in that year along the corridor totaled 12.9 million square feet, the most of any market in the country.

Industrial transactions reported in 2020 were driven by growth in online shopping and retailers keeping more inventory on hand, the firm reported.

Other factors

The labor force has also made the area attractive, said Randolph, who has worked on projects nationally and internationally and for companies like Amazon, Pepsi Co. and Diageo.

"In some parts of the country, you don't have educated work forces available, but in Pennsylvania you have a good cross section of labor between hourly, some college and professional workers," he said. "You can hire people at a wage where they can afford to live because the cost of living is much cheaper (locally) than it is in Philadelphia and New Jersey."

Tenants can draw from communities as far north as the Wilkes-Barre area, Randolph said.

Cummings, however, said Mericle has found that mining and environmental damage presents more challenges for developing locally when compared with competing locations.

"The biggest challenge to developing in Greater Hazleton today is the very rough condition of the land that is available," Cummings said.

He credits CAN DO for making Greater Hazleton "a credible business location that has led to the private development activity we are seeing today."

What's next?

Plans for the CrossRoads East Business Park are in development, but Cummings said it will host "attractive buildings of various sizes that are well-maintained and professionally landscaped."

"We think our buildings will be well suited for a variety of manufacturing and distribution companies," Cummings said.

BlueCup, meanwhile, is working to secure permits and evaluating environmental impacts of its project, Randolph said.

The firm wants to build "three or four" warehouses that could be as large as 1 million square feet each.

BlueCup received interest from potential tenants, but Randolph said the firm has been focusing on securing approvals and permitting.

"There's a demand for not just warehousing but a good possibility to get light manufacturing back there," Randolph said. "Companies might say rather than just store the stuff here maybe we can assemble it here, too. That's only a guess on my part."

At least five other developers are pitching projects locally, including Blue Creek Investments, which has cleared 95 acres south of Hazleton's Birch Knoll community for a 1.45 million square foot warehouse; Brewster Development Co.'s plan for building five warehouses near the McAdoo exit of Interstate 81; a bottled beverage manufacturing facility that Warrior Trail Properties/Niagara proposes for Humboldt Industrial Park Northwest, Hazle Twp.; and One Trinity Real Estate's plan for building a warehouse behind the former Hill's store in Valmont Plaza, West Hazleton.

Site Services Group has also inquired to Hazleton City Authority about relocating water lines for a proposed warehouse that could be built east of the authority's filtration plant off Arthur Gardner Parkway.

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