Today as you stroll around the Tomato Festival it could be said you are part of a 20th birthday party. In 2001 the committee debuted its new digs on Main Street after 18 years at the original site on Kennedy Boulevard between Dock and Market streets.
Mike Lombardo was in the last year of his first term as mayor then and while a new Tomato Lot was one of his visions, the move happened sooner than he, festival president Lori Nocito and the committee had hoped.
“We wanted to connect the festival with Main Street,” Lombardo said on Tuesday night as he headed home after working at the lot. “Down on Kennedy it was like the backyard. At the same time Burger King couldn’t do the renovations they needed and the national chain wanted to move the franchise out of the downtown.” To keep Burger King, a deal was struck to flip flop Burger King and CVS, which was being developed by Sam Marranca.
“So the move to Main Street was accelerated. We could have used another year in my mind,” Lombardo said.
The city bought and demolished the former Spring Street Auto and Baldrini Buildings to expand the lot, but it was still a challenge.
“We were scrambling to get ready. We were choked in a narrow lot. We lived with it the first year. It took three years until 2004 when we finally got a retaining wall and lights. The first year Medico gave us portable lights. I’m comfortable at this moment,” Lombardo said. “I don’t remember feeling this way on a Tuesday. We’ve got 95 percent of the electric done, some of the vendors are in. We have a vision for a centralized area and with the library and the art walk tied to the festival lot. We’re almost there.”
The year off last year was both good and bad for the committee. Bad because there was no festival and good because it made time to get ready for future festivals. As important as the festival is now, “Next year,” Lombardo said, “will make up for last year. The second stage will be finished and we’ll have a permanent stage in the lower level.”
Art and music are key to the city’s revitalization. Right now art is ahead, but music is coming on. A Badlees reunion will happen on Sunday, Sept. 19, at an event billed as “Prohibition Pittston.”
Lombardo thinks of the Badlees show as the “maiden voyage” of what he hopes will be music festival in the near future.
“I would love to blow the lid off and have Don McClean or America,” he said. “We have a good team in place, we have connections and we can get things done.”
The inaugural Tomato Festival was in 1984. The late Val Delia and his neighbor Ken Scaz had the idea. Delia championed the “Pittston Tomato” as world class thanks to the acidity in the soil from anthracite coal, and Scaz ran with it, along with Wil Toole and Paul McGarry, who are both deceased.
“They get credit and they deserve it,” Lombardo said of the founders. “With Lori and the committee we boosted it to a new level.”
They ran it until 1998 when a new committee headed by Lori Nocito took over during Lombardo’s first term. Today Lombardo is the festival committee chairperson.
“At a time when the future of the festival was uncertain, Lori stepped up and brought the festival to the next level and I am grateful for the commitment she showed over the years in making the Tomato Festival a world class event. I am excited about the opportunity to take the helm and follow in the footsteps of those dedicated volunteers who have lead this event before me. The future of the Tomato Festival is full of opportunities to do even more. I am extremely confident that we will continue to deliver a spectacular event. I am surrounded by great volunteers which makes my job easy. Finally, I would like to thank all departments of the city that assist in making the event a success and humbly thank this year’s volunteers.”
When my Feature Writing class begins at the college about a week from now, I’ll tell my students that journalists don’t “create” stories the way novelists do. We “recognize” them.
And sometimes, to our great appreciation, others recognize them first and call them to our attention.
Such was the case last week when I got a 7:27 a.m. text message that read: “Ed, Charlie Dominick Jr. here. Do you have a couple of minutes for a call?”
I couldn’t call fast enough. Did something happen to Charlie’s dad?
No, thank God. Nothing like that. Charlie Jr. just had a column idea for me that he said couldn’t wait. He apologized for the early hour. I assured him it was no problem since I am always awake at 5 a.m. “And I was looking at the clock since 6 waiting for a reasonable time,” he said.
The idea, he explained, came from a conversation he had with Jimmy Albert, a local attorney whose bearded face greets motorists from a billboard as they enter Pittston on South Main Street. His colleagues George Oschal and Karl Kwak are up there with him.
Charlie and Jimmy had been talking about the rush hour traffic jam on Main Street now that the Firefighters Memorial Bridge is temporarily closed. What they saw in the long lines of stopped or, at best slow moving vehicles, was not a problem but an opportunity. An opportunity to appreciate the rejuvenated downtown.
Now, why didn’t I see that?
“Think about it,” Charlie said. “The slow moving traffic is reminiscent of one of those Joe Borini paintings of Pittston in the ’40s and ’50s.”
I knew exactly what he meant. One of those Borini paintings hangs in my dining room.
In that brief phone call, Charlie began writing the column for me. He brought up the Pittston Bypass, constructed in the 1960s. “It’s very name exposes its cruel intention,” Charlie said in a sentence worthy of John Steinbeck. His point is well taken. When drivers had an opportunity to by-pass downtown Pittston, they did. And it was the beginning of the end of Main Street.
Main Street has become such an uplifting sight that I, myself, have eschewed the speed of the bypass in favor of a slow drive through town. Especially at night, with the new period street lights shining bright from Robbie Johnson’s Red Mill Tavern to the Dale Kridlo Memorial Bridge.
Charlie does the same. “I take the long way home,” he said, “just like the song.”
The more I thought about a slow drive along Main Street or even being stopped in traffic, the more I thought about the positives of taking a good, long look at the downtown. The kind of look you don’t get when speeding up to run the yellow light at William Street. You might take notice of the colorful paint job on Sabatelle’s Market and remember you can stop in and grab a sopressata sandwich anytime you like. No need to wait for the Tomato Festival.
Or you might notice Fuji, the beautifully appointed Asian restaurant on South Main and make a mental note to come back one evening for dinner. Or look to your right and see Petals, the new, dynamic florist.
Perhaps you did not realize Luzerne County Community College has a Pittston campus right in the heart of town. I’ll be teaching a couple of public speaking classes there this semester, and another in interpersonal communication on Wednesday nights.
If it’s early evening, you may see diners at the outdoor tables in front of the upscale restaurant Rikasa, and promise yourself to be one of them some night soon. Or, as Charlie Dominick wrote in a follow up text, “If you’re really lucky, you’ll find yourself stopped in front of Majestic Lunch.” In which case, I say, find a parking spot, and indulge in a hot dog or two.
The traffic jam doesn’t happen until you reach the middle of town, so you most likely will be moving at a pretty good clip as you pass The Gramercy restaurant on South Main, but I have a suggestion. Pop in and treat yourself to one of owner Mike Augello’s “summer mules” and wait until things settle down up the street.
Mike introduced the cocktail a couple of years ago to toast the return of “Tony the Mule” to the downtown. A key ingredient in a mule is ginger beer. When I asked Mike what else goes into his summer mule, he said if he told me he’d have to kill me. It was during the Tomato Festival, and I recall writing, “There are many items at the Tomato Festival to die for. The recipe for Mike’s summer mule is not one of them.”
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.