On a day when Pittston’s Neighborhood Action Team swept into a city neighborhood looking for blight and property maintenance issues such as unsafe sidewalks and stairs, broken windows and abandoned vehicles, Mayor Mike Lombardo said, “If we are going to ask others to take care of their properties, we better take care of our own.”
He means the city has to be vigilant in taking care of the parks, properties and buildings it owns. It’s a lot of work. The parks and facilities departments are tasked with the maintenance and cleaning of street lighting, art work, public buildings, parks and landscaping. The rainy spring increased the mowing and weeding workload. Public Works is responsible for garbage, recycling, snow and sewer maintenance. Sometimes the work piles up and the departments jump in and help each other.
Lombardo said Pittston is a team that plays well together. “We don’t always agree, but at the end of the day I’d stack up our staff against any. People are happy and proud to work for the city.”
People like DIY whiz Ron Faraday, the facilities manager, who was hired last year.
“He’s home run for the city. He’s got skills and regard for our historic nature. He’s come up with a maintenance schedule for city hall and public art. He’s keeping a photographic record. He’s proud of what he does, puts passion into it.”
Workers like Faraday, Bruce Widdick, Jake Berlew and Joe Aruscavage have saved the city thousands by doing projects, in house — such as securing structures, building renovations and pouring sculpture bases — which in the past might have been contracted out. The city workers are also building a garbage surround for the library. Widdick is leading a team fabricating a mobile outdoor deck from an old trailer. The deck, with tables and umbrellas, could be used to supplement outdoor dining in front of downtown restaurants.
Lombardo likes to say government is good at building things, but not maintaining them. The staff in place now is changing that.
“In the past we didn’t have the staff to build, say, a nice park and have it look as good a year later. We do now,” Lombardo said.
Project drawings fill a wall in the mayor’s office. Lombardo’s favorites are the plans for a new American Theater. The project will entail demolishing two buildings — the Greater Pittston Ambulance at Market and South Main streets and the Ruane Funeral Home on Kennedy Street, next to the fire hall — and building two new ones, an ambulance headquarters on the Ruane site and a theater on the ambulance site.
“That’s a big project for me,” Lombardo said. “And a game changer for the ambulance and downtown.”
The original American Theater, on ornate large-capacity venue with Kirby-like potential, was demolished in 1997, something Lombardo hates to even think about. The new theater will have 250 to 300 seats and be inspired, in part, by the Sellersville Theater, which has Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, several tribute bands, magic, Brews and Blues and movies on its schedule right now. The city has had meetings with Sellersville to discuss plans for the new venue. The project could start as early as fall.
An ongoing project is the sculpture loop, a trail beginning on the path between the upper Tomato Lot and the library. It will incorporate a Main Street arm, a 1½ mile trail through the wooded area above the Tomato Lot third tier amphitheater, and a homage to the Laurel Line, maybe a mural. The sculptures, some of which are already up, were donated or loaned by Marywood University and purchased by the Pittston Arts Council. A centerpiece will be a 7-foot high sculpture of Jerry Garcia, by artists Maria Livrone and Bill Zack, to be unvielded in September.
Housing is another priority. The Steeple View apartment high rise on Church Street at the St. Mary’s Assumption site is going up fast.
“It’s going to be an awesome facility,” Lombardo said. “Like the Lincoln Heights apartments in the old school, it allows older citizens to get out of houses and stay in the city. That fits in with neighborhood stabilization.”
More upscale housing is coming in the historic Fort Pittston, or Jefferson School, at North Main and Parsonage streets. The city acquired the Fort Pittston building as a tax donation for $1. Monarch of Philadelphia is the contractor.
How about the city as a wedding hub? Cooper’s restaurant has been acquired by the owners of the co-op next door to be remodeled as a banquet facility. That will give the city, with the Gramercy, two banquet facilities. The vision isn’t just facilities for wedding receptions, but the city as a wedding niche, where planners can get invitations, tuxedoes, gowns, hair and makeup, a photographer and book entertainment. Think Gerri’s, Tuxedo by Sarno, Boden, Sorella, Sapphire Salon, Philadelphia Hair Design, MPK Photography, Rock Street Music and the Music Scene. A new business, “Gypsy Angel Row” opening during the Tomato Festival, will offer cards and invitations.
The city is doing it all without raising taxes and, thanks to technology and work-smart concepts, with a staff smaller than during Lombardo’s first term 20 years ago. The city also has resolved its pension fund obligation by refinancing and union negotiations.
Bringing entrepreneurs to the city is a priority. Main Street Manager Mary Kroptavich and Mary Kuna, a Pittston native who was hired last year as the deputy director of redevelopment, are working to get more businesses in downtown. Kuna moved back to Pittston from Cumberland County, where she was the economic and real estate development manager. She has a reputation for business recruitment.
Lombardo said the downtown is like a theater and it has to have events. Paint Pittston Pink, the Tomato Festival and other events wouldn’t happen without volunteers like Sarah Donahue, Lori Nocito, and Joleen Lazecki, he said.
Ideas for more events include a “Slope Concert Series” on the new permanent stage adjacent to the Tomato Festival headquarters; a jazz festival, blues festival, a wine event called “It’s OK to Wine,” pop up bar gardens and a beer festival.
As Pittston shakes off the old coal culture stigma, while at the same time honoring the past, it’s good to celebrate, but Lombardo warns, “We can’t get comfortable with success.”