Mayor’s Desk

Seeing New Opportunity in Scranton

By Anthony Flint, February 13, 2024


Listen to this conversation as part of our Land Matters podcast series.

Scranton, Pennsylvania, is facing a challenge familiar to legacy cities across the US: building its postindustrial future, now that the industries of yesteryear—in this case, coal, iron, steel, and textiles—are long gone. Essentially, Scranton must reinvent itself as a metropolis that was built, more than a century ago, for purposes that no longer exist.

Into this moment comes Paige Cognetti, a transplant from Oregon with an MBA and a stint in the Treasury department during the Obama administration, to help forge a way forward. Cognetti was serving as an advisor to the Pennsylvania auditor general and director of the Scranton school board when she won a special election for mayor in 2019, replacing a chief executive who had resigned after pleading guilty to corruption charges. She won reelection to a full term in November 2021, and is the first woman to hold the office.

Earlier in her career, the 43-year-old Cognetti worked in several political campaigns and as an investment advisor in New York City. Senior Fellow Anthony Flint caught up with the mayor on a trip to Scranton for the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Planning Association.

Anthony Flint:  Scranton was President Biden’s hometown, the place where urbanist Jane Jacobs grew up, and the setting for the comedy series The Office. With these interesting connections to politics and culture in mind, what’s special about the city for you? What qualities are drawing new residents and facilitating regeneration?

Paige Cognetti: It’s funny, politics brought me to Scranton. I moved to Washington, DC, in 2005, and ended up coming to Scranton for a political campaign, and then met my husband. It’s a long story until we get here in 2023, but politics did bring me to Scranton, and it can be a real anchor for what Scranton is known for.

Mayor Paige Cognetti, with the iconic Scranton Electric Building visible in the background. Courtesy photo.

More important than that is its existence as a legacy city, as an industrial city that was part of the industrial revolution in the United States, and exported things abroad, exported energy all throughout North America. That’s a huge piece of our heritage. The anthracite coal that was mined from around and underneath us really set the tone for the type of entrepreneurship that we are still known for and that we’re looking to have more of in Scranton.

The textile industry was also big here. You would have men working in coal mines and women working in textiles. There was this really perfect marriage between those two industries, and that drove the economy for a very long time. Of course, we don’t have those industries here anymore. The Scranton story now is one, I think, of resilience and creativity. Also a little bit of luck.

The different generations before us saw that if you anchor everything in an extractive industry like coal, and that goes away, then you’re left with nothing. They did a good job of diversifying the economy. We have lots of educational institutions, we have hospitals, we have healthcare, we have services. We also still have 11 percent of our jobs that are based in manufacturing. You see a lot of families that have continued through generations to own different businesses and be a part of multiple types of industries. You still have people who live in the home that their grandparents or even great-grandparents built.

It’s a special place in that way. We’ve taken a lot of the great things about our past and are applying them to the future.

AF: Thinking about this idea of repurposing a city that was built for something else: the Scranton Lace factory used to employ thousands of people on a 34-building campus, which is being redeveloped into a mixed-use residential neighborhood. Is that a replica model, in your opinion? How can adaptive reuse go beyond a boutique scale?

PC: The Lace Village is going to be an entirely new neighborhood right in the core of our city. It used to have thousands of employees and there was childcare, there was bowling, there was hair salons, there was everything. By recreating that and making a new neighborhood right there, it’s just going to be really exciting for our whole city. It’s great for all the neighborhoods around it, it’s great for the school system, it’s going to reinvigorate this industrial heart that we have there.

An industrial loom on the grounds of the former Scranton Lace Company. The complex is being redeveloped into a mixed-use residential community. Credit: Anthony Flint.

We’ve got lots of different places that I think could be like Lace Village, though not on as big of a scale. We have a cigar factory that’s just about a mile from Lace Village that’s just been redone into, I think, 150 condos. Those opened up just a few months ago. That’s a huge population boost, an energy boost for this one little segment of our neighborhood. There’s pockets of that all over the city, and that’s something that I think we can replicate.

It does take a lot of funds. We have helped shepherd state money to that project. We believe very deeply that these have to be public-private partnerships. There’s so much remediation that needs to be done. There’s so much local work that needs to be done with the streets and the curbs and the sidewalks and the lighting.

It’s important that we try to find creative ways to help fund it because we know it’s a very heavy lift to take something that used to be a factory or an industrial area and make it usable again.

AF: Because of these earlier industrial functions, Scranton has a difficult legacy of toxic pollution. How does that make redevelopment more challenging?

PC: Scranton is built on mines. Our home is actually built on top of a mine. There’s an empty lot a few parcels down from us where a house actually started to subside, and they had to take the house down. We definitely have legacy issues. We all deal with them personally. Everybody who lives in Scranton, the earth got gutted beneath us and so we deal with that all the time now.

The generations before us did a good job of cleaning those things up. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot of issues.

An example in our downtown is a new pocket park that finally just got sod in and the flowers are planted, the trees are planted. It used to be a dry cleaner, and just from having a dry cleaner—not even a gas plant, not even coal mining—it’s been hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars and many, many different iterations of how we’re going to fund this.

There’s these things that just take so much time and money. Interestingly in a place like Scranton, folks are used to [the idea that] it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take some more money.

We see a lot of issues in our stormwater. There’s a lot of things that we have to be very careful with and how we do things underground because of that legacy of mining. The riverfront that we have [along the] Lackawanna River is beautiful, but it was built up with factories. We have a long way to go to redevelop the river and celebrate it in a way that people are putting restaurants and cafes there. We don’t have those places, but the river is clean. The river is absolutely beautiful. The next piece is that land use. The next piece is that development and we’re eager to keep partnering with our developers to help realize that.

AF: You’ve had some serious flooding issues—what is needed to manage those kinds of vulnerabilities and to build resilience? How might that apply to other postindustrial cities confronting more intense climate impacts?

PC: I think every city is facing intense climate impacts. What’s interesting about a place like Scranton is, we have not taken care of the infrastructure, and so even before these last few years where the climate-related storms have started to increase, we already had a long way to go. We had a huge storm in September. We got six inches in 90 minutes, and it just blew through a few of our creeks, jumped the creeks, made new creeks through people’s yards. Even if we’d done all the projects we already have planned and teed up, I don’t even know if we’d gotten those done if that would’ve helped much given the volume of that water that came down. We’ve got millions and millions and millions of dollars of work to do.

The challenge, of course, is the funding and the fact that no matter what we do, there’s still going to be issues. The other piece is the politics of it: we don’t have a regional stormwater authority. We’re working on it, and we’ve got some of our neighboring boroughs and townships on board. The county’s not interested in doing a holistic one, but we’re looking at probably eight of our municipalities that are going to join in this authority that will work together to do stormwater mitigation. Hopefully, by pulling those resources, we’ll be able to have an authority that’s taking care of those maintenance pieces and those bigger projects and is able to raise funds on its own for those big pieces.

AF: Finally, how satisfied are you that the city has increased bike and pedestrian safety? I’ve been here and have been walking around. It’s a wonderful grid.

PC: We just came off of a walkability study, and we have a plan. We’re looking to drastically reimagine our downtown’s flow. It’s a beautiful grid, it’s gorgeous architecture, but the one-way streets and all the stoplights create hazards for bikes and pedestrians that are unnecessary. We’re looking to go to two-way streets in most of the streets, we’re looking to take down many of the stoplights and do four-way stop signs to really calm that traffic and make a safer environment. With those buildouts will be bike lanes and lots of trees and things that should make it an even more beautiful downtown to walk around.

Though Scranton’s love of one-way streets has been memorialized in the city’s street art, a recently completed connectivity study recommends converting many of them to two-way routes to reduce traffic speeds and improve pedestrian safety. Credit: City of Scranton.

We’ve got a lot of different grants teed up to be able to do this work. Our engineers are working on it now. We’re really looking forward to matching the architectural beauty of Scranton and the energy of all of our great shops and businesses, restaurants and bars with a streetscape that does them justice.

I think it will be a huge positive difference for our downtown, but like everything we do as mayors, it will take a little bit of money, a little bit of time, a little bit of conversation and a lot of enthusiasm.

Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute, contributing editor of Land Lines, host of the Land Matters podcast, and author of Mayor’s Desk: 20 Conversations with Local Leaders Solving Global Problems.